Census bureau plans testing LGBTQ questions on monthly survey

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday May 1, 2024
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The U.S. Census Bureau announced May 1 that it is soliciting public comment about its intent to begin testing sexual orientation and gender identity questions on its American Community Survey. Image: From U.S. Census Bureau
The U.S. Census Bureau announced May 1 that it is soliciting public comment about its intent to begin testing sexual orientation and gender identity questions on its American Community Survey. Image: From U.S. Census Bureau

The U.S. Census Bureau intends to test sexual orientation and gender identity questions on its American Community Survey beginning this summer and continuing into next year. It is now asking for public comment about the testing of the SOGI questions to the national questionnaire.

The survey, known as the ACS for short, is an ongoing collection by the agency into detailed housing and socioeconomic data. As the census bureau notes, it allows it "to provide timely and relevant housing and socioeconomic statistics, even for low levels of geography."

In a May 1 announcement the census bureau said it was testing the SOGI questions in order "to meet the needs of other federal agencies that have expressed interest in or have identified legal uses for the information, such as enforcing civil rights and equal employment measures."

The wording for the SOGI questions on the ACS can be downloaded from the website of the federal Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within the White House's Office of Management and Budget. Question three on the survey will ask what was a person's sex was assigned at birth, while question four inquires about the person's current gender and includes as options transgender, nonbinary, or a box to write in the term used by the person.

Question 26 will ask about a person's sexual orientation with four different options to mark. The first option is "gay or lesbian." Second is "straight, that is not gay or lesbian." Third is "bisexual," with a fourth option to write in a different term used by the person.

For the hundreds of thousands of households sent the ACS to fill out, one person is asked to respond to the survey on behalf of their entire household. The questions on it are asked about people 15 years of age or older, and the form can be responded to online, by paper questionnaire, or by phone.

In its announcement, the census bureau noted it had "discussions with a variety of stakeholders connected to these topics, data users, other federal agencies, and experts in the fields of survey methodology and statistics informed this proposal. The research will inform recommendations for potentially adding the questions to the ACS."

As the Bay Area Reporter has previously reported, having the ACS collect the LGBTQ demographic data is seen as a step toward adding SOGI questions to the decennial census forms, which will next be sent out to American households in 2030. Work is currently underway on what revisions will be made to the 2030 census forms.

Former census bureau official Nancy Bates, a lesbian who is an expert on SOGI data collection, was named in late March to the 2030 Census Advisory Committee, as the B.A.R.'s online Political Notes column reported. In April, she was named its vice chair.

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 annual ACS.

She 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. Speaking to the B.A.R. in March, Bates had said that having the SOGI questions on the ACS was even more valuable than seeing them on the census forms since the bureau releases data from the survey each year rather than in 10-year intervals.

It already collects data on same-sex households, similar to the census forms, but has yet to 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 had 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."

Asked for comment Wednesday, Bates told the B.A.R. she had yet to see the announcement about the latest development in testing the SOGI questions on the ACS.

After reviewing them, Bates told the B.A.R. May 2 she was pleased to see it includes a separate category for respondents to mark they are nonbinary and also has a line where they can write-in a different term they use other than those listed.

Having people age 15 and older answer the SOGI questions "seems appropriate," Bates wrote in her emailed reply. She was pleased to see the inclusion of "cognitive interview-type" follow-up questions to better understand how people arrive at their answers, such as would they prefer to mark all that apply for their gender identity, and if so, how would that change their answers.

"This test is extremely critical and will move the needle forward on our understanding of SOGI reporting using a single household proxy to report for all members," wrote Bates.

In June 2022, timed to Pride Month, President Joe Biden issued an executive order to see federal collection of LGBTQ demographic data expanded. After soliciting public comment last year about having SOGI questions on the ACS, census officials had been expected to test them this year.

As stated in the Federal Register announcement about their intent to begin doing so this summer, census officials intend to use the information collected in the 2024 ACS SOGI test to evaluate the quality of data the questions generate and if their wording needs to be revised.

"The research will inform recommendations for potential production ACS implementation on question wording and response options, whether a confirmation question is asked of everyone or only of those people with discrepant responses for sex at birth and current gender identity, and the style of write-in boxes to use for internet respondents," according to the notice.

It added that "the data will also be used to produce descriptive statistics on the test topics, assess the impact on other questions on the survey that have changed, and gain insight into terminology by analyzing write-in responses and responses to qualitative questions asked in the test."

It noted that because this is the first time the SOGI questions will be tested on the survey, the data gathered will not be considered official statistics by any federal agency. The results will be used in research reports published on the census bureau's website and are likely to be shared with demographic data professionals and the media.

"All published test results will be statistical products that contain only aggregated data that do not reveal individual responses," noted the announcement.

Written comments and recommendations for the proposed collection of SOGI data should be submitted by May 30 online via the website.

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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