Bay Area census efforts focus on LGBT households

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday January 29, 2020
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During a news conference earlier this month at San Francisco City Hall, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi talked about the importance of people completing the 2020 census, which starts in March. Photo: Rick Gerharter
During a news conference earlier this month at San Francisco City Hall, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi talked about the importance of people completing the 2020 census, which starts in March. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Around the Bay Area local leaders are focused on ensuring LGBT households fill out the 2020 census. In San Francisco, the Office of Transgender Initiatives is spearheading the city's outreach to its LGBT residents, while Alameda County is coordinating its efforts through a special LGBT subcommittee that has been advising its Complete Count Committee.

And in Santa Clara County, Raymond "Ray" Mueller, a gay man employed by the U.S. Census Bureau as a partnership specialist and team lead, has been working with LGBT groups in the South Bay as part of his regional office's efforts to reach hard to count communities. For instance, he had a table at last year's Silicon Valley Pride event to spread the word about the decennial census count and how it will, for the first time, allow same-sex couples to clearly mark their relationship.

The options on the 2010 census form for explaining the relationship of a couple living in the same household were the generic terms "husband or wife" or "unmarried partner." The 2020 census forms now include the options "same-sex husband/wife/spouse" or "same-sex unmarried partner."

"We made it to the form," said Mueller, who also worked on the 2010 census in a similar capacity. "I do find many people, not just LGBTQ but across the community, are very surprised to learn that. Those who use data are excited. It is an entirely new data set we never had before."

To educate people about the change, Mueller has handed out fliers featuring photos of either male or female couples with the tagline "Love can shape your future." The materials explain that this year's census provides people with the option to identify their relationship as being same-sex, thus "informing community planning for families and providing vital statistics to advocates and policymakers who work on LGBTQ+ issues."

Billions of dollars at stake

With billions of federal funding at stake and California at risk of seeing its congressional representation diminish, state and local leaders are determined to have as complete a count of the Golden State's population as possible. Not only is the census data used to allocate House seats to the states, it also determines funding for myriad social services, from food stamps and Medicaid to Section 8 housing vouchers and community health centers.

Earlier this month Mayor London Breed and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) launched SF Counts, San Francisco's Census 2020 Campaign, and held a news conference at City Hall to stress the importance of having every resident take part in the census. Anyone living in San Francisco, whether they are a U.S. citizen or an undocumented immigrant, who doesn't fill out a census form will cost the city $2,000 per year for the next 10 years, according to the mayor's office.

"The census impacts our economic and political future and helps make sure we get our fair share of federal dollars, which helps us support our community and provide everything from housing and health care, to senior centers, schools, and meal programs," stressed Breed.

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, the lone LGBT member on the Board of Supervisors, told the Bay Area Reporter he believes that more attention needs to be brought to how critical the census is for the city's coffers, especially as City Hall grapples with projected budget deficits in the coming years and continues to see cuts in federal HIV prevention funds.

"It is terribly important that everybody in California, particularly marginalized communities, get counted," said Mandelman. "I think it has been flying a little under the radar. I don't think it is front of mind for people, that's why it is important for us to talk about it."

Mandelman will be taking part in a roundtable discussion about the 2020 census with other local LGBT leaders Friday, January 31, at the Commonwealth Club for its LGBT-focused program "The Michelle Meow Show." Also expected to take part is Clair Farley, a senior adviser to Breed who is also the director of the transgender initiatives office.

Her staff is coordinating with the city's Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs on the local census count push. The SF Counts campaign is being funded through an investment of $2.5 million from the city's General Fund and a grant from the state of California.

The Commonwealth program is serving as the launch of the city's LGBT census outreach, Farley told the B.A.R. Another event is being planned for March where people will be able to complete their census on site, she said.

East Bay efforts

In the East Bay the Alameda County, Complete Count Committee, Census 2020 for the first time created a special subcommittee focused on its LGBT community. It met three times in 2019 to map out a strategy for how to engage with LGBT residents throughout the sprawling county.

"It was important because we acknowledge LGBTQ community members are a large part of our community," said Casey Farmer, a straight ally who is executive director of the Alameda County count committee.

Farmer told the B.A.R. that every person in Alameda County who fills out the census results in $1,000 per year to fund various services. Thus, each person not counted means a loss of $10,000 over a 10-year span in federal funding for the county, she noted.

"If we are undercounted we lose our resources for the community," said Farmer. "It is important people recognize in just the 10 to 15 minutes it takes to fill out the census they hold a lot of power."

A flier that was distributed at last year's Silicon Valley Pride explains that same-sex couples can be counted in the 2020 census. Photo: Census 2020  

A form of protest
For LGBT people in particular, filling out their 2020 census forms is also being pitched as a way to protest against the Trump administration's rollback of federal LGBT rights and protections. During the Obama administration, a working group of federal agencies had been looking at including questions about sexual orientation and gender identity on the 2020 census form as had been done with numerous federal surveys.

But the final decision was left up to the administration of Obama's successor. And in March 2017, nearly two months after President Donald Trump took office, the U.S. Census Bureau confirmed the forms would not include SOGI questions, causing an uproar among LGBT groups and federal lawmakers supportive of seeing the census collect SOGI data.

