Census eyes August start for LGBTQ questions test

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday May 15, 2024
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Andrew Roberts of the U.S. Census Bureau. Photo: From LinkedIn
Andrew Roberts of the U.S. Census Bureau. Photo: From LinkedIn

The U.S. Census Bureau is eyeing an August start date for testing sexual orientation and gender identity questions on its American Community Survey. It first must await sign off to do so from the White House's Office of Management and Budget.

OMB officials won't make a determination until after the public comment period ends later this month about the planned summer rollout for testing the SOGI questions. Due to President Joe Biden issuing a directive to see better federal collection of LGBTQ demographic data two years ago during Pride Month in June, it is widely expected the presidential office will give its assent by early July.

"Assuming they will approve the test, we will begin the test later this summer. We are looking at starting the test in August," said Elizabeth "Eli" Poehler, the assistant division chief for survey methods in the American Community Survey Office, during a recent joint interview with the Bay Area Reporter and several of her census colleagues.

Known as the ACS for short, the federal questionnaire is sent monthly to 295,000 households in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. It is an ongoing collection of detailed housing and socioeconomic data, which the census bureau notes, allows it "to provide timely and relevant housing and socioeconomic statistics, even for low levels of geography."

The ACS already collects data on same-sex households, similar to the decennial census forms, but has yet to gather individual SOGI data on every person residing at the 3.5 million addresses annually sent the survey to fill out. A decision to permanently include the LGBTQ demographic questions on it would be viewed as a first step toward also adding them to a future census form.

Andrew Roberts, a gay man who is chief of the sex and age statistics branch in the census bureau's population division, stressed that a final decision about having the ACS ask the SOGI questions is still years away. The process for revising what the survey asks takes five years at minimum, he noted.

"I think the first thing I would say is to note this is just a test. Just because we are testing material doesn't guarantee it is going to move forward on to the official questionnaire," said Roberts. "That process to move between testing and implementation is lengthy. We don't have a specific time frame we can give you."

As the B.A.R. first reported online May 1, the census bureau announced that Wednesday the planned testing of the SOGI questions on the ACS 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."

Under the testing proposal the survey's third question would ask what a person's sex was assigned at birth, while question four would inquire about the person's current gender. The answers given as options on the ACS would include transgender and nonbinary, plus there would be a box to write in whatever term used by the person.

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

How the test questions are phrased "is based on extensive research that has been conducted at least as far back as 2016," noted Amy Symens Smith, a senior demographer for sex, age and gender identity in the population division.

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 SOGI questions on it are to be asked about people 15 years of age or older, and the form can be responded to online, by paper questionnaire, or by phone.

Smith acknowledged that children are coming out as LGBTQ even younger than age 15. But they chose that age as the cut off point based on other surveys with SOGI questions also using it and finding it generated higher quality responses.

"We are keeping abreast of surveys in place in the federal system, as well as international practices about collecting information about SOGI. Right now it is decided 15 is the appropriate age for asking about this," she said.

Some concerns

The test is meant to see how people respond to the questions, how they answer them, and if the wording used is confusing or clear-cut to respondents. Some LGBTQ advocates have expressed objections to the phrasing used for the answer choices that will be tested on the form. The option presented for people who are heterosexual, for instance, has been criticized, with gay retired demographer Gary Gates telling the Associated Press earlier this year it is "patently offensive."

Former U.S. Census Bureau official Nancy Bates. Photo: Courtesy Nancy Bates  

Former census bureau official Nancy Bates, a lesbian who is an expert on SOGI data collection, wrote in an email to the B.A.R. May 2 she was pleased to see nonbinary listed as an answer choice and that people would be given the option to write-in whatever term they use for their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Having people age 15 and older answer the SOGI questions "seems appropriate," added Bates. 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, who is vice chair of the 2030 Census Advisory Committee.

Were changes to be made now to the wording of the SOGI questions that will be tested on the ACS, it would require additional public comment and delay the process.

"I think it is fair to say, at this point, it is unlikely we would change those questions. Unless we delayed the test," said Poehler.

Roberts with the census bureau told the B.A.R. that the agency remains in contact with outside experts and advocacy groups focused on LGBTQ populations about how to word the SOGI questions, as they are not set in stone. The wording set to be tested later this year will be evaluated and could evolve over time, he noted.

This part of the test form the U.S. Census Bureau is using for its American Community Survey. Image: Courtesy USCB  

"This is a first step in an iterative process to add this content to the questionnaire. We do have a research agenda that includes potentially testing different iterations or additional topics as funding and resources are made available down the line," he said. "This is the first step in this process. ... Just because the wording is now based on recommendations from OMB and the National Academy of Sciences doesn't mean this will not evolve over time as we are able to do more research."

While being asked about one's sexual orientation or gender identity would seem to require a rather straightforward process, and something LGBTQ individuals are encountering more frequently these days, Roberts noted that the terminology and lingo used in discussing SOGI may not be so easy for others to comprehend. It is imperative that everyone understands what they are being asked when they answer the SOGI questions, he added.

"If someone answers incorrectly, it could have big impacts on the estimates we are putting out," said Roberts. "If people do not answer correctly that could make the data meaningless pretty quickly."

As for seeing SOGI questions on the 2030 census forms, Roberts cautioned it is too soon to know. With the ACS, the census bureau is responding to formal requests from other federal agencies, such as the Department of Justice, to add the LGBTQ content, he said.

"The process for adding content to the 2030 census is different. We are not quite there yet, so we can't comment on the possibility of this content being added to the 2030 census form," said Roberts. "Certainly, it is not out of the question. We are not at the point of discussing that yet."

The wording for the SOGI test questions can be found here.

Written comments and recommendations about the testing of the SOGI questions on the ACS should be submitted by May 30 online via the website.

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