The Constitution requires the U.S. Census Bureau to count every resident of the nation, and the Bureau’s mission is to be “the leading source of quality data about the nation’s people and economy.” Indeed, the data that it collects is used to determine everything from Congressional seat distributions to the allocation of funding for community services, including public health and job training initiatives.
But trans rights activist and actress Laverne Cox says that the bureau’s failure to collect gender information speaks volumes about its commitment to that mission. During a Social Good Summit program on the far reaching importance of obtaining an accurate count of all Americans earlier this week, Cox posed—and answered—the following question: “What message are we sending to young people who are trans and gender nonconforming when we don’t even count them? We suggest that their identities don’t even matter.”
Currently, the Census Bureau only collects data on biological sex, pointedly not asking about respondents’ gender identities. The result is that there is no accurate national count of the transgender population. In fact, the LGBTQ demographer behind the currently accepted estimate—which places the trans population at 700,000—actually thinks that the number is flawed, as it’s extrapolated from a very small data set.
Cox also made a connection between the lack of adequate data and the violence that trans people often face, in a year when transgender women of color are being killed at an alarming rate. “I was thinking that visibility is only part of the equation. We must have social policy, systemic change,” she said. “And then I thought about the Census. Systemically, this idea of the gender binary is very much institutionalized in the fact that we just don’t count trans people.”
It’s a view shared by the other panelists, Shelby Chestnut of the Anti-Violence Project and Cecilia Chung of the Transgender Law Center. “If we really do push this Census data collection, we’ll see the systemic issues trans people are facing: housing discrimination, underemployment or employment discrimination, lack of [gender affirming] education,” Chestnut said.
Chung agreed, saying, “In order for any government to do a better job to serve their citizens, they need to know who their citizens are.”