First, the slogan of this campaign is deeply misleading. The posters read, “It’s time to count everyone.” But the American census already counts everyone — even illegal immigrants. To repeat: All LGBT persons are already counted in the census. They just aren’t counted as LGBT persons. They are counted as ordinary Americans — which I thought was the whole point of the gay rights movement.
Moreover, it seems to me that those questions on the census which apply to households should be applicable to all households, and those questions which apply to persons should be applicable to all persons. In other words, we should not ask, “What is your sexual orientation?” because this question is meaningless when asked of a large minority of Americans: namely, all small children. Parents can write that their child is three years old and male, but they cannot know whether little Adam will grow up to marry an Eve or a Steve.
“Queer the Census” is also inappropriate because it asks for personal and sensitive information. A great many Americans, regardless of their sexual orientation, would prefer not to have their sexual proclivities registered in a government database. (The information becomes public knowledge in 72 years, by the way.) Questions like these are best left off the census and gathered privately: The census does not, for example, ask about religion. So where’s the corresponding movement to “atheize” the census? Are Scientologists “invisible”? We don’t know exactly how many Wiccans there are in America — does this mean that the federal government cannot meet their needs? I understand the impulse to gather as much data as we can get away with, but there are some things the federal government simply should not know. Americans’ bedroom habits are among them.
Whether the census should ask about sexual orientation becomes clearer if we consider the purpose of the census, which is mandated in the Constitution. Contrary to what Jin and Muenzel argue, the census is not about “depict[ing] the diversity of the United States.” It’s about designing Congressional districts. If we wanted to depict diversity, there would be far more than 10 questions. It has been argued that sexual orientation is like race and so should be investigated on the census. There is a major difference, however: The question about race has to be asked because federal law mandates scrutiny of Congressional district boundaries to ensure that racial minorities are not marginalized by gerrymandering. But short of making Chelsea into its own Congressional district, I can’t see how to avoid leaving LGBT persons as a small minority in every district across America. LGBT persons are not numerous and they are widely dispersed. That’s the simple math of the phenomenon: It’s a “brute fact,” in the famous formulation of one Cambridge professor.
The only other reason to ask questions about sexual orientation is cash: the $400 billion in annual federal largesse mentioned by Jin and Muenzel. They claim that government funding cannot be directed to a community that is “not counted and not visible.” LGBT persons are already counted, just not as LGBT persons — and veterans are also counted, just not as veterans. Yet federal funds still find their way to the Veterans Administration, and if LGBT persons want a share of the fiscal bounty (and they have as much right to it as any other special interest group) I do not doubt that the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Lambda Legal or any of the other national LGBT organizations could take receipt of the check. Faith-based charities still manage to collect government money without violating the First Amendment, yet we have no government record of how many Americans are evangelical Christians.
Jin and Muenzel claim that “equality begins with visibility.” I claim that LGBT persons are already highly visible, highly successful in their fields and doing a fine job of advocating for their political agenda without needing to impose intrusive questions on the census. To clarify: My problem is not with knowing how many LGBT persons there are in America. That’s an interesting question. My problem is with asking this question on a coercive government document whose full completion is mandated by law under penalty of a fine. Insofar as we need this information, it should be gathered by voluntary surveys.
Finally, it has been claimed that the “sex” option should be amended to allow for identification as “intersex,” “genderqueer,” etc. The Census Bureau has confused this matter by using “sex” and “gender” interchangeably on internal documents. But this just means that the internal documents need to be amended: Professionals in gender studies use the word “sex” to describe biology (male or female) and “gender” to describe self-identity (man, woman or whatever). So the present census is asking a completely intelligible question about anatomy.
I don’t doubt that the motives behind “Queer the Census” were altruistic, but the arguments against it are overwhelming: This is one pink slip that should simply be ignored.
Brendan Carroll is a philosophy major from New York, N.Y. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.