Local subcommittee continues efforts to encourage LGBTQ participation in 2020 Census

LGBTQ+ 2020 Census subcommittee meeting on Jan. 31. Photo by Michele Zipkin
Philadelphia Gay News is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a solutions-oriented collaborative reporting project on poverty and Philadelphia’s push for economic justice.

The LGBTQ+ subset of the City of Philadelphia’s Complete Count Committee met last week at Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau to discuss methods of publicizing the importance of the census to members of the city’s LGBTQ+ community. The Complete Count Committee advises Philly Counts 2020, which leads Philadelphia’s grassroots engagement efforts to increase awareness and participation in the 2020 Census, particularly in communities that have been historically underrepresented in the count. 

The LGBTQ+ subcommittee is one of 19 subcommittees, “supporting the city’s effort to make sure we get as complete a count as possible,” said Greg DeShields, executive director of PHL Diversity and LGBTQ+ committee chair. “We bring together a group of volunteers to try to work in the best interest of the city, ensuring that all of our [residents] are counted.” 

The census serves to regulate congressional representation, administer $975 billion in federal funds to local, state and tribal governments and allot resources for the creation of jobs, housing and other community needs.

As the 2020 Census approaches, DeShields said in an email that since the 2010 Census, “We have learned there are greater concerns regarding capturing data on all people in the LGBTQ+ community specifically: bisexual, transgender, gender non-conforming and nonbinary [people].”

“The number one concern would be that the LGBTQ+ community takes the census seriously and that they participate,” he said. 

“In 2010 there was more conversation about crafting questions that would help to articulate or identify the LGBTQ+ community with more specificity in the census. In 2020, we don’t have that capability. There is an ability by way of a household question to identify yourself as an LGBTQ+ same-sex household.”

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Another issue for members of the LGBTQ+ community is the “sex” question, which still provides only male and female options. 

The National LGBTQ Task Force recommends folks self-identify on questions however they feel most represented. “Since the Bureau doesn’t cross-check the information you provide on the survey with any other source, it is okay if you respond differently to the Census than how you would normally answer an official government survey,” the LGBTQ+ advocacy group’s census guide reads. “Additionally, it doesn’t cross-check the information you provide on the Census with any other personal identifiable information you may have provided on other documents, including your birth certificate or driver’s license.”

But DeShields advises the LGBTQ+ community to “follow the legal guidelines that are established for the census. To that degree, whatever legal [federal] document identifies your sex, that’s how you should answer the question.” 

DeShields also said if the LGBTQ+ community isn’t fully represented in the 2020 Census, “fair access to democracy and social services funding important to the LGBTQ+ community” could be impacted.

Dan Warner, data and GIS manager at Philly Counts, pointed out the increase in recruitment for enumerators who will be conducting the census — after implementing a grassroots recruiting strategy and setting up recruitment sessions across the city, The Census Bureau is more than 85 percent to goal. Recruitment efforts will continue until all positions are filled.

A new marketing strategy will help achieve this goal and educate the public about the importance of LGBTQ+ participation in the census. 

Earlier this month, DeShields collaborated with the Inclusive Leadership Conference, which is a joint effort with Campus Philly. In a talk titled, “Inside the Battle to Get LGBTQ+ Americans Counted,” DeShields spoke to the audience, which included regional student leaders, at Temple University about what the census matters to LGBTQ+ folks and what’s at stake. 

DeShields said the gathering of about 300 young people “focused around, raising your voice. It matters; it’s very much aligned with the census,” adding that student participation in the census is integral to accurate counts. 

In the future, the LGBTQ+ subcommittee hopes to work with the Office of LGBT Affairs, which recently named a new executive director, Celena Morrison, who will begin in her role on March 2. The subcommittee also wants to obtain additional grants by working with LGBTQ+-centered nonprofits and other census-oriented groups. 

The LGBTQ+ community is only one minority group that is historically underrepresented in the census — people of color, communities facing poverty and people with disabilities are also historically undercounted. When these identities intersect, underrepresentation is greater. 

According to a study conducted by the Urban Institute, Black and Hispanic/Latinx people are at higher risk of being undercounted than their white peers. People with disabilities are more prevalent within other minority groups that are historically undercounted — people experiencing homelessness, people of color, those with lower incomes, LGBTQ+ folks and immigrants, among others  — according to the 2020 census campaign Census Counts. It also reported that 61 million adults are living with a disability in the U.S. 

“A lot of our folks are nervous about answering the census,” said Lauren Alden, a queer woman with a disability who works to help people with disabilities transition to independent living through the organization Liberty Resources. Alden is also on the disabilities subdivision of the Complete Count Committee and has been working to ensure that people with disabilities can make their voices heard in the census. 

“It’s kind of like the immigration issue, they’re nervous that it’s going to prevent them from getting the services that they have — [that] it’s going to affect their Medicaid negatively,” she said. “What we’re trying to tell people is, it’s actually something that determines Medicaid funds so it’s a really important thing for you to answer.”

Many of Alden’s clients also experience poverty and homelessness and typically don’t see the census as a priority because they are concerned with having their basic needs met, she pointed out. She also said that lack of accessibility hinders minority participation in the census. The push for digital participation and a dearth of accessible formats like Braille are a couple such barriers, she explained. 

Liberty Resources is providing computers to facilitate census participation for the people they work with who may not otherwise have access to technology. The nonprofit is also collaborating with The Census Bureau to identify the measures required to ensure participation from people with disabilities and those facing poverty.

“Accessibility, confidentiality, and just getting correct information on what it means when you complete the census is what we’re trying to talk to our folks about,” Alden said.