Many LGBT Americans are outraged that the 2020 census won’t ask Americans if they’re gay. Of course, it never has – America’s decennial survey is silent on sexual orientation and gender identity. But census officials recently considered and dismissed adding such questions. The controversy is a good opportunity to question why the government should care about identity in the first place. It’s time to literally stop asking Americans to check boxes about themselves.
After a history of invisibility, gay groups were understandably eager for official statistics about our numbers. But counting queers is not simple. For example, how does the government determine gender identity? “Are you transgender or cisgender?” wouldn’t work because few Americans are familiar with such terms. If the census asked instead, “what gender do you identify with?,” virtually everyone (including trans people) would give the same answer they did for sex. Besides, who counts as trans? Certainly more than just people who have had surgery. But what about people who have never disclosed their sense of being trapped in the wrong body? Should the census force them to decide between coming out for the first time, and to a stranger – or lying to the government (a federal offense)?
Sexual orientation is similarly complicated, and really none of anyone’s business. I know a lesbian woman whose long-standing partner now identifies as male. Has she become straight? Certain men sometimes identify as gay, and other times as bisexual, depending on who’s asking and why. Here’s a complicated one: three friends of mine who present themselves as straight men have confided in me that the women who attract them most are transgender. What sexual orientation should they provide the census? If each of them gives a different answer, what use is the data?
The same problem arises with race, and will only get more complex as more Americans fall in love and have children cross-racially. Many advocates in a change to the 2000 census that allowed people to identify as more than one race were specifically interested in higher minority numbers. What good are questions designed with a political outcome in mind?
Defenders of census race questions say the data is necessary for allocating resources and racial redistricting. But in a country based on equality, the government shouldn’t give extra “stuff” to people based on their chromosomes and family origins. And racial redistricting has become a farce that the increasingly conservative Supreme Court should abolish. Sometimes states are required to create paternalistic “majority-minority” districts to help ensure representatives of color, but at other times, such plans are attacked for reducing the ability for minorities to exert influence in all the other districts.
LGBT hysteria about being “ERASED” (as the National LGBTQ Task Force put it), and allegations that absence from the census “is a discouraging sign … that LGBTQ concerns are frivolous and unimportant” can be dismissed with a simple fact: the census has never counted Jews. Does that mean Jews “are not Americans, too?” Has the Jewish community suffered from national neglect because we don’t know how many of us there are?
Now, as a Jewish historian, I admit frustration with the lack of a religion question. Historians of the Jewish communities of Canada and Australia, where censuses track religion, have a rich body of data to follow historical trends that we just don’t have.
But the census does not exist to help scholars, and it certainly does not exist to boost self-esteem. The Constitution requires only one thing: a decennial count for the sake of Congressional apportionment.
Employers aren’t allowed to ask the race or religion of job applicants because such questions enable discrimination, calling attention to identity at a high-stakes time when it should be irrelevant. Similarly, the government asking its residents to pick a race – or religion or sexual orientation – sets up an unhealthy, nosy dynamic between unequal parties.
Here’s the good news: Congress doesn’t pick the questions. The Trump Administration can rewrite the census at will, as long as it informs Congress. True, dumping race questions will make enforcement of racial mandates on redistricting and resources more difficult, but good. One part of the government needn’t feel required to help another part of the government fulfill its mission when that mission is wrong.
A shorter census will be faster, and cheaper, and most importantly will recommit the nation to the very American idea that the details of our lives are nobody’s business.