As we speak, in an American rite instituted at the nation's founding and inscribed in the Constitution, every US household is receiving a Census form. The Census, taken once every 10 years, is a national snapshot, intended to profile the make-up of the American population, household by household. Yet the Census fails to acknowledge that some of those households are gay. As LGBT groups are actively agitating for substantial changes to the process, an announcement by the Obama administration indicates that, for the first time, the Census will at least begin to officially acknowledge the reality of gay households.
The US Census asks only a few questions about who is living in a household. There is no place on the Census form to identify oneself as gay, even though, famously, the form asks respondents to categorize themselves by race. This insulting paradox has not escaped the notice of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which has launched its "Queer the Census" campaign. As their website points out, "The data collected impacts issues critical to every American—like our health care, our economic stability, and even our safety. And when LGBT people aren't counted, then we also don't count when it comes to services, resources... you name it." In response, they would like supporters to sign a petition to be sent to the Census Bureau, and seal their own Census forms with a downloadable sticker.
Doing so would not, of course, impact the results of the 2010 Census, which has already been mailed out. But as researchers discovered by looking at the 2000 Census, the structure of the questions themselves does allow any gay households that are so inclined to identify themselves. Writing in Scientific American in 2005, Rodger Doyle pointed out that, "The census form asked respondents to classify any unrelated people in their household as a housemate, boarder, foster child, unmarried partner or other nonrelative." You identify yourself, and then you identify your relationship to the people in your household. So, Doyle said, "If the unmarried partner is reported to be of the same sex, that partner and the respondent are very likely gay or lesbian." Based on that (potentially inadvertent) information, the Census found 0.6 percent of men and 0.5 percent of women living together as same-sex unmarried partners.
Of course, such low numbers are sure to be the result of woeful underreporting, not to mention the fact that they leave out the millions of gay and lesbian people who are not living with a partner. But until now, the situation has actually been even worse than that. Many gay couples living together are thought to check the box denoting each other as "husband or wife"—but the software used by the Census counters would switch such a response, when two people were of the same sex, to "unmarried partners." The Bush administration had a policy of refusing to release any data gleaned by the Census about people who declared they were married, and of the same sex. Now the Obama administration has reversed that policy. Though there is still no question asking people their sexual orientation, those same-sex households who check off "husband or wife" will no longer have their responses switched—in fact, those responses will be independently tabulated and released to the public.
The moral is: If you are living with a partner and want to be counted, declare yourself married on the Census—whether he's popped the question yet or not!