When the National LGBTQ Task Force fired off a statement last night accusing the Trump administration of excluding questions about sexual orientation and gender identity from the 2020 US Census, reactions of outrage came fast and furiously.
The Huffington Post, Washington Blade, and Out magazine quickly reported the news. Sample headline: “The U.S. Won’t Tally LGBT People In 2020 Census.” Chelsea Clinton tweeted that the exclusion of LGBT people from the Census was “outrageous.” Debra Messing weighed in with a fire-emoji laden tweet asking if LGBT people would no longer have to pay taxes since their existence was being erased. Laverne Cox retweeted Messing with the plaintive observation that LGBTQ people “just want to be counted.” Within hours, the hashtag #cantbeerased had blown up with tweets from Rep. Joe Kennedy, the Resistance Report, and the Human Rights Campaign.
The only problem is that the story isn’t true. By no means is this a case of, as the Task Force put it, the Trump Administration taking “yet another step to deny LGBTQ people freedom, justice, and equity, by choosing to exclude us from the 2020 Census and American Community Survey.” (This take on the story, by the way, was parroted by major media outlets such as the Associated Press, ABC News, NBC News, and even the Washington Times. And nearly every story, it should be noted, has quoted a Task Force spokeswoman claiming that exclusion of LGBT people from the Census will result in a denial of government services to LGBT people.)
What this story really is about is previously unthinkable incompetence from the White House coupled with an understandable willingness by anyone who doesn’t get their news from Breitbart to believe the worst about the Trump administration.
The incompetence part? On Tuesday, the US Census Bureau submitted its proposal for the 2020 US Census to Congress. Included in the list of typical Census questions such as race, gender, and the number of people living in the household were questions about sexual orientation and gender identity—which have never before been asked in the US Census.
The willingness to believe the worst part? Hours after the Bureau submitted its report to Congress, it sent over a new one and released a statement explaining that its initial report “inadvertently listed sexual orientation and gender identity as a proposed topic in the appendix. This topic is not being proposed to Congress for the 2020 Census or American Community Survey.”
“Inadvertently listed?” How does that even happen? We’ll probably never know (or believe) the real explanation for how an incorrect version of the report was sent to Congress. But what a small handful of policy wonks know (and the general LGBT and LGBT-loving public will never believe) is that there were never plans to include questions about sexual orientation and gender identity in the 2020 Census in the first place.
Gary Gates is a leading expert on demographics and LGBT population data whose friend-of-the-court brief for the 2015 marriage equality case Obergefell was cited by Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion. Gates has explained (on Twitter, of course) that there have been discussions about adding the questions to future surveys but that “No decisions were made” and it is much too late in the process anyway to add questions about sexual orientation and gender identity to the 2020 surveys.
Demographers have been talking about how to include sexual orientation and gender identity questions on Census surveys for more than a decade. But lessons from Canadian attempts to do the same have taught that when you send out a form to collect data about the inhabitants of an entire household, and then give one member of the household the authority to fill it out for everyone, you cannot rely on data collected about sexual orientation. A bisexual man who is married to a woman may not identify himself as such on a Census form. A parent filling out the form may believe that one of her children is gay, but because that child has not come out to her specifically, she will not mark him as gay on the form. And so on.
These may sound like silly examples, but these are the things that population scientists obsess about—and for good reason. Data from the Census inform public policy and it’s impossible to make good policy from bad data.
None of which is to say that the Trump Administration is not, in fact, trying to erase the existence of LGBT people. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services eliminated survey questions about LGBT people from the National Survey of Older Americans Act Participants and the Annual Program Performance Report for Centers for Independent Living. Data from both surveys inform HHS about the effectiveness and equity of safety net programs that serve older adults and those living with disabilities. Questions about sexual orientation were added to Older Americans survey in 2014 and the questions about LGBT people were supposed to be included in the second survey this year.
When the Trump administration nixed the HHS survey questions about LGBT people, the news barely registered. But the lie about the 2020 Census has gone viral, and right-wing outlets like HotAir.com are now calling the whole Census story a “conspiracy theory.”
And it’s hard to argue with that.
When there is so much to choose from among the Trump Administration’s offenses, it’s really unconscionable for an advocacy organization—however well intentioned—to push out information without first checking its accuracy. We don’t have time to waste chasing down fake news stories. And credibility once lost is hard to regain.
Susan Ryan-Vollmar, a communications consultant, was formerly editor-in-chief of Bay Windows and news editor of the Boston Phoenix.