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Census Bureau to Add Sexual Orientation Question to Marketing Survey

The U.S. Census Bureau reversed a previous decision to exclude a question on sexual orientation from a marketing survey
Image: National Census Building
National Census Building in Suitland, Maryland on April 13, 2011.Jeffrey MacMillan / The Washington Post file - Getty Images

Following an outcry from LGBTQ advocates and its own advisers, the U.S. Census Bureau will include a question about sexual orientation on at least one of its more than 130 surveys: the Census Barriers, Attitudes and Motivators Survey (CBAMS).

According to meeting minutes obtained by NPR, members of the Census Bureau's National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations voiced concerns late last month over a proposal to exclude a sexual orientation question from the CBAMS. The survey's goal is to help the bureau market to "hard-to-count" populations to get them to participate in the 2020 Census.

The push to add sexual orientation questions to Census Bureau surveys began under the Obama administration, but in March, the bureau concluded that there was "no federal data need" to ask about sexual orientation or gender identity. This conclusion was reached despite calls from LGBTQ advocacy groups who said data collection helps in distributing federal resources to their communities.

One advocacy group, the LGBTQ Task Force, launched a campaign in 2009 encouraging lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to place "Queer the Census" stickers on their survey packets.

"The census allocates more than $400 billion every year based on what the government knows about communities from the census," the LGBTQ Task Force website states. "This is why the Task Force, through the New Beginning Initiative, has made data collection a top priority."

LGBTQ Americans have never been included in the U.S. Census (officially titled the Decennial Census of Population and Housing) or the American Community Survey (ACS), which is the nation's largest household survey. However, drafts of both surveys released in March did include a question about sexual orientation and gender identity. These were quickly retracted, and the inclusion of the questions was attributed to a mistake.

"The Subjects Planned for the 2020 Census and American Community Survey report released today inadvertently listed sexual orientation and gender identity as a proposed topic in the appendix," the U.S. Census Bureau said in a statement to NBC News at the time. "This topic is not being proposed to Congress for the 2020 Census or American Community Survey. The report has been corrected."

When asked for comment on the bureau's decision to include a question about sexual orientation in the marketing survey, NBC News was directed to a statement on the bureau's website.

"The U.S. Census Bureau continues to research and plan communications and outreach strategies to maximize response and participation in the 2020 Census. Similar to preparations for the 2010 Census, we will again conduct the Census Barriers, Attitudes, and Motivators Survey (CBAMS) designed to better understand the mindsets related to census participation across demographics subgroups, including the lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) population," the statement read.

"The question on sexual orientation remains a part of the initial set of proposed survey questions. Given the sample size of the CBAMS, the expected response rate, and the percentage of the U.S. population that is LGB, we would expect the survey to yield a sufficient amount of data upon which to make statistical inferences," the statement continued.

Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, said the U.S. Census Bureau's decision to include a sexual orientation question on one of its surveys is proof that "public pressure on the Trump administration works."

"It was messages from the members of the National LGBTQ Task Force and our partner organizations that compelled the Census Bureau to reverse their appalling decision to stop counting us," Carey said in a statement.

"We also will continue to push them to collect data about gender identity," Rea added. "Data about the LGBTQ community is absolutely crucial to ensuring that we are distributed the resources we need, that we are represented, and that the most vulnerable in our community are protected.”