We Count, So Count Us: Three Reasons It's Important to Collect Census Data on LGBTQ People

a group of red and white paper...
a group of red and white paper...

"One in 10 is not enough! Recruit! Recruit! Recruit!"

It was my favorite chant as a young queer activist, and its echo stays with me today. It was funny, sure, and poked fun at the fear of a million cowering conservatives. The chant was based on sexologist Alfred Kinsey's famous claim that 10 percent of men in the U.S. are gay, and that number was widely adopted as an estimate for how many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals live in the U.S. -- even though the LGBTQ community didn't have thorough research to back it up. But it was my favorite because it made me look around every day and wonder: Who were the other three LGBTQ students in my class? Who were the other four LGBTQ riders on my subway train? Who were the other five LGBTQ people in my extended family? The number gave me hope and told me that I wasn't alone.

At the same time, that chant gave me power. If we, the LGBTQ community, were a countable percentage of the population, we could all stand with one voice and demand respect, an end to anti-LGBTQ violence, and equality.

It never really occurred to me to question the number itself. Where did it come from? To be quite honest, I didn't care. I didn't think it mattered. Someone had counted, so we knew that we counted.

Twenty years later I realize that the counting really does matter. Data collection (as we math and law nerds call it) gets us money, power, health, housing, jobs, schools, food, and rights.

Is it really that important? Yes. Here's why:

It gives us political traction.

If you're not a voting bloc, you can't sway politicians. Like it or not, politicians make the decisions that rule our lives. They decide who has protection from discrimination, who can become a citizen, how much we pay in taxes, what we're taught in school, who can get married. The existence of the LGBTQ vote is dependent on our ability to prove that we are a large-enough group of people that we can sway elections. In other words, we only count if we are counted.

Perhaps more importantly, being counted gives us consumer power. As powerful as politicians are, corporations dwarf them in both number and reach. Exactly 737 corporations control 80 percent of the world's economy. In 2010 the Supreme Court decided that corporations are permitted to spend as much as they want to get candidates elected. A recent report by the Center for Public Integrity showed that corporations contributed at least $173 million to political nonprofits in 2012. Although there is an ethical minority of politicians who are indifferent to the whims of their funders, there are many who feel beholden to their corporate sponsors.

Our population numbers make us attractive to the corporate decision makers who hold the purse strings to our cultural and political lives. As they become aware of the purchasing power of millions of LGBTQ people, we become a demographic they market to and design products for and, most importantly, a population they can't afford to ignore or disrespect as they throw their weight around in the political arena. Money makes power, and as we are counted, we amass power through our ability to affect the decisions of major corporations.

All of that is real, but there's a more important reason for us to be counted:

It tells us how to fix things.

LGBTQ people experience disparities in almost every quantifiable way: We're more likely to live in poverty, more likely to be homeless, more likely to struggle with addiction, more likely to experience health conditions like diabetes and lung cancer, more likely to be unemployed, more likely to go to jail, more likely to experience sexual assault, more likely to experience violence, more likely to contract HIV. I could go on. At the risk of sounding depressing, statistically we're screwed.

That's where data collection comes in. Without an accurate picture of the disparities we face, we can't figure out how to address them. Think about jobs: We know that lesbian, gay and bisexual adults are unemployed at a rate 40-percent higher than the overall unemployment rate, and transgender adults are twice as likely to unemployed as the overall average. But if we don't have data on how many of us graduate from high school, college, or trade schools, or how many of us have been fired because of our actual or perceived gender identity, we can't know how to reduce that disparity.

The same applies to every other medical, scientific, and sociological disparity faced by our community. If we don't know how many of us are facing a particular issue, we can't know how to address it.

Both political power and ability to effectively address our needs are critically important. Still, for me, the need for data collection comes back to the same thing as it did when I was a 15-year-old activist:

It gives us hope.

We count. That's why I joined the Census Bureau's National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic, and Other Populations. I want our government to accurately count us because it gives us power, tells us how to make life better for our community, and gives us hope. We need to know that we're one of many. In the committee, I will press the Census Bureau to help us prove that, by adding questions to the census and other surveys about sexual orientation and gender identity. I hope you help me and support the LGBTQ community by standing up when it's your turn to be counted. That way we can show that not only are we not alone but we are a large, diverse and politically significant community that has a key part to play in the future of our country.

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