high angle view of some pin buttons patterned with different LGBTIQ flags, such as the gay pride flag, the transgender pride flag or the bisexual pride flag, on a pink background
(Photo courtesy of Juan Moyano/Getty Images)
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During the 2010 census, some responses were submitted to the government with bright pink stickers on the envelopes. The labels carried a request for the Census Bureau: include LGBTQ+ identities in the questionnaire.

This grassroots effort was carried out by the National LGBTQ Task Force, a nonprofit that organizes and promotes queer activism. Its Queer the Census program, which advocates for more inclusive questions and better representation within the Census Bureau itself, is a product of over 30 years of work.

Data gathered from the census helps determine how billions of dollars are distributed to federal and state programs. This includes Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and rental housing assistance — all of which the LGBTQ+ community is more likely to use.

It also influences the funding of programs such as the Housing Opportunities For Persons Living With AIDS and HIV Emergency Relief Project Grants, which provide support for those living with a disease that disproportionately affects gay and bisexual men.  

In 2020, when plans for door-to-door outreach were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the National LGBTQ Task Force pivoted to a digital Queer the Census campaign to educate LGBTQ+ community members on how to complete the census and why their participation was important. The organization also worked with media outlets to raise awareness of the issue. 

While the Task Force celebrated then-Policy Director Meghan Maury’s appointment to the Census Bureau as a senior advisor in 2021, it sees a lot of work still to do. Queer people who are single or not in same-sex relationships are being undercounted, the Task Force argues. And little data has been gathered on transgender and nonbinary people, who have faced increasing legislative attacks on their rights over the past few years. 

The Center for Public Integrity spoke to Cathy Renna, the National LGBTQ Task Force’s communications director, about the Queer the Census program and its future. While Renna has officially been on staff for only a few years, she has worked with the organization for the entirety of her 30 years in media relations and queer activism.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q. Why is the census important? What are the benefits of being counted correctly?

The whole sense is that if you don’t count us, we don’t count. It’s not just a demographic quiz. It’s data that drives funding for community services. It helps when constructing fair congressional districts. It’s about being able to enforce civil rights laws in a better way because we know not only who’s affected, but how many people will be affected. We talk about things like access to health care, access to housing and really understanding who our community is. 

Our community so often was depicted as wealthy, white, male. So the demographic was not accurate. Our community is like a microcosm of the larger culture. What brings us together — our sexual orientation, our gender identity — has nothing to do with our age, our race, our ethnicity, our economic status or our geography. So we come at the census work as a way to dispel those stereotypes that have frankly contributed to so much of the advocacy against our community. 

When the federal government puts the data out, it dispels the myth. And it also provides the federal government with the information it needs to make much more informed decisions about the needs of various demographic groups. Funding for all of those things that I just talked about, whether it’s healthcare, whether it’s housing, whether it’s nondiscrimination laws. 

Q. What are some of the consequences of undercounting queer people? 

The impact can be devastating. If you think about folks who are trying to access funding for fair housing or any other kind of government assistance, their families are not recognized. This is where I think census data also ties in with helping people understand why we need to pass equal rights legislation, why we need to pass the Equality Act. The Equality Act is not just about jobs, it’s about housing, it’s about public accommodations. And so I think that’s where we connect the dots on all of these things.

If you don’t know that there’s a disproportionate need amongst certain populations, whether that is lesbians of color — who tend to be parents of children much more frequently than any other part of our community — how do we provide support for those families? Whether it’s financial support, housing, benefits or equal treatment related to the fact that they have children.

Q. After the Task Force’s efforts around the 2020 census, what were some of the responses from the LGBTQ+ community? 

One of the things that we did was collect those personal stories [of participants] directly with the Census Bureau. They were like public service announcements to try and get folks engaged, but it was done through the telling of some personal stories of folks who said, “I have not been represented before in the census, and this is why it’s important that I and all the folks who are like me get engaged.”

A personal story is important for a lot of folks who for a long time did not feel seen or did not trust the federal government. The idea of putting any information that might indicate that on a federal form can be scary for people, understandably so. 

Q. What are some lessons from the 2020 census that the Task Force will apply to its 2030 census efforts? 

The work starts way before anybody gets anything in the mail. The challenge and initial goal were really about working with the Census Bureau to create at least some questions that actually would help us identify, recognize and then count folks in our community. So the question around same-sex couple households, that’s vital. Would we like more questions around gender and gender identity? Yes, I think that’s the next phase. 

It’s that behind-the-scenes work that allows us to actually do the outreach that we were very successful at [in 2020] even with COVID-19. It put us all at a disadvantage, not being able to directly reach out to people but do what we had to do virtually. But at the end of the day, especially given the circumstances, we were very pleased with the way that we were able to mobilize the community, leverage the relationships that we have across communities and organizations, and really collaborate as a coalition to help make the census as successful as we possibly could with as high response rate as we possibly could, given the fact that we were in the midst of a historic, incredibly traumatic and challenging time with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Q. What are some goals for the 2030 census? 

The data was better from 2020, but there’s still gaps. Even with decades of work, progress still needs to happen. If you look at what 2020 did, it gave us more information about same-sex couples, but it didn’t tell us anything about individual LGBTQ people. There’s no question about sexual orientation or gender identity. We see in a lot of the Gallup surveys and all these other demographic studies that say actually the largest proportion of people in the LGBTQ community identify as bisexual. If they are living with a different-sex partner, they’re not being counted. They’re part of our community and they are dealing with discrimination and bias and disparities in the same way that lesbian, gay and transgender people are. 

We know very little to nothing around trans and nonbinary people. So there are huge gaps in the data. And that’s the part that we’re going to be working on between now and 2030. The other curveball here is who wins [the presidential election] in 2024 will have a big impact on what kind of progress we’re able to make for the four years that that person is in office.

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Ileana Garnand (they/them) is CPI's 2022-2023 Charles Lewis American University Fellow. They are currently...