For decades, LGBTQ people have battled for a seat at the census table.
Then in 2020, there came a beacon of hope when same-sex couples living together were included in the 10-year survey for the first time, even though sexual orientation and gender identity questions were absent.
Advocates rallied the LGBTQ community, urging full participation.
Then in the midst of rollout this spring, a global health crisis erupted – upending lives and tangling census outreach efforts.
“The census is really important because it determines how much funding each state gets for social programs and representation in Congress. It directly impacts our communities and political power, it directly impacts lives,” said Glennda Testone, executive director of New York’s LGBT Community Center.
Now, the challenges are steep, Testone said. While New York – the nation’s original coronavirus epicenter – huddles under lockdown, digital efforts have ramped up.
But “door to door is a big part that motivates people,” she said. “Because of social distancing, people are not out there pushing the census. My fear is that the response numbers will go down.”
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Before the health crisis exploded, advocates already had their work cut out for them, said Trevon Mayers, the community center’s outreach director. Many LGBTQ people were wary of releasing information because they feel they are living in a hostile climate lacking federal and state protections.
“There is apathy people have about taking part in a process that is not affirming,” he said.
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While inclusion of same-sex couples was seen as a positive first step by advocates, the road to the 2020 census was a bumpy one.
In 2017, LGBTQ leaders were outraged after reports that the Census Bureau deleted questions on sexual orientation and gender identity from a draft census and community survey proposal.
Census Bureau Director John Thompson called the inclusion an “error.”
The National LGBTQ Task Force, which says it has been working to “queer the census” since 1990, lambasted the incident, crying “we’ve been erased.”
Brenda Churchill, 63, said being “erased” is what sparked her to “go all in in this effort to be counted.”
Churchill, a woman who identifies as transgender, is a census field supervisor in Bakersfield, Vermont.
“Although the proposed questions regarding sexual orientation and gender identity were removed from the census, for each Vermonter counted there will be federal funds appropriated,” she said. ‘While we may be invisible to the current federal administration, we are very visible to Vermont’s infrastructure.”
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It is critical for people in her state to fill out the forms, Churchill said – particularly those in “marginalized communities that are often isolated socially, geographically and electronically” – because the information translates into political representation.
The shutdowns have complicated outreach efforts in her rural community. Many parts of Vermont don’t have broadband access, she said, and the state is lagging behind the national average for completing the online survey.
‘A way for us to say we are here’
Wynston Sanders, 31, who identifies as a transgender man and a transgender queer, is disappointed gender identity and sexual orientation aren’t included in this year’s survey and people “don’t get to show their true selves.”
But much is at stake in Sanders’ hometown of Greenville, South Carolina.
State lawmakers are weighing one bill that would block transgender high school students from playing on sports teams that are aligned with their gender identity. Another piece of legislation would restrict access to medical care for transgender youths.
“The census is way for us to say we are here, and we are going to push against bad laws and bills. It gets us to stand up and be counted even though we aren’t being counted,” Sanders said.
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Mayers agrees. LGBTQ people are part of populations “historically undercounted” in the census, and that can’t be downplayed this year.
“LGBTQ people are not monolithic,” he said. “They are people of color, immigrants, people experiencing homelessness, people living in rural areas.”
Issues brought to the surface by the coronavirus pandemic in many ways make census participation even more paramount, Mayers said. LGBTQ people need housing help, Medicaid programs, nutrition assistance.
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“There are tangible, real world implications,” he said.
The decennial count is used to distribute federal funds for everything from schools to roads to bridges to lunch programs. It’s also used to determine the number of House seats a state has in Congress.
Invitations to respond to the census by phone, online or mail arrived in most households by mid-March – just as stay-at-home orders took a grip. Census officials moved the deadline for people to respond to the survey from July 31 to Oct. 31. Even as states put a toe in the reopening waters, Zoom hubs, teleconferences and webinars are likely to continue to make up outreach.
Filling out the census form should be a “no brainer” for LGBTQ people, especially in these difficult times. Sanders said. “We are in the midst of a pandemic, and folks are just trying to survive. Jobs have been lost, lives have been lost, communities disrupted. … It is important to do this so we have representation.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Census coronavirus: LGBTQ advocates face tough outreach in pandemic