Participants at initial Whittier Pride Festival. Photo by Antonio Mejías-Rentas

While the 2020 Census may not produce a complete picture of their community, national organizations are encouraging LGBTQ folks to “Queer the Census” and make sure they get counted.

“Data makes us more visible,” said María Melo, Policy and Operations Manager for the Los Angeles LGBT Center, one of dozens of groups who have joined a national “Queer the Census” campaign.

“Though we’re not getting counted as we wanted, we do count,” added Melo, who deals with policy issues such as workplace justice and immigration for the Center. At a February Latinx LGBTQ+ Roundtable at Mi Centro –a local branch of the Center– Melo spoke to Boyle Heights community leaders about the campaign.

She explained that although there are no specific questions in the Census about sexual orientation, it is of vital importance for LGBTQ+ people to be counted.

“In the past decade we made great advances expanding LGBTQ rights, but we know that some issues are pending, the fight is not over,” said Melo in an interview last month. Solid numbers, she explained, help organizations advance pro civil rights legislation.

“We realize that legislators want to hear our stories, and we all have very powerful stories about why we matter, [but] we also get the question, ‘what are your numbers?’ ‘What are the specifics?,’” she said.  “[We have] powerful stories, but if we can second that with good numbers and data collection, that could help us pass bills and change legislation that will change our lives and advance our rights.”

“[We have] powerful stories, but if we can second that with good numbers and data collection, that could help us pass bills and change legislation that will change our lives and advance our rights.”

María Melo
los angeles lgbt center

While there are no specific questions about sexual orientation on the 2020 Census, Melo said that a question about the relationships among the people in a household may reveal important data about same sex couples.

“When folks mark their gender, and they also indicate the relationships among them, if they’re partners or spouses, and then count the children in the home, [the Census] will be able to collect numbers about [same-sex] couples and how many are raising children,” she explained. Such data culled from the 2010 Census, she reminded Boyle Heights leaders, was used in the arguments that led to the landmark 2015 Supreme Court Decision that legalized same-sex marriage. 

“One of the arguments used was  that ultimately same sex couples were already part of the social fabric,” Melo said.

The question of gender itself is controversial, because the Census only offers the binary options of male and female. “It’s upsetting to the whole LGBTQ community but particularly for folks that identify as non binary, intersex or gender not conforming,” she said, “What we share with the community when they have questions about this, is that the Census is encouraging the community to self-identify, and that they will not be [asking for] any other identification documents. That said, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s very frustrating.”

Ultimately, Melo said, it is important for everyone in a community like Boyle Heights to get counted, regardless of gender, age, sexual orientation of immigration status. Population data from the Census is used to draw Congressional districts and to realign the number of U.S. Representatives among the states. Data is also used to allocate as much as $700 billion annually in Federal funds that end up being used to provide services to those that need them the most.

A 2019 study by UCLA School of Law Williams Institute found that LGBT people in the United States have collectively a higher poverty rate than cisgender straight people –21.6% compared to 15.7%. Among LGBT people, the study found, transgender people have a higher rates of poverty –29.4%.

Because of those numbers, Melo said, LGBTQ people are more likely to need federally funded services such as MediCal or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, or food stamps. 

Like with many other groups, some members of th LGBTQ community hold certain fears about answering Census questions –concerns about the safety of information about persons with irregular immigration status or about the number of people living in a dwelling that exceeds what’s allowed by local laws. “What we’re sharing is that there are actual Federal laws that protect the information that the Census handles,” Melo said. “The information is protected from being shared with other agencies and the public, so that is something to keep in mind.”

Because in the first phase of the Census that began on March 12 and continues through April 30 people are being asked to fill out a form by email, phone or regular mail, one of the issues that the “Queer the Census” campaign aimed to address was the lack of wi-fi access in some communities. Originally, the Center and its branches –including Mi Centro– were being equipped with computer stations for people to fill out Census forms. 

The Coronavirus crisis changed that, as most public meeting places are temporarily closed following state “stay at home” measures.

But that delay is not stopping leaders from encouraging folks to get counted.

“Getting counted is a way for us to make sure that we, as part of the LGBTQ community, get the political representation that we need to advance our rights,  [get] all the funding for social services that we need, and get the data that we need to be able to make our case with legislators and elected officials,” Melo concluded. “So, yes, definitely, everyone please get counted.”

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Antonio Mejías-Rentas

Antonio Mejías-Rentas is a Senior Editor at Boyle Heights Beat, where he mentors teenage journalists, manages the organization’s website and covers local issues. A veteran bilingual journalist, he's...

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