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Suyapa Portillo

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The Census: Learning to Count Decade by Decade

Posted: 03/15/10 01:58 PM ET

One of the glaring omissions in the Census survey is an option for individuals to identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) alongside their race and ethnicity. In fact, LGBT folks can only be identified as LGBT if they are cohabiting couples who identify one partner as a "husband/wife" or "unmarried partner." This has been disappointing to many LGBT community members that are not partnered or if partnered do not live together. Instead of giving up on Census 2010, LGBT Latinas(os) are turning up the heat and promoting participation strongly. In Los Angeles, the Latino Equality Alliance (LEA), an alliance of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community based groups, in collaboration with the Census Bureau and MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund), have taken on the task of promoting LGBT Latina(o) participation in the Census 2010.

It is clear to LGBT Latinos that encouraging participation in the 2010 Census benefits the Latina(o) community in several ways. Accurate counts in the Census promote better representation for communities of color and underrepresented families. Education and media campaigns also encourage marginalized Latina(o) LGBT communities to demand equal treatment from federal institutions. More importantly, demographic information will provide much needed data for underrepresented communities to validate their needs and make claims on their own behalf. Getting counted means that government investment in the community will increase by having proper representation and policy; but it also means that this data can help LGBT communities to make claims about the needs, per population in major cities like Los Angeles, for health and human services and even LGBT organizational support from public and private entities. Demography becomes important to stake claims about what resources are in dire need around the city per community, especially when service disparities exist.

For many years, the constitutional mandate that is the Census has been imbued with many problematic assumptions on categories of race, ethnicity and nationality. In the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement it was used to encourage proper representation of key marginalized communities. Redistricting and representation in the House of Representatives have become important factors in bringing needed investment to poor communities. Based on analyses of the American Community Survey, UCLA's Williams Institute found that of the 84,400 same-sex couples identified in California 24% are Latinas(os). Of these, 71% are of Mexican origin and 15% of Central American origin. Of these couples, the survey found Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual (LGB) people of color reside in communities of their ethnic background rather than "gay friendly" cities like West Hollywood. (Transgender individuals were not surveyed.)

Communities of color are often in peril of losing representation due to redistricting, and this threat can be traced to Census undercount. The undercount itself has many roots, dating back to the past uses of the Census to fuel and justify nativist ideologies, as well as segregation policies. Such precedence has led entire communities to distrust and question the uses of the Census. Another undercount culprit is the diverse household, with documented and undocumented family members under one roof, for whom properly counting their households conjures up fear of government intervention in their immigration situation. Other complex reasons involve the precarious housing situation of immigrants as well as indigent communities, who may also be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. Many people of color simply do not want the government in their living rooms.

Through LEA's activism, education and media mobilization, the Latina(o) LGBT community is also presented with the challenge of making federal institutions, such as the Census Bureau, pay attention to the plight of LGBT people's struggles for resources and demands for equality. LEA's media trainings for leadership and educational workshops provide much needed skills to local Latina(o) LGBT communities and an analysis of the future demands on the Bureau.

"The LGBT community is denied a number of federal civil rights associated with military service, social security, immigration, health and marriage benefits. For those of us with children at home, a Census that recognizes same-sex couples as households is a good first step in highlighting the needs of our community and our families," states LEA Co-chair Ari GutiƩrrez.

Most of the gains Latina(os) have made so far have been in incremental changes that have built upon each other. Taking this same logic, LGBT Latinos are proactively inserting the demands of LGBT folks into a Latina(o) electoral political framework that has been successful in California. Learning to speak proactively, utilizing past successful models and having a vocal coalition is generating a much needed voice for inclusion.

LEA, alongside other LGBT groups, hope that the Census 2010 will bring much needed data that can be tabulated by paying special attention to counting the LGB communities. (Regrettably, transgender communities are not specifically accounted for at this time, while transgender people can select the gender with which they identify.) The data gathered, though limited to live-in partners and married couples, will be incredibly useful in obtaining more tax dollars for much needed health programs and other federal funding for LGB communities and their neighborhoods. Of key importance is the fact that the data and studies thereof educate legislators and the public about the demographic changes and needs of LGB communities. These figures can then get translated into funding sources and allotments for the community specifically.

LEA's commitment and efforts are banking on the future, advocating and catalyzing the Census Bureau to include a question about sexual orientation and gender identity in Census 2020. While the trajectory is not easy, it is necessary for political work. Elected officials in future campaigns will no longer just have to contend with organized LGBT groups, but also Latina(o) LGBT community members and constituents, who will come knocking on their door.

The Census will always be a contentious issue among communities of color. The form itself is controversial for prioritizing biological race, for including or excluding nationality, for challenging ethnic status and misrepresenting mixed individuals and now for its incomplete representation of LGBT individuals. It is problematic to count LGB people only if they are cohabiting; although more and more we are a community of single heads of households, prioritizing coupled LGB people eliminates a significant sector of our communities.

Disapproving people may think including a question about LGBT gender and orientation self-identification is problematic, as an invasion of privacy or an awkward crossing of private and public spheres. To LEA and other progressive LGBT groups in Los Angeles, however, proper LGBT representation in the Census and other public, political spheres is as important and essential as learning to count.

Suyapa Portillo Villeda is a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University's history department and is a visiting fellow at Pomona College. She is the co-founder of Gamba Adisa, a women's collective, working with the Latino Equality Alliance for LGBT social justice.