PROVINCETOWN — With the counting stage of the 2020 census having drawn to its abrupt close, the Census Bureau’s next step is to release its final report, which will contain a wealth of demographic data about the U.S. population. There is one set of data, however, that the report will not contain: detailed information on America’s LGBTQ population.
The census has been asking questions about respondents’ age, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and marital status for decades. The census does collect some information on same-sex couples — but it records only the numbers on people who report being in a same-sex marriage. There is no question on the form about sexual orientation or gender identity.
As data analysis becomes an increasingly important element of the legislative process, advocates for LGBTQ rights say the lack of good data is an issue. As it stands, said Sasha Goodfriend, chair of the Mass. Commission on LGBTQ Youth, “we definitely don’t have enough data sources to be able to do our work as comprehensively as we wish we could.”
State Sen. Julian Cyr of Truro agreed. When it comes to legislation affecting LGBTQ people, he said, better data would “allow us to make a whole host of better-informed policymaking decisions, particularly as it relates to a vulnerable population.”
In the most recent 2019-2020 legislative session, 18 bills relevant to LGBTQ issues were filed in the state senate. Cyr introduced two of them, with data as a primary motivator. He proposed the first (S. 1237, “An act relative to HIV prevention access for young adults”) because he had data — surveys showed exceptionally high danger of HIV transmission in LGBTQ youth. The second Cyr bill (S. 905, “An act to collect data on LGBTQI prisoners held in restrictive housing”) calls for gathering information needed to address issues faced by LGBTQ people who are incarcerated.
One notable source of data advocates in the state currently rely on is the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a national survey administered to high school students in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and the Mass. Dept. of Public Health. But this information says nothing about the adult population.
Researchers at the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law, have been conducting detailed analyses of census data on same-sex households since 1990. They release their findings in the form of “snapshots” that visualize the relative population of same-sex couples at the national, state, and local level.
After the 2010 census, the Institute reported that Provincetown had the nation’s highest occurrence of same-sex cohabitating couples, with 163 same-sex couples per 1,000 households. The statistic led the LGBTQ news magazine, the Advocate, to proclaim Provincetown the “gayest city in America.”
Lost in translation was the fact that the statisticians arrive at their findings by using census data to count similar-age people of the same sex living in the same household as same-sex couples. Then, they adjust the number downward in hopes of making up for the fact that not all those who live together are in fact couples.
In the end, the data the Williams Institute releases appear to account for only about one-fifth of America’s total LGBTQ population. Their 2010 Census Snapshot found that there were 646,464 same-sex couples in the country, which is only about 0.42 percent of the American populace. That total falls well below virtually all research-based estimates for the national LGBTQ population.
Kerith J. Conron, research director at the Williams Institute, said, “We spend a lot of time at the Williams Institute trying to provide basic demographic information about LGBTQ people that we should be able to find from the Census Bureau.”