The 2020 Census Is Underway, But Nonbinary And Gender-Nonconforming Respondents Feel Counted Out
Local organizations and governments have worked to avoid an undercount in their communities in the months leading up to the 2020 census. The U.S. Census Bureau started collecting responses to this year's headcount en masse, sending individual letters requesting a response to the headcount homes across on March 12. The survey, which happens once every decade in the U.S., collects the most comprehensive data about the demographic makeup of the country.
One small but vulnerable population in the U.S. won’t be counted in the survey this time around, however. That’s because of how the question that asks about people’s sex appears on the form. The 2020 headcount only asks if people are “male” or “female.”
“The way [the question] is worded on the census, it does not include who I am,” said Elaine Brune, a retired school teacher in St. Louis and also board chair of the Metro Trans Umbrella Group, an organization that supports trans and gender-nonconforming St. Louisans.
Brune would mark “gender nonbinary” or “gender-nonconforming” in their response to the census if those options existed.
“I lose my identity,” they said. “It’s the same with my driver's license or my passport — you have to indicate ‘male’ or ‘female,’ and that’s just not who I am.”
This issue is not just about Brune’s individual representation on the survey. They think about the whole community of people in America who are trans, nonbinary or anything other than male or female.
“As you go down into the younger generations, more and more people are identifying in the nonbinary cagagory,” they said. “Any opportunites nonbinary folks need to have, they are, for the next 10 years, going to be stuck within that male or female sex. And that’s just not right.”
What do we know right now?
There is a lack of robust population data about how many trans and nonbinary people live in the U.S., said Danya Lagos, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin’s Population Research Center, who studies the social demography of LGBTQ populations.
“We have never asked this before in large-scale population surveys,” she said.
Lagos added some of the best numbers available come from a single 2016 study from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.
That study revealed at least 0.5% of Americans identify as transgender or gender-nonconforming, which equates to about two million people.
“We don’t have a ton of information on whether this is a huge change from before or whether it’s something we’re finding out, because people have only been asked this for the first time in around 2014,” Lagos explained.
The 2016 study only includes information on a statewide basis and has rough age categories: from 18 to 24, 25 to 64 and 65 and older.
“There’s a real generational divide,” said Heath Fogg Davis, director of Temple University’s gender, sexuality and women’s studies program. “There are way more high-school-age students, younger people who are identifying particularly as genderfluid or genderqueer, nonbinary.”
Without more granular data or better age breakdowns, it’s difficult to gauge baseline number of people who are trans, or nonbinary.
“You don’t know,” Brune said. “I know the folks that we reach through Metro Trans Umbrella Group, but there is probably a significant number of other people that are just out there that we don’t know.”
‘If you’re not counted, you don’t count’
Researchers and other organizations use census data to inform decisions or push for policy changes.
“Without the data that says, ‘X number of people are trans in our society or indentify as nonbinary,’ there’s no way to make the strong case for services, policies that protect people against discrimination,” Davis said.
That’s everything from housing discriminatinon and unemployment to poverty rates and education access, he explained.
“If you’re not counted, you don’t count,” Davis said.
In her research, Lagos compares the health outcomes of different gender identities to the general public. She finds gender-nonconforming Americans have worse overall health across the board.
“If we find clusters or populations where health is worse, it’s helpful to know who, so we can get to the why and eventually get to solutions,” she said.
Census data that includes more than two genders could help her recommend where to prioritize rural health care centers that can also provide transgender services, for example, Lagos said.
“Providing transgender health care [or] health care in general that meets the needs and identities of people can save lives,” she said.
Normalizing trans and nonbinary identites
Having the census, a national survey, ask for genders outside of the traditional male-female binary could help make trans and nonbinary identities more visible and normal, Brune said.
“Every. Single. Day. I get misgendered,” they said. “I get called ‘sir,’ then when I open my mouth and start to talk, I get called ‘ma’am.’”
More broadly, data from expansive gender responses could help counter anti-trans legislation, Davis said.
“One of the main reasons why we have these anti-trans policies now being passed is because there’s a real ignorance around trans identities and what they entail,” he said. “It’s because we’re not humanized that the sorts of actions can even be imagined and ultimately carried out.”
Advocates and researchers will have to wait for the 2030 census for a question that includes broacer gender options.
Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.
Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid
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