Straightwashing the Census

55 Pages Posted: 22 Apr 2019

See all articles by Kyle Velte

Kyle Velte

University of Kansas - School of Law

Date Written: March 22, 2019


The Trump Administration’s recent decision to reject proposed sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) questions from the 2020 Census and the American Community Survey — a component of the Census — received widespread attention. Many critics of this decision focused on the symbolic effect of the decision — when one is not counted as a matter of data, one does not count as a matter of morality or humanity. While visibility is important for such symbolic reasons, it is also important as a matter of policy, power, and economic justice.

The U.S. government uses population data to drive policy decisions about the allocation of $675 billion in federal funds, most of which is apportioned to anti-poverty programs. It uses this data to assess the effectiveness of these anti-poverty programs vis-à-vis different demographic groups, including race, ethnicity, and gender. But two population demographics — sexual orientation and gender identity — are not considered when the federal government makes policy decisions or tracks program efficacy, because SOGI is largely absent from government population surveys. This Article examines the “straightwashing” of the census through the “Identity Undercount” — the failure of the state to collect SOGI population data. The Identity Undercount, while counting the literal bodies of LGBT people, erases their lived identity.

For many in the LGBT population, their lived identity and reality is one of poverty and powerlessness, a reality contrary to the widely accepted narrative that the LGBT population is more affluent and powerful than the rest of the population. The limited data that is available demonstrates that LGBT people live in poverty at rates disproportionate to the non-LGBT population and fare more poorly than their non-LGBT counterparts on other measures including health outcomes, homelessness, and employment discrimination.

Because federal and state governments rely on population data to inform a multitude of policy and programmatic decisions, the straightwashing of government data does real harm to LGBT people in poverty. If policymakers cannot see the problems, they cannot craft meaningful policy solutions or modify existing policies to meet the needs of the LGBT population. Because data are tied to resource allocation, the Identity Undercount results in resource deserts — where LGBT people do not get critical and necessary services. As a result, the Article argues that the government should collect SOGI population data and that the near-complete failure to do so makes the state an active participant in creating and sustaining institutionalized poverty for LGBT people.

Keywords: Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, LGBT, Civil Rights, Poverty

Suggested Citation

Velte, Kyle, Straightwashing the Census (March 22, 2019). Available at SSRN: or

Kyle Velte (Contact Author)

University of Kansas - School of Law ( email )

1535 W 15th Street
Room 504
Lawrence, KS 66045
United States
785-864-3577 (Phone)

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