Thursday, April 15, 2010

Why I Won't Be Queering My Census

I received my Census tonight in the mail. And even before I received it, I had contemplated the question that many politically engaged LGBT people have been contemplating: to queer or not to queer? And I have to say that I fall squarely on the "not to queer" side of the issue.

Let me start off by saying that I think the census questions asking same-sex couples in committed, partnered relationships about their living arrangements are a step in the right direction. I urge all persons in such relationships to fill their Census out honestly and to make sure and include this information when appropriate. But what I cannot endorse is the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's deeply misguided campaign to "queer the Census."

It pains me to publicly state this as I have a lot of admiration for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. In contrast to some LGBT organizations, they seem to have a relatively genuine commitment to serving the needs of bisexuals, trans folk, gender variant persons, LGBT youth, LGBT elders, disabled LGBT persons, and other LGBT subgroups who are often marginalized by mainstream organizations that supposedly exist to meet our needs. And I commend them for their willingness to think outside of the proverbial box when it comes to new ideas to engage our community and further our cause. Nonetheless, for a multitude of reasons, "queering the Census" is a bad one.

For those of you not familiar with this concept, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is urging LGBT people and our allies to affix a hot pink sticker to the front of our census envelopes with the heading on it "ATTN: US Census Bureau: It's Time to Count Everyone!" Below this heading one can check one or more boxes labeled "Gay," "Lesbian," "Bisexual," "Transgender," or "Straight Ally." Beneath these boxes is the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force logo and the statements "Everyone deserves to be counted. It's time to"

There are a number of things that make this concept problematic. It should be obvious that nothing is more likely to invoke unfair but pervasive stereotypes about LGBT people in the minds of wary Census officials than a hot pink sticker with the word "queer" emblazoned on it. But that is still the least of the issues that a reasonable person could take with said sticker.

The categories themselves are problematic and if the content of the sticker is supposed to function as a guide for what the Task Force thinks an ideal question about LGBT identity should look like on a hypothetical future Census form, then a troubling lack of thought has been put into this proposition by the Task Force. Let's go down and list and analyze the terms one by one.

"Gay" - First of all, "gay" is in many ways an umbrella term but in other contexts it has a very specific meaning. "Gay" can be used to refer exclusively to homosexual men, to refer exclusively to homosexual and bisexual men, to refer exclusively to homosexual men and women, to refer exclusively to all LGB people, and as a term to refer to all LGBT people. While all of these uses are highly contested, all of them are a contemporary and/or historical reality. In the context of the Census, would I count as "gay" as a woman? As a bisexual person? Would gay men of a certain era identify with it that may prefer now anachronistic sounding terms like "homosexual"? How about younger men that may prefer "queer"?

"Lesbian" - "Lesbian" is another highly contested term and one that not even all homosexual women identify with. I have heard women that others would most likely identify with the term explain that they disliked it for whatever reason and preferred "gay," "queer," or some other label to describe their sexual orientation. Would anyone that was "lesbian" automatically count as "gay" as well? How about men that may choose to identify as lesbians for cultural reasons? Are they committing Census fraud? (And, yes, this is apparently a real phenomenon, if a pretty rare one.)

"Bisexual" - Along with the "transgender" label this term seems to me to be among the most potentially troublesome. It is important to note that many individuals that express and enact attraction to both men and women strongly dislike this term for a number of reasons. Reasons I have heard expressed for this include the term's debt to the concept of a gender binary, derogatory associations among both gays and heterosexuals, and the term's waning popularity relative to newer labels like "queer," "pansexual," or "fluid." Add into the equation "gay-identified bisexuals" and "lesbian-identified bisexuals" and you have a recipe for mass confusion in counting this population. Additionally, a high number of people may identify as "bisexual" in some contexts but not in others. For instance, they may have engaged in same-sex (or opposite sex) experimentation or experienced same-sex (or opposite sex) attractions without consistently or seriously pursuing a bisexual lifestyle. Such individuals and their identifications would prove an additional gray area in counting America's LGBT population.

"Transgender" - The best definition of the term "transgender" was one I encountered courtesy of Dr. Petra Doan at a panel discussion of employment and housing discrimination issues facing LGBT people. To paraphrase the professor as I understood her remarks, "transgender" is an umbrella term encompassing two spectra: the male to female spectrum and the female to male spectrum. On one end of these spectra, the professor continued, lay those with somewhat gender non-conforming identities. These folks include gender-variant LGB as well as heterosexual persons. Some of these folks may cross dress, engage in drag performances, or exhibit other gender non-conforming characteristics. On the far end of the spectra lay transsexual people who live full time as a member of a sex other than the one assigned to them at birth. Many trans persons also identify with the terms "gay," "lesbian," and/or "bisexual" although not all trans persons will. And, of course, the way individuals use these terms to describe themselves and others vary widely. I have heard of trans men that continue to identify as lesbians even after their transitions, for example. On another note, some people identify intersex people as falling under the transgender banner although not all intersex people embrace this identification with the transgender community. Not all intersex persons are even aware of their condition. Lumping such a diverse population under one vaguely defined umbrella term is obviously not going to be revealing of much of anything and may actually provide misleading pseudo-information.

