Senators Seek Census Explanation for Dropping LGBT Category

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., is one of the lawmakers requesting documents and an explanation of the decision to drop the “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity” category. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., is one of the lawmakers requesting documents and an explanation of the decision to drop the “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity” category. Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Among the final tasks for departing Census Bureau Director John Thompson will be responding to a letter from two Democratic senators reviving a controversy over the March decision to drop a planned LGBT category on questionnaires for the 2020 count and the periodic American Community Survey.

Sens. Tom Carper, D-Del., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., on Tuesday wrote to Thompson—two weeks after he suddenly announced his resignation effective June 30—requesting documents and an explanation of the decision to drop the “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity” category.

Proposals to add the category had come during the Obama administration from the Justice Department, the Housing and Urban Development Department, the Health and Human Services Department and the Environmental Protection Agency. But on March 7, the senators noted, the Trump Justice Department wrote to cancel the departments' earlier request. 

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“It is critical that the Census Bureau’s process to include subjects to fairly and accurately count all Americans is impartial and free from undue interference,” the senators wrote to Thompson. “Complete Census data is critical to meet a wide range of federal needs—from providing apportionment and redistricting data as part of our representative democracy, to helping distribute more than $400 billion in federal funds annually.”

The initial proposal to include the new category—which was hailed by gay rights groups—was discussed with Senate staff by Census and Office of Management and Budget staff. And the category was actually published in an appendix to a Census report but then removed after the agency characterized it as an error.

Thompson, who did not give reasons for his resignation, defended the decision to drop the category along with the process at the time. Outsiders suggest that he resigned due to tensions over what he viewed as inadequate funding.

The senators want, by June 19, all communications between Census and the five agencies (including the bureau’s parent agency, the Commerce Department) relating to the process by which agencies and Congress make recommendations for changes in the census questionnaires.

David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, told Government Executive that the way the plan to add an LGBT category was canceled “was pretty strange. Somebody made a last-minute decision that was different from the tack it was on, so it’s useful to have Congress look at what happened.”

Solid estimates of the population that is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual or questioning, he said, have been assembled by the Williams Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles law school.  But it is still important to have “an enumeration” because “LGBTQ people are facing all sorts of challenges in their daily lives. Having really accurate data on health care disparities and other issues such as bullying, harassment and violence is really important,” he added. “If there was political interference in these decisions, having that exposed allows us to move forward.”

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