Political Notes: LGBTQ data expert joins 2030 census advisory panel

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday April 1, 2024
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Nancy Bates, a former researcher at the U.S. Census Bureau, has been appointed to its new advisory panel ahead of the 2030 decennial count. Photo: Courtesy Nancy Bates
Nancy Bates, a former researcher at the U.S. Census Bureau, has been appointed to its new advisory panel ahead of the 2030 decennial count. Photo: Courtesy Nancy Bates

An expert on LGBTQ data collection has joined a committee tasked with advising the U.S. Census Bureau on its decennial count of the country's population in 2030. One topic Nancy Bates plans to advocate for is the inclusion of questions to determine how many people living in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ.

The U.S. Census Bureau announced March 26 that Bates was among 23 people appointed to its new 2030 Census Advisory Committee. A lesbian who lives in Washington, D.C., Bates is a former senior methodologist and statistician with the federal agency.

She spent three decades working for the census bureau and was its senior methodologist for survey research when she retired in 2020. The American Association for Public Opinion Research, of which Bates has been a member since 1988, had nominated her to serve on the advisory panel for the 2030 count.

Speaking by phone with the Bay Area Reporter last week, Bates noted that part of her job at the bureau was to staff its census advisory committees. Thus, she joins it with a vast amount of institutional knowledge about its inner workings and how it is supposed to operate.

"I will be able to provide input on methodological issues," said Bates. "Being a member of the LGBTQ community, I certainly won't refrain from providing my expertise in that area, not only being a member of the community but in my professional capacity."

For decades there has been a push to see the census collect sexual orientation and gender identity demographic data, known as SOGI for short. Without such information collected, there is no precise national data about how many LGBTQ people reside in the U.S.

What statistics are known come from polling and surveys done by various federal agencies and outside groups. But they are scientific estimates and not hard numbers.

For instance, the Williams Institute, a national LGBTQ+ population data research group based at UCLA School of Law, estimated in 2023 there were more than 13.9 million LGBTQ+ adults living in the U.S., accounting for 5.5% of the population.

It based its numbers off of national health data collected in 2020 and 2021. Gallup last month reported 7.6% of U.S. adults now identify as other than heterosexual based on a survey it conducted with 12,000 Americans aged 18 and older.

"Absolutely, I would love for both sexual orientation and gender identity to be added to the census data collections," said Bates, noting that such questions have been added to some surveys conducted by the bureau as well as other federal agencies.

Years of research experience

Bates has spent years working on how best to collect SOGI data and to incorporate such demographic questions onto governmental forms and questionnaires. Her research helped improve how same-sex couples are counted via the decennial census and on the American Community Survey, which the census annually conducts.

Bates also served as co-chair of the research group on SOGI for the Office of Management and Budget and the Federal Committee on Statistical Methodology. She also co-edited a special issue on measuring LGBT populations for the Journal of Official Statistics.

Sean Cahill, Ph.D., a gay man who is the director health policy research at the Fenway Institute in Boston, has long advocated seeing improvements in how LGBTQ health and population data is collected. He noted to the B.A.R. that Bates is "a leading expert on SOGI data collection."

He also credited her for being "a leading figure in research and policymaking who has played a key role in developing and advancing SOGI data collection at the census bureau and within the federal government for many years."

Most recently, Bates co-chaired the National Academy of Science and Medicine consensus panel report "Measuring Sex, Gender Identity, and Sexual Orientation" that was released in 2022. As the Political Notes column reported at the time, the 200-page document included a number of recommendations for how to improve collecting the LGBTQ demographic information.

Tara Becker, who served as a co-chair with Bates on the report, told the B.A.R. she was "very pleased" to learn of her appointment to the census committee.

Bates "was an indispensable leader who was able to bring not only an impressive range of substantive knowledge and expertise to committee deliberations but also a pragmatic understanding of the specific needs and limitations of government agencies that helped ensure that the committee's recommendations were both well-grounded in the research and feasible to implement widely," recalled Becker in an emailed reply.

"I'm confident that she will make equally valuable contributions to the 2030 census," added Becker, currently co-chair of the California Health Interview Survey's Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity working group.

Since leaving the census bureau Bates has served on various ad hoc panels and assisted on various research. She served as consultant on National Institutes of Health grant awarded to Stanford University for research into "identifying, refining, and testing demographic questions to detect and delineate sexual and gender minority populations for populations research," as the census noted in its bio for her.

While seeing SOGI questions on the decennial census forms is important, Bates told the B.A.R. having them on the American Community Survey would be even more valuable since the bureau releases data from it each year rather than in 10-year intervals. It already collects data on same-sex households, similar to the census forms, but doesn't gather individual SOGI data on every person residing in the 295,000 households that receive the ACS each month, or 3.5 million addresses annually in the U.S and Puerto Rico.

"It is the gold standard," Bates said of the ACS and the demographic data and other information it gathers on Americans. "If people really want to go in and analyze census data, they are analyzing ACS data."

During Pride Month two years ago President Joe Biden endorsed federal legislation aimed at improving LGBTQ demographic data collection in the U.S. It passed out of the House but stalled in the Senate.

He also issued an executive order to see federal collection of SOGI data be expanded. After soliciting public comment last year census officials are expected to test such questions on the ACS this year.

Bates told the B.A.R. she has some issues with a best practices guide for asking the SOGI questions that the federal government released. Far more preferable would be for the federal government to release standards for asking about SOGI as it does for asking questions about race and ethnicity.

Nonetheless, she said it is far more important that they be added now to the ACS and any issues that do arise can then be addressed.

"Some people are taking to it as if it is the gospel. I don't agree with all of them," said Bates. "But it is better the data is collected, even if the questions are less than optimal, than not at all."

Based on her experience working at the census bureau, Bates said the way new questions are most often added to census forms is due to passage of a law by Congress or at the direction of a president. The Obama administration had reportedly pushed census officials to add SOGI questions to the 2020 census form, but the effort was thwarted when President Donald Trump took office in 2016.

With Trump running this year to return to the White House, he could once again derail any efforts to see the SOGI questions added to the 2030 census. What will be on the forms is usually decided two years prior to the decennial count.

Pointing out she doesn't "have a crystal ball" to predict who will win this year's presidential race and how that will impact the next census, Bates did express alarm about the consequences of Trump being reelected since the planning for it is just being to ramp up.

"Given the track record of the last Trump administration, yes, I would absolutely be concerned," said Bates.

Updated 5/3/24 Nancy Bates's credentials, as the census bureau mistakenly reported she had Ph.D. in her bio for the advisory committee.

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Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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