"Straight Ally" - I cannot imagine the Task Force seriously imagining a category to denote "Straight Ally" on any actual hypothetical future Census. I suppose it is included on this sticker solely to enlist heterosexual, cissexual people who may want to show their support for the program. Nonetheless, on a hypothetical future Census form that asks about sexual orientation and/or gender identity, it is likely that one will be asked to affirm a heterosexual identity if he or she feels it to apply to them. Which leads to more interesting questions. Could a bisexual person, feeling uncomfortable with that term, simply check both "gay" and "heterosexual"? Would any trans persons be allowed to count as heterosexual?

By this time it should be obvious that these terms are almost nonsensical from a demographic perspective. They would prove confusing in this context for LGBT and non-LGBT persons alike. But, even putting aside the truth of this fact, there are deeply philosophical objections to requiring people to denote their sexual orientation and/or gender identity on a government-mandated Census form.

The first of these objections is that gender identity and sexual orientation are much more fluid concepts than we often like to admit. And whatever journeys we take as individuals to arrive at our preferred labels are highly personal and often fraught with confusion and questioning. Many people who later come to identify as gay or lesbian go through periods beforehand of exclusively dating members of the opposite sex. Some people who later come to identify as heterosexual may even go through periods where they identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Many bisexuals in particular have an especially uneasy relationship with labels denoting sexual orientation.(It should be noted that, more often than not, this is not due to a higher than average sense of confusion on the bisexual's part but due to the inadequacy of existing labels to describe our attractions, allegiances, and experiences.) An individual trans person may also go through periods in which they identify as members of one sex, then another, or even outside of the gender binary altogether at different points in time. But when it comes to filling out an official government document that one is required to fill out by law as honestly as he or she can, these factors can causes real problems for LGBT and even heterosexual, cissexual people. In a worst case scenario, they could perhaps even lead the government to prosecute people for "lying" on their Census forms when it comes to these issues.

The second of these objections relates to the second class citizenship our government currently forces on LGBT persons. In the current political climate, it is entirely possible that coming out on our Census forms could be used against us individually and/or as a community. It would seem to me to be deeply inappropriate for our government to deny us the right to form families of our choosing, to serve in our nation's military as openly LGBT persons, and to work, go to school, or seek housing free of harassment and discrimination but force us to out ourselves on our Census forms. It could be especially problematic for rural LGBT persons who may be one of the only LGBT persons or even the only LGBT person in their communities when this demographic data is published, potentially outing them to their communities without their full consent.

Allow me to illustrate one more problematic aspect of this "queer the Census" business with a personal story. In her beautiful book "Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity," writer Julia Serano explains that she has never identified her sex or entered a gendered space in an unselfconscious way in her entire life. And when it comes to sexual orientation, I can relate to her experience. When I first joined Facebook my freshman year of college, I did not check either the male box or the female box to denote "Interested In" because I was not yet comfortable embracing a bisexual identity but did not want to embrace a solely heterosexual identity either, because it felt dishonest. When I later applied to law school my senior year of college, I was in a transitional period regarding how I identified my sexual orientation. I was out as bisexual to only one friend. It was a term I was slowly beginning to feel belonged to me, but I did not yet claim it fully in the sense that I do now.

On one particular law school application I was asked to check a box if I identified as LGBT. There was no opt-out option; no box to check if you just weren't comfortable with the question and preferred not to respond. At this point in my life - when I had yet to date a woman, when I had yet to involve myself to any great extent with the gay community, when I had yet to tell my parents or aunt or most of my friends or to make things public on Facebook - to identify as LGBT seemed to me to be on some level dishonest. Similarly, not to check the box would mean to deny something I knew about myself on a molecular level and to essentially identify myself as heterosexual - a term I have never felt applied to me since I was thirteen years old. So I just didn't apply to that law school.

As members of the LGBT community, it is vital that we insist that no one be forced to come out except on his or her own terms - not on the terms of the government, not on the terms of the LGBT community, not on the terms of a heteronormative society, not on the terms of schools or families or churches or jobs. On terms they set completely for themselves as individuals.

There are many important aspects of our identity - such as religious affiliation - that the U.S. Census Bureau does not ask us about and I venture that sexual orientation and gender identity should be among them. It is entirely possible that, as LGBTI people, we comprise such a diverse rainbow of sexual orientations, gender identities, gender expressions, and physical characteristics that there are no boxes in this world that we can or should be forced to fit into.


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  2. while i agree with the final sentiment that we should not be forced into any box, as a lesbian in a relationship that is nowhere close to legal in any state I would like to call home, I must generally disagree. I slapped that big pink sticker on our census envelope proudly.