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Laverne Cox: Counting LGBT People Is ‘a Matter of Life and Death’

3 minute read

Actress Laverne Cox called on the federal government to formally count her—as well as the rest of America’s LGBT population—in its official population data.

“Misinformation is allowed to be spread about transgender people because we don’t have actual data about who trans people are and our lived experiences,” Cox said Thursday during a news conference on Capitol Hill. “LGBT people exist, we are a vital part of the fabric of this country and we just want to be counted.”

Cox and several Democratic members of Congress had gathered to show their support for the LGBT Data Inclusion Act, which was proposed late last month by Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva. It would require federal surveys, including the census, to ask voluntary questions about Americans’ sexual orientations and gender identities, along with questions that respondents are already being asked about demographics such as race, age and income.

This comes at a time when a federal working group with representatives from 21 agencies, led by the Office of Management and Budget, is researching how to best collect this kind of data, considering issues like privacy concerns and what terminology to use. Some federal departments, such as Veterans Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics are already implementing plans to add such questions to certain questionnaires.

“If you’re not on paper, you’re invisible when it comes to the federal government,” said California Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra. Like Cox and several other members of Congress, he argued that having this information is critical for understanding disparities in areas like health and poverty, as well as for allocating billions of dollars in federal funds to address those disparities.

Several speakers also acknowledged that they had little hope the legislation would be put up for a vote in a Republican-controlled Congress.

“It’s a matter of life and death,” Cox said, noting that a non-government survey had found 41% of transgender people attempt suicide, in part because they feel unwelcome or invisible in society. “On a systemic level we’re often told we don’t exist.”

Though transgender Americans have become more visible than ever, the question of how many Americans are transgender remains unanswered. The most commonly quoted estimate is about 0.3%, or about 970,000 Americans, but that is an educated guess made by researchers at UCLA’s Williams Institute—largely based on two state-level surveys. Studies have estimated that anywhere from 0.1% to 2% of people are transgender, which is the difference between a political constituency of thousands and several million.

The Census Bureau has said there are no plans at this time to add questions about sexual orientation or gender identity to its hallmark survey or the American Community Survey, a longer form accounting of Americans’ lives that some advocates believe is the more important one to update.

Daily tracking by Gallup, which fields a survey to 1,000 Americans each night, has found that an estimated 4% of Americans are LGBT, though demographic experts say that number could be as high as 10%, depending on the wording and parameters of the question.

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