The Census Bureau estimates about 1 million same-sex married and unmarried couples are living together nationwide, according to new figures released Tuesday.
Same-sex households make up about 1 percent of all homes, according to data released as part of the Current Population Survey and the first time such figures were included in its main results. The estimates provide a limited glimpse into the LGBTQ population in America, which has not shown up in federal surveys for much of the nation’s history.
The Census Bureau plans to include more data about same-sex relationships but advocates worry decisions by President Donald Trump’s administration have hindered efforts to count LGBTQ residents as a whole. Limiting that ability may have implications for assessing the needs of the community as well as spending in federal programs.
“It’s significant progress and we are excited about it, but we’re really missing quite a lot of community data,” said Meghan Maury, policy director for the National LGBTQ Task Force.
For instance, household data is used in measuring poverty, household composition and other demographic factors, according to the Census Bureau. Tuesday’s data release also showed several other broad trends in American households: the number of adults living alone has risen, along with the number of households without children.
Maury pointed out, though, that the agency’s methodology limits the ability to measure the LGBTQ community more broadly because it would not include individuals living without a partner, or bisexual people living with or married to an opposite-sex partner.
Limitations of current surveys
That goes to a central issue for measuring LGBTQ residents: asking about sexual orientation and gender identity in federal surveys. In the Obama administration, several interagency working groups and advisory committees recommended collecting more data about LGBTQ residents and same-sex relationships.
Maury pointed out that the departments of Justice and Health and Human Services under Trump have pulled back on plans to gather information about participants in their programs and crime victims.
Census officials do not actually ask residents about their sexual orientation in agency surveys or on the decennial census. However, changes to the process have been made over the years. For instance, the 2020 census will explicitly ask respondents whether their marriage is same-sex or opposite-sex.
Through its history, the Census Bureau has taken steps to erase same-sex marriage from its data. In the 2010 census and through 2018 in some of its surveys, the agency changed the responses of same-sex married couples to unmarried partners. At other points, census officials raised concerns that mistakes stemming from people who did correctly identify their gender may have inflated the number of same-sex couples in the country.
A March 2017 report on the planned questions to include in the 2020 census and the American Community Survey mentioned a question on sexual orientation and gender identity in an addendum. Shortly after that, the Census Bureau issued a new report to Congress and said the question had been referenced in “error” and it would not be included on either the census or ACS.
“Our review concluded there was no federal data need to change the planned census and ACS subjects,” then-Census Bureau Director John Thompson wrote at the time.
Since then, the Census Bureau has taken a few steps to include more information about LGBTQ residents in federal surveys. A report conducted last year “did not identify any significant issues that would make collecting [sexual orientation and gender identity] information in the [Current Population Survey] infeasible,” but recommended further study.
Additionally, the Census Bureau has released information about the percentage of same-sex households in certain cities — San Francisco topped the list at 3 percent — and plans to release more data next month.
David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, said efforts to collect additional data about LGBTQ residents can help guide better policy. He pointed to research on homelessness compiled by the Williams Institute, a think tank by the UCLA School of Law, and other institutions that suggests as much as 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ.
“Providers on the ground knew a lot of clients were LGBTQ,” Stacy said, but having actual data could allow them to justify changes like increasing cultural competency among staff or addressing household rejection.
Stacy said advocates are also looking for data on issues like the prevalence of breast cancer among lesbians and other issues not currently measured.
“When you have the data you can then come up with solutions to address the problem,” he said.
Those decisions have a long lag time in the world of federal surveys. The Census Bureau changed the methodology for the survey results released Tuesday in 2015.
Lawmakers pushing for change in Congress, like Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., want to at least start the process of including a sexual orientation and gender identity question in federal surveys.
“The fact that the question gets asked there would be at least some assurance we will have the data,” Grijalva said.
Grijalva sponsored one of the bills to increase LGBTQ representation in federal data. His measure would mandate federal agencies to include questions on sexual orientation and gender identity in their surveys.
The bill has sat in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee but does not currently have any Republican cosponsors. That means it would likely have to advance through the more intensive Rules Committee process and has less chance of passage through the Republican-controlled Senate. But Grijalva said there has been a commitment from House leadership to take up the bill even if it doesn’t go anywhere.
“Time is passing us by even as we (try to) make a symbolic decision in the House,” Grijalva said. “It makes us less inclusive and less representative when making decisions about the country.”
His legislation has been introduced in both chambers in the past, and did not receive any consideration under Republican control.
Grijalva said the data released Tuesday will be helpful, but “it won’t be the inclusive parity I was hoping for.”