BIG GAY ORGANIZATIONS are making much ado about Census 2000 and the inclusion of same-sex couples in the national population count. And while the effort seems valiant, a deeper look reveals an indifferent Census Bureau, an out-of-touch Congress, and queer people, once again, being left on the doorstep of our country's household.
In early March, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) and the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies (IGLSS) launched "Make Your Family Count," a national public education campaign aimed at encouraging same-sex couples to check "unmarried partner" on the census form.
The US Census is a constitutionally mandated count of the population taken every ten years. The self-administered questionnaire asks people who they live with and how they're related. Information gathered in the Census provides the government with demographic information that can influence decisions about policy and funding.
While the Census collects statistical data on race and gender, "the Census Bureau is not concerned with counting gay and lesbian people," says Moises Carrasco of the US Census Bureau. The Census does not collect data on sexual orientation "because there are no federal programs for gay and lesbian people," explains Carrasco. This presents something of a paradox.
"All public policy flows from the US Census," explains the NGLTF's Paula Ettelbrick. "If we are not counted, we lose out on federal funding for research, funding for community services, and passage and implementation of laws that benefit our community."
"Make Your Family Count" aims to change that by encouraging same-sex couples who live together to identify themselves as "unmarried partners." Researchers and policy wonks will be able to aggregate data about gay and lesbian couples' racial make-up, income, how many children they have, and where they live.
Census 1990 included the "unmarried partner" option on its questionnaire in an effort by Congress to count "unwed mothers." The unintended result was the identification of 150,000 same-sex couples. Big gay organizations rejoiced. For the first time, the federal government had official statistical information on gay and lesbian people.
The accident proved to be a valuable source of information to researchers. Most notably, researchers at the University of Massachusetts used Census data to dispel the myth that gay and lesbian folks have greater incomes than straight people. The study touched off a national debate about corporate marketing in gay and lesbian communities.
All was not golden however. Census 1990 bean counters disregarded same-sex couples who checked "spouse" on their census form, the logic being that same-sex couples cannot marry, hence there must be a mistake. Lesbian and gay leaders felt the numbers in the 1990 data represented "a severe undercount."
The problem of lesbian and gay visibility is not limited to the Census, notes IGLSS' Ann Northrop. "A few years ago the [Center for Disease Control and Prevention] attempted a national survey to study sexual behavior, including sexual orientation," recalls Northrup. "The minute Congress heard about it, they withdrew funding and took steps to ban it."
And the problem is not only federal. Public Health Seattle & King County, the local public health agency, does not ask people their sexual orientation when it collects household-based health data. As a result, there is little to no information on gay and lesbian health issues and Public Health is unable to develop programs or policies that address the health concerns of gay and lesbian people.
Government indifference is not the only problem. Many gay and lesbian people are unwilling to state their sexual orientation. "Some people will be thrilled at the question and some people will be horrified," says Northrup. Many gay and lesbian people feel sexual orientation is a private matter that is none of the government's business. Others fear the government will use the data against them. Additionally, because the Census focuses on couples, some gay and lesbian people feel the campaign is symptomatic of the mainstreaming of the gay and lesbian movement.
This criticism may not be too far off. The information gathered in Census 2000 will be a coup to big gay organizations that insist on painting gay and lesbian people as suburbanites in happy, marriage-like relationships, driving their 2.4 children around in minivans. The "we're-just-like-you" distortion does nothing to counter the real problems of discrimination, violence, and health—the burden of which is disproportionately carried by those who do not look like, nor share the values of, mainstream America.
In the '90s, big gay organizations shifted from more radical grassroots organizing to more middle-of-the-road political strategies, such as lobbying and electoral politics. These same groups have been clear that their goal is no longer the liberation of gay and lesbian people, but the systematic advancement of the gay and lesbian agenda through a political tug-of-war over middle America.
"Make Your Family Count" not only represents an opportunity to increase queer visibility but also is a real turning point in gay movement consciousness. How effective this strategy will prove is still very much an open question.