On Tuesday, it was announced that the 2020 census won’t include questions about sexual orientation or gender identity, despite the fact that they were initially included in the Census Bureau’s draft of subjects. GLAAD’s CEO, Sarah Kate Ellis, didn’t mince words, calling the decision a “systematic effort on behalf of the Trump administration to erase LGBT people.” The announcement came on the heels of the White House administration’s plan to cut funding from the 2018 National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget by 18.3 percent, or roughly $5.8 billion, including cutbacks to HIV research and prevention strategies.
Historically speaking, there has been an absence of good demographic data when it comes to the LGBT population. In the past, the U.S. census, conducted every 10 years since 1790, only asked about same-sex households as way of crudely estimating the number of gay couples in America. The 1990 census made headway in differentiating same-sex cohabiting couples in romantic relationships from those who were only roommates.
Most large surveys of gays and lesbians have depended on convenience sampling, which involves researchers gathering their responses through advertising in newspapers and magazines catering to the community, as well as gay bars and websites. Needless to say, these samples only reflect a subset of the community—namely, those who read gay publications and go to gay bars—and it’s tricky to generalize the resultant findings to all gay people in America.
The new census questions would have shed light, for the first time, on the lives of LGBT people at the individual level and would have helped to improve the quality of the data we currently have. These questions are particularly relevant considering how previous findings have shown that when it comes to completing the census, some same-sex couples choose to intentionally not disclose their relationship, as a way of protesting the fact that the survey didn’t specifically ask about sexual orientation.
These demographics would have helped ensure that adequate protections continue to be in place for the LGBT community.
Scientists and legislators are critically dependent on accurate data because they inform future research questions and good public policy. Governmental policies, particularly those pertaining to public health and the justice system, must be empirically supported in order to be successful. This calls for well-designed, methodologically rigorous studies, which—as is the case with most well-executed things in life—cost money and time. These decisions otherwise run the risk of being guided by powerful, yet unsubstantiated, forces like intuition, hysteria or political trends du jour.
For researchers, arguably one of the most stressful and time-consuming parts of the job is applying for funding; basically, securing money so that you can run your research program, publish your findings to help advance humanity and ultimately, not starve.
When applying for research grants, scientists must justify why their work should be prioritized over grant applications from other scientists similarly arguing in favor of their work. It is an extremely competitive process and part of this justification relies on conveying the urgency of investigating your research questions. Basic knowledge of your population—say, how large it is and the kinds of issues it faces—is needed to assert this successfully.
Although the bureau has said that including the questions to begin with was a “simple clerical error” and that there is no “federal need” for the collection of this information, from a practical perspective, these demographics would have helped ensure that adequate rights, protections and resources continue to be in place for the LGBT community, going forward. Now, they seem to be in jeopardy.
Debra W. Soh is a sex writer and sexual neuroscientist at York University in Toronto. She has written for Harper’s, The Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, The Los Angeles Times, The Globe and Mail and many others. Follow her on Twitter: @debra_soh.