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Strength In Numbers: The Importance Of Counting The LGBT Community

April 12, 2011 2:16 pm ET by Richard Socarides

It’s axiomatic that there is power in numbers. And more power in bigger numbers. 

When I was White House Special Assistant to President Clinton in charge of gay rights from 1997 to 1999, I asked officials at the U.S. Census Bureau if they could count the number of gay people in the then-upcoming 2000 Census. I knew that we would be better off if we could quantify how many of us there were. The Census counted people by race and ethnicity, so why not by sexual orientation?

I actually knew they could count us, I was asking more if they would -- could I persuade them to do it. Their answer was no, although they acknowledged it was possibly a good idea for the future. They explained that Census questions are planned well in advance (measured in years, not months), so they would consider it for some future sample, but it was already too late for the 2000 survey.

Of course I suspected there was more than timing involved -- counting us would be an implicit acknowledgment that we were an integral -- and out -- part of the American family, an idea that was probably too provocative for some.

Fast forward ten plus years and there has been no meaningful change in U.S. Census policy.  Recently, the Census Bureau has collected data relating to same-sex couples who live together, but this is a far cry from counting how many of us there are in the U.S. population. Some gay groups heralded the collection of couple-related data as a major breakthrough. But as the data is released, it only highlights how much more really needs to be done.

Kerry Eleveld’s piece here last week, Doing the Right Thing for 2012, made a persuasive case for why the federal government needs to include us in all its data collection, among other things. This should start now with the Census and the many other data collection-driven studies they do between the main decennial surveys

This is one of the things that ought to be a “no-brainer” for the Obama Administration but two plus years into it we have not seen substantial movement, as far as I can tell.

The reason we are focused on this now is that last week the Williams Institute, an LGBT-focused think tank at UCLA which has done great work on these issues over the last decade, issued a report that concluded that gays, lesbians, and bisexuals make up a 3.5 percent of the U.S. population -- a considerably smaller percentage than some would think, although not a number that would surprise you if you have been following other estimates through the years.

There are a number of important qualifiers about the study that were not always apparent in the press coverage it received.

The report was merely an analysis of admittedly insufficient existing polling and survey information from 2004-2009. The reports author, Gary J. Gates of the Williams Institute, took an average. As such, it was really just an “educated guess” (my words) based on the available information (which included one survey indicating gays, lesbians, and bisexuals made up 5.6 percent of the population).

Moreover, it only included adults who were comfortable enough with their sexual identity and the circumstances under which the surveys were conducted to self identify.  

The political blogger John Aravosis of AmericaBlog, in a post he called "8m US adults willing to tell a stranger they are gay (LGB)," says “there is no way you're going to get anywhere near 100% of gay people admitting they're gay, period. I wonder if you get more than 50%. Married gays, forget it. Dating a girl, forget it. Closeted, forget it. People afraid for their jobs, forget it. Work for the military, forget it.  Older gays, less likely. Living in a scary state, or small town, more likely not to admit it.”

Finally, the survey did not include people who had had sexual contact with persons of the same sex or people who had same-sex attraction (but who in each case didn’t self identify as gay or bisexual). Interestingly, the inclusion of these groups would have substantially raised the averages.

As significant as these qualifiers may be, including questions about the LGBT community in the Census is vitally important. The Census is the most comprehensive, reliable, and trusted study of the U.S. population available. While steps can eventually be taken to deal with underreporting and other methodological flaws, an LGBT-inclusive Census would provide a critical baseline upon which to move forward on future data collection efforts.

Gates, who has been at the cutting edge of data collection on LGBT issues, had a follow-up Washington Post op-ed on Saturday in which he made a very persuasive case that the government needs to start counting the gay community in the Census and related government surveys. He says, “The reality of our political system is that you don’t really count unless you are counted. So it’s time to stop believing an old estimate [a reference to Alfred Kinsey] and start making an accurate count” (emphasis added).