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Why Won’t The Census Ask About Sexual Orientation?

For years, advocates for LGBTQ rights have pushed the federal government to collect better data on their community — data they believe could help them fight discrimination, improve government programs and increase their political influence. So there was a mix of excitement and confusion Tuesday when a single line buried at the end of an obscure report seemed to suggest that the Census Bureau planned to begin asking about sexual orientation and gender identity for the first time.

Hours later, the line disappeared from the report, leaving only the confusion: Why was the line there to begin with and why was it deleted? Some groups saw evidence of political interference from the White House. “The Trump administration has taken yet another step to deny LGBTQ people freedom, justice and equity, by choosing to exclude us from the 2020 Census and American Community Survey,” the National LGBTQ Task Force, an advocacy group, said in a press release Tuesday evening.

The Census Bureau says it never planned to ask about gender identity or sexual orientation and that the since-deleted line in the report was included by mistake. Several census experts said they doubted the census had been close to adding questions on those topics in any case — regardless of who was in the Oval Office — although they also said it is possible Trump’s administration could make such additions less likely in the future. The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

But whether or not Trump or his advisers played a role in this particular decision (we still don’t know), there is evidence that the new administration plans to pull back on recent efforts by government agencies to collect more data on the gay, lesbian and transgender population. And there are larger questions about Trump’s commitment to accurate, independent data collection; he and his advisers have repeatedly questioned government economic statistics, for example, and the preliminary budget released this month included far less funding for the Census Bureau than many experts consider necessary for an accurate population count.

The decision not to include new questions on orientation or identity “certainly could be viewed as part of a broader attack” on the collection of data on LGBTQ people, said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant and former congressional staffer who follows census issues.

The document released online on Tuesday was a list of subjects that the government plans to include in the 2020 decennial census and the annual American Community Survey. Most of the proposals, which were submitted to Congress as part of a legally mandated process, were unchanged from past years: The census, the constitutionally mandated effort to count everyone living in the country, will ask about only a handful of core demographic topics such as age, sex and race. The American Community Survey, the mandatory survey sent to about 3.5 million households each year, will ask about a wider range of issues such as income, education, disability status and citizenship.

LGBTQ groups had been working with the Census Bureau to explore adding questions on sexual orientation and gender identity, and some of them hoped to see those questions — or at least an update on their status — in the new document. They were disappointed: The subjects weren’t listed in the main report. An appendix at the end, however, presented a table showing the various topics and the years they were first included in the surveys. Near the bottom of the list was “sexual orientation and gender identity”; in place of a year, the table said simply, “proposed.” The line sparked discussion among census watchers and attracted some media attention; by the afternoon, the document had been updated to remove the item.

In a blog post Wednesday evening, Census Bureau Director John Thompson, who has led the bureau since 2013, wrote that the line in the appendix had been included “due to an error.” In a subsequent email to me, a census spokeswoman said the bureau had explored adding questions on orientation and identity, and that as part of that process a “working copy of the report had a section” on those subjects. “That section of the report was removed prior to publication, but was inadvertently left in the appendix,” the email continued. The bureau did not respond to a follow-up email asking when the section was removed.

LGBTQ advocates weren’t reassured by that explanation. “The only reasonable conclusion is they’re getting some direction from the White House,” said Meghan Maury of the National LGBTQ Task Force.

Other experts, however, said they doubted the bureau would have been ready to include questions on orientation and identity in the 2020 census even under a different president. Gary Gates, a demographer who has long advocated for collecting better data on the LGBTQ population, said adding questions to the census or ACS requires an extensive vetting and testing process that usually takes years. And Gates, who served on the Census Bureau’s scientific advisory committee until last year, said the bureau is especially wary of adding potentially controversial questions at a time when its surveys are already under political scrutiny from some Republicans in Congress.

“I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that there was never a plan to add sexual orientation or gender identity to the 2020 census,” Gates said. “That just wasn’t happening. It wasn’t even being considered.”

But Gates and other researchers said they thought the bureau had been moving toward including such questions in the future, and they said they worried that such progress will now slow or stop under Trump. The administration has already taken steps to remove questions about sexual orientation from two lower-profile government surveys.

“You pair these things together and it starts to suggest this trend of the administration trying to make invisible the LGBT population,” said Laura Durso, a researcher on LGBT issues at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

In his blog post Wednesday, Thompson wrote that a Census Bureau review “concluded there was no federal data need to change the planned census and ACS subjects.” But Durso said the government needs information on the LGBT population in order to identify discrimination and allocate funds for programs. And Thompson’s blog post noted that last April, more than 75 members of Congress, including a few Republicans, wrote to the bureau asking it to include questions about orientation and identity on the ACS; in June, then-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro made a similar request.

The data matters to advocacy groups for another, related reason: political clout. Groups that represent seniors, for example, can use census data to show representatives in Congress how many of their constituents are seniors. Without data on orientation or sexuality, LGBT groups can’t do the same. But Durso said there are also less practical reasons LGBT people want the questions added.

“I do think there’s value in seeing the federal government recognize your community,” Durso said. “In this very nerdy but I think very meaningful way, it says that you count.”

Ben Casselman was a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.