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An annual survey from the Census Bureau aims for better data on the LGBTQ+ population

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

What is your current gender? And what best represents how you think of yourself? Gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual - or do you prefer a different term? Those are some of the kinds of survey questions the Census Bureau wants to test next year. It's part of a long-running push for better statistics about LGBTQ+ people that could be used to fight against discrimination. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has been tracking these efforts and joins us now. Welcome to the program.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Thank you, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So where might people start seeing these questions?

WANG: We're talking about experimental forms for the American Community Survey. That's an annual survey that many households around the country have received. And it's not the once-a-decade census, but it is a major survey, and adding these questions would change a really important set of government statistics. And if the White House approves this test, about a half-million households will be asked to participate.

RASCOE: And everyone living in those households would be asked about their sexual orientation and gender identity?

WANG: No, only some of these households would see these test questions, and they would be directed to people age 15 and older. You know, usually, it's one person in a household that fills out the survey for everyone in the home. And that's actually a big focus of this experiment - how people would answer the sexual orientation and gender identity questions on behalf of any others in their household.

RASCOE: And how exactly might this information about sexual orientation and gender identity - how would that help protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination?

WANG: Well, multiple federal agencies have asked the Census Bureau to produce more statistics about sexual orientation and gender identity. You know, the Justice Department, for example, says it needs this data to better enforce laws like the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act and the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. There are also a lot of advocates for LGBTQ+ people who've been pushing for this kind of data. I talked to Caroline Medina, the policy director for the Whitman-Walker Institute, which focuses on better health care for LGBTQ+ people and people living with HIV. And here's what they told me.

CAROLINE MEDINA: In conversations with policymakers, we are often asked for data on LGBTQI folks - how many folks are accessing a particular program, for example. And often it's really hard to give that answer because of the patchwork of data collection that exists right now.

WANG: You know, one way to think about this is the way the U.S. works, if you're not counted in official statistics, it's really difficult to get resources and other support from the government.

RASCOE: This is happening at a time when anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and rhetoric is on the rise from right-wing politicians and groups. I would imagine that might make the Census Bureau's plans for this test a bit more complicated.

WANG: Yes. You know, it's been a long road for advocates for more government statistics about LGBTQ+ people to get to this point. You know, a few years ago, I reported on how the Trump administration stopped earlier efforts because officials didn't want questions about sexual orientation and gender identity to be asked. And this current political climate does raise questions about how this data could be misused.

You know, I should point out, of course, there are federal laws that ban the Census Bureau from publishing people's private information. And the Biden administration has emphasized that federal surveys should allow people to choose whether they share their sexual orientation and gender identity with the government. And, you know, there's always this tension when you're talking about government statistics. There's a value in being seen, but it comes with the risk that, at some point in the future, policies around confidentiality may change or may not be followed.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang. Hansi, thank you so much.

WANG: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.