Since then, LGBT groups and advocates have been using the hashtag #WillBeCounted on social media platforms to drum up awareness about the importance of taking part in the census despite the lack of the SOGI questions. It is especially critical in California, where for the first time in the state's history it could lose a House seat in Congress because the state's population is no longer growing as fast as several Western and Southern states that are expected to pick up House seats next year.

Despite the lack of SOGI questions for LGBT individuals, there does not appear to be a concerted effort to depress LGBT participation in the 2020 census, according to half a dozen LGBT leaders the B.A.R. spoke to about this year's count. Rather, there seems to be a broad recognition within the LGBT community of the critical importance for filling out this year's form.

"We need to be counted as a community. We need to know we exist," said Miguel Bustos, a gay San Francisco resident who serves on the California Complete Count Committee and is the senior director of the Center for Social Justice at Glide SF.

For the first time people will be able to take part in the census online, and the website is expected to go live March 12. Households will be mailed census forms and asked to return the printed forms by April 15 if they do not want to fill out the online form.
The census forms cover everyone living in the household. People should not mail in a printed form if they completed an online census for their household.

Those that don't take part in the census by mid-April should expect a knock on their door from census workers beginning in May asking them to fill out the form. The last day for people to turn in their census forms and be counted is July 31.

Equality California, the statewide LGBT advocacy group, on its website is asking people to pledge that they will fill out their census forms this spring. "Thank you for taking the pledge and letting the Trump-Pence administration know we #WillBeCounted!" states a note that pops up on the screen of those who fill out the online form.

As the B.A.R. reported online Wednesday, January 22, EQCA that day began running ads on Facebook and the hookup app Grindr to encourage people to sign the pledge. It is part of a $1 million campaign the agency is undertaking this year to ensure LGBT people fill out the census.

"The 2020 census is nothing less than a fight for our future — a future that values diversity and invests in the communities that need it most," stated Equality California Institute Executive Director Rick Zbur. "Too often, California's diverse LGBTQ community is undercounted — which denies us power, representation and funding for programs that the most vulnerable members of our community need to survive. There's far too much at stake to allow that to happen in 2020. LGBTQ Californians will be counted."

The bulk of the money came from a grant EQCA received from the California Complete Count Office, which is overseeing the state's 2020 census efforts. It also received funding from the California Community Foundation specifically for outreach efforts in Los Angeles County and from the California Wellness Foundation for its statewide efforts.

"Right now we are just asking people to pledge to complete the census. In March, we will be doing follow up outreach to people to remind them to fill out the census," said EQCA spokesman Samuel Garrett-Pate.

EQCA has been working with a coalition of LGBT groups around the state to prepare for this year's census. A major awareness drive was conducted last year at Pride events across the Golden State.

Amanda McAllister-Wallner, director of the California LGBTQ Health and Human Services Network, told the Bay Area Reporter that the census campaign generated overwhelmingly positive reactions.

"I think people were both receptive to the idea of being counted and that this is important for these services that are important to me and the community," said McAllister-Wallner, adding that the Trump administration's attempts not to count LGBT people in various government surveys also registered. "They are attacking you at the federal level constantly and this is an opportunity to fight back and demand I will be counted in the census. It is a way for people to say, 'You can't erase me. You can't erase my community.'"

Some options for trans people
The decennial count of the nation's population will fall short in terms of collecting exact data on the number of LGBT residents, since the 2020 census will not be asking people to specify if they identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. In terms of a person's gender, the only choice one can select is either male or female.

Nonetheless, transgender individuals who have not legally changed their gender can select the option they identify with and do not have to select the gender they were assigned at birth.

"The gender question was concerning to some members of the community who felt the male and female binary were not inclusive of who they were as individuals," said Farmer.

People do have the option of not answering the gender question on their census form, she noted. And she said that federal census officials had advised them that those filling out the census online should be able to skip that question.

"You can leave the gender question blank and your census still will be counted," she noted.

Nor do transgender or nonbinary people need to use their given name at birth, added Farmer. People can write down the name they currently use on their census form even if they have not legally changed it for use on their identification, such as a passport or driver's license.

"One thing to note is the U.S. Census Bureau does not verify your name with any other data source," explained Farmer. "It wouldn't be an error if you wrote down the name by which you identify. That has been easing people's concerns, it resonates with transgender individuals."

Mueller confirmed that the census bureau relies on people to answer the forms in a manner that is accurate for them and that leaving a question blank will not invalidate their census form.

"We ask all residents to self-identify in each question. An individual is asked to mark the gender that they most closely identify with. We do not ask for documentation of name, sex, or any other item we gather on the decennial census," he explained. "If a question is not fully answered, the person can skip it online, but they may get a phone call or follow up visit to complete a questionnaire."

The 2020 census discussion for the Commonwealth's "The Michelle Meow Show" will take place at 6 p.m. Friday, January 31, at 110 The Embarcadero along the waterfront in downtown San Francisco. The cost to attend is $10 for members, $5 for nonmembers, and $5 for students with valid I.D.
People can register for free using the promo code "meowaccess" at