Monday, February 15, 2010

The value of being counted

Originally posted on DC Agenda

How many gay, bisexual and transgender individuals does it take to create change? That’s hard to tell. How many of us are there?

Estimates of LGBT people range anywhere from 3 to 5 percent of the total population, but no one really knows. Although demographers and other social scientists have tried to approximate our size, the counts they produce are rough estimates at best. It is practically impossible to get a statistically representative and random sample from which anyone can extrapolate the total number of LGBT people in the country. Most researchers default to identifying their samples in metropolitan areas such as San Francisco and New York. That’s understandable as so since many of us flock to these places, but the reality is not all of us do.

It is crucial to know how many we are and where we live as we continue our struggle for equal rights. If we know how many we are, we can go to political candidates and elected officials and discuss with them our needs — as well as how many votes they stand to lose if they ignore us. We can approach government agencies and demand, as tax-paying citizens, the services and programs we require. We can turn to community-based organizations, nonprofits and foundations and let them know about our community’s issues. We can tell our neighbors and fellow Americans that there are millions of us and we can’t be ignored. We can find each other and better mobilize.

Numbers are powerful in our society and being able to tell how many millions strong we are is power. Consider how politicians have been vying for the votes of Latinos, for example, the fastest growing segment of Americans.

So, how do we begin counting? We can start by participating in the 2010 Census, which happens next month. The decennial count is mandated by the Constitution and attempts an accurate count of all Americans and households, which include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and families. Census statistics determine not only congressional seats but the distribution of billions of federal dollars for social services. Philanthropic and nonprofit organizations use the information gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau to plan their programs and services. Researchers and journalists cull the data to make conclusions about certain groups. Politicians monitor who they need to curry favor from within their jurisdictions.

This year’s Census is groundbreaking. Our Families Count, a public education campaign spearheaded by LGBT leaders and community organizers, explains in its website:

What makes this year’s Census even more historic is the unprecedented and welcoming outreach by U.S. Census leaders and managers to include the entire lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and allied community in these efforts, as a way to achieve the nation’s most accurate count possible.

Dr. Robert Groves, Director of the U.S. Census Bureau, endorsed this initiative: “We are charged each 10 years to provide Congress with a Census they trust to be accurate and complete. We are grateful to our LGBT community partners in helping us achieve this significant responsibility, and to help educate, motivate and inspire everyone to take part and above all, to be visible and counted.”

The bureau has nearly two dozen “partnership specialists” across the country who work closely with LGBT community groups and leaders to make sure that we all participate and are duly counted.

It must be acknowledged, however, that this effort is incomplete and just the beginning in the long and difficult process of painting a true picture of our numbers and lives. We will not be asked about our sexual orientation or gender identity. Only same-sex couples will give demographers an indication of our sexual orientation. Those of us who are living with a same-sex spouse or partner can indicate our relationship status by checking either the “husband/wife” or “unmarried partner” box.

Getting the U.S. Census Bureau to count individuals will have to come next. And it will not be easy. As the folks behind Our Families Count admit:

It takes years to successfully advocate for the inclusion of questions on the census, and the advocacy must be funded by congressional legislation. We are just emerging from the hostile and indifferent years of the previous administration, when this advocacy was largely ignored.

Nonetheless, the 2010 Census will provide a reliable count of same-sex couples in America and document how we are dispersed throughout all states, cities and counties. Moreover, many organizers of Our Families Count are leading an independent coalition that seeks to include us and our families in most major federal data collection efforts, such as the longer, annual Census Bureau form called the American Community Survey.

So when you get the Census form in the mail, fill it out. If for some reason you don’t get one, contact the U.S. Census Bureau. Make sure we are counted. Let everyone know that we are queer, that we are here, and that our families count.

You can follow me on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.

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