Privacy and the 2010 Census: