COVID-19’s impact on LGBTQ participation in the 2020 U.S. Census

Illustration by Ash Cheshire
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.

Continued measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 have altered life as we know it, including data collection measures and marketing initiatives surrounding the 2020 U.S. Census. Participation in the census is especially paramount for LGBTQ+ and other marginalized communities, as it serves to regulate congressional representation, administer billions of dollars in federal funds to local, state and tribal governments and allot resources for the creation of jobs, housing and other community needs. 

According to a statement earlier this month on Pennsylvania’s Census website, Census Day is April 1, and the completion date for the U.S. Census data collection is July 31. However, that date may shift as COVID-19 response measures continue to change. Certain census operations have been delayed, including mobile questionnaire assistance, non-response follow-up operations and collaboration with group quarters administrators, who work to count people living in locations such as college campuses, nursing homes and prisons. 

The LGBTQ+ subcommittee of the Complete Count Committee is one of 19 committees that guide Philly Counts, the City of Philadelphia’s 2020 Census program aimed at educating the public on the importance of participating in the census. 

While the LGBTQ subgroup had planned to promote the census in part through a public event geared toward LGBTQ community leaders, this event is no longer a possibility. But the group will continue to disseminate useful census information through an opinion editorial that is in the distribution phase, as well as via social media marketing initiatives.

“[The op-ed] really helps us focus on some of the key priorities around the accomplishments of our community,” said Greg DeShields, executive director of PHL Diversity and LGBTQ subcommittee chair. 

Some of those priorities include “the emphasis and the need for the LGBT voice to be counted, considerations as it relates to our LGBT youth, especially those who are homeless, and most importantly, having a clear understanding of not just at a high level in terms of the dollars that could be at risk, but some of the functional programs that touch the LGBT community,” he said. 

DeShields acknowledged that restrictions on physical gatherings will complicate the group’s efforts to disseminate its message. However, he said that Philly Counts has been helping all of the subcommittees disperse census-related materials via its connection to the City of Philadelphia.

The Philly Counts data team is currently focusing on self-response rates and identifying areas within that group that need attention, Philly Counts Executive Director Stephanie Reid told PGN. 

“It’s exactly where we expected, and the places where we seem to have the lowest self-response rates — it’s across Market Street, just north of Market, and then up Broad. This is where a lot of our historically undercounted communities live. The other piece that is difficult for Philadelphia is that this is where our largest colleges and universities are,” she said.

But, she’s still hopeful, “It’s very early, and it’s important to know that the self-response rates that we’re seeing right now are only online response rates where people used their unique identifier [code.]”

As of March 23, Reid told PGN that the national average for census response rates is 19.2%, the average in Pennsylvania is 20.4% and Philadelphia’s average is 15.3%. 

“In our census tracts where we have colleges and universities, which is a huge number of people, we’re down around 8%,” she said, adding that getting the message to college students that they count where they attend school is “incredibly important.” 

Reid further explained that Philly Counts will have to account for the possibility of college students filling out the census online without the unique identifier that they would have received at their campus residences if they were living at school. 

Roughly one-third to one-half of Philadelphia residents received a paper census form in the first mail circulation, and many people who are part of the city’s undercounted communities most likely filled out that form. “Those numbers will not be showing up yet,” Reid said. 

The count of people experiencing homelessness that was originally scheduled to take place from March 29-April 1 has been rescheduled for April 29-May 1, according to Reid. She said if April 29 comes around and the situation has not improved, advocates will attempt to push back the date once again. 

According to The Williams Institute, 94% of homeless youth providers report serving LGBT youth, and providers report that LGBTQ youth comprise 40% of their clients. Philadelphia’s 2017 Voices of Youth Count study showed that 31 percent of youth experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia County identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, questioning or asexual.

“I think there’s a lot of people who serve this community who feel worried about making sure that people experiencing homelessness are counted, and we are so grateful for that advocacy and support,” she said.

Local and regional nonprofit organizations have also been launching efforts to urge community members to participate in the census. Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania received a $25,000 grant from the PA Department of Community and Economic Development on Thursday to push for Eastern and Central Pennsylvania LGBTQ community members to participate in the census. 

As part of the grant, the Allentown LGBTQ  center will launch digital marketing initiatives and partner with the LGBT Center of Greater Reading as well as with the LGBT Center of Central Pennsylvania

“Like many historically marginalized and underserved communities, the LGBT community is frequently undercounted,” Bradbury-Sullivan Executive Director Adrian Shanker said in a statement. “If we aren’t counted, then we don’t count — so with this grant, Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center will be working hard to promote U.S. Census participation with the LGBT community.”

Zach Wilcha, executive director of the Independent Business Alliance (IBA), Greater Philadelphia’s LGBT Chamber of Commerce, has also been promoting census participation. He serves on the LGBTQ+ subcommittee of Philly Counts.  He emphasized the importance of LGBTQ participation to help allot government resources that will ultimately benefit members of the community. 

“When it comes to Medicaid or student loans, or supplemental nutrition assistance, or unemployment insurance, or HIV emergency relief — these things are part of the billions of dollars of federal funding that are allocated to states and cities based on the U.S. Census. There are definitely folks that want the count to dilute our political power as a community and as a city, so it’s very important that we all fill it out as best we can.”

The Census Bureau will continuously reassess the situation as related to new coronavirus prevention protocols and adjust its plans accordingly, Reid said. 

The 2020 U.S. Census can be filled out online at

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