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California and the West

Census Should Include Gay Category, Activists Argue

Population: They demand recognition for their group. But others say they don't want their privacy invaded.

March 07, 2000|SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When it comes to the census, Martin McCombs said, he doesn't count.

Nevertheless, the executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Greater Long Beach will fill out the national survey this month. He and many others also will protest by creating their own demographic category on the form, writing in that they are gay.

"If we need to know how many Laotians live here, we could find out" using the census, McCombs said. "But if we want information on gay men, we'd have to ask them to come" forward.

The protest will go unnoticed because unsolicited responses on the decennial survey will be thrown out. Census 2000, which will use 63 categories to define the nation's racial and ethnic makeup in unprecedented detail, won't shed any new light on its homosexual population.

"We're talking about the ultimate undercount. You are not even on the list," said Gwen Baldwin, executive director of the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center.

The reason is simple: There is no legal justification for counting gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people, census experts say. Only questions with legal triggers, such as those about race that are used to enforce the Federal Voting Rights Act, make it onto the form.

Gay and civil rights officials insist there is a reason, however, because the census is used to shape federal programs and allocate funds.

A gay and lesbian count might even help fight hate crimes, said Jennifer Pizer, managing attorney of the Western regional office of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which works to achieve civil rights for lesbians and gays. "It could help to win passage of antidiscrimination laws if [lawmakers knew how many gay] and lesbian constituents they really have."

At least one organization--the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force--expects to campaign for including a question about sexual orientation on the 2010 form. But federal and state lawmakers approached for interviews were reluctant to discuss the idea.

It's a "nonissue," said state Sen. Ray Haynes, (R-Riverside), who is vying for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate. "What you do in the bedroom has nothing to do with government policy. . . . I don't want to tell people what I do in the bedroom."

Some gays and lesbians also expressed reservations. Among their concerns were undercounts that could be used by gay rights opponents to downplay the community, fear of increased discrimination and mistrust of government.

"We're living in a scary time," said Pizer, adding that her organization has taken no position on the census question. "We can't expect millions of gay and lesbian Americans to come out en masse to make themselves visible and known."

In West Hollywood last week, many gays and lesbians were more interested in why the U.S. government might want to know about their sexual orientations than why the question wasn't on the form.

"You can be discriminated against and from that point of view, it's better we don't get asked," said Monica Taher, 27, a reporter for Adelante magazine who was browsing at A Different Light bookstore on Santa Monica Boulevard. Still, if asked, she would acknowledge her sexual orientation on the form, Taher said.

So would Jim Lopala, 33, of New York City. "We should be recognized," he said.

Canada May Accept Change

It is a sentiment gaining acceptance in Canada, where the Liberal government has begun erasing most legal differences between heterosexual and homosexual couples. Parliament will decide in the coming weeks whether to add more detailed questions on gay and lesbian households to Canada's census forms in time for next year's count, said Rosemary Bender, a Statistics Canada manager in Ottawa. But the U.S. Census may not be the best forum for gay recognition here, said Glenn Magpantay, Democracy Project director for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. "It has nothing to do with who is in society and what people in society look like. It has to do with how many people there are in each area for the purpose of redistricting."

For now, Magpantay and others focus on persuading gays and lesbians to fill out the one category the bureau is tracking: "unmarried partners." The category was added in 1990 to track unmarried heterosexual and homosexual couples who live together. A decade ago, fewer than 150,000 same-sex couples were counted in that category.

Magpantay sent a letter to the Census Bureau in November, urging officials to increase their outreach. Only a few of the 200-plus "partnerships" formed by the regional census bureau with Los Angeles community groups to get out the word about the census are with organizations that serve gays and lesbians.

Only one person formally campaigned to add a question about sexual orientation to this year's census, according to federal officials; Thomas Duane, president of the Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Local Officials organization, wrote the Census Bureau three years ago, requesting that such a question be included.

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