The Government Doesn’t Count This One Group—and Activists Say It’s Detrimental

The U.S. Census Bureau does not track the transgender population, but a growing number of advocates want to change that.

From left: Shelby Chestnut, Laverne Cox, and Cecilia Chung at the 2015 Social Good Summit on Sept. 28 in New York City.

Oct 2, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

The U.S. government tracks animals, parks, and websites. It examines people’s age, income level, and marital status. But one thing it does not track is the transgender population. Advocates see that as a big problem.

“They can count chairs, but they cannot count people,” Cecilia Chung, senior strategist at the Transgender Law Center, told TakePart. “We’re not asking people to like us. We’re just asking people to count us.”

Earlier this week, the activist helped raise the issue during a panel at the Social Good Summit in New York, where she was joined by Orange Is the New Black actor Laverne Cox and Shelby Chestnut, a codirector of community organizing at the Anti-Violence Project, a group that works to reduce violence against LGBT people.

“What message are we sending to those who are trans and gender nonconforming when we don’t even count them?” Cox said during the talk. “We suggest that their identities don’t even matter.” Her sentiments were largely echoed on Twitter, where droves of people used the hashtag #WeJustWantToBeCounted to show solidarity with transgender rights.

The gesture isn’t purely symbolic. Chung says if the federal government kept a record of the transgender population, it could save lives—and help shape public policy, shift the allocation of funds, and influence how transgender people experience everything from health care to the criminal justice system.

“We talk about violence—why there is such a crisis—but when we count 20 [transgender people] who had their lives taken away, we cannot count how many are alive,” Chung says, referencing a rough estimate of how many transgender people have been murdered in America in 2015. But even that number cannot be verified. “We don’t know how many have not been reported, because dead people cannot tell you their [gender] identity,” Chung adds. The missing link is the data.

The most commonly cited statistic about the transgender population comes from UCLA researcher Gary Gates, who estimated in 2011 that transgender people account for about 0.3 percent of the U.S. population, or roughly 700,000 people. But that number is shaky, and even Gates himself, a scholar at The Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy, acknowledges as much. In a July interview with the data-oriented news organization FiveThirtyEight, he said the estimate—which was derived from one survey in Massachusetts and another in California—has “substantial limitations.” His recommendation for more reliable data? A nationwide survey.

Naomi Evangelista, a spokesperson for the U.S. Census Bureau, says the government has no plans to begin tracking gender identity in the 2020 Census or the American Community Survey. She directed TakePart to an official statement that reads, in part, “Decisions on new content are reached through careful consideration and public input and linked to a federal, legislative, or programmatic need for the data.”

Census Bureau surveys are amended often, with questions added and substracted. In 2013, its American Community Survey began tracking both married and unmarried same-sex couples for the first time. The data was used to analyze geographic, demographic, and economic differences between the two groups, as compared with the general population. That same year, the National Health Interview Survey, which is run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also collected information based on sexual orientation and found that 1.6 percent of the U.S. population identified as gay or lesbian, 0.7 percent identified as bisexual, and about 1 percent either declined to answer, were unsure, or identified as “something else.” The data was used to assess Americans’ health behaviors and risks in relation to their sexual orientation.

But federal data based on gender identity remains elusive. That’s why, in 2010—before Laverne Cox became a TV star and helped draw attention to the issue—the National LGBTQ Task Force launched “Queer the Census,” a grassroots campaign and petition aimed at counting LGBT people in the U.S. Census. Organizers distributed pink stickers that allowed Americans to identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Participants were encouraged to enclose the stickers along with their census forms as a not-so-subtle hint to the government to acknowledge and collect data on the LGBT population.

In the years since, celebrity advocates like Cox have helped elevate the issue into the mainstream media. Now, Chung says, Washington needs to step up to meet public demand. “That’s what we’re really facing now, is we have a lot of great champions trying to advance the rights of transgender people, but if we continue to be invisible, then we are really arguing against ourselves,” she says. “Only the government can give us that legitimization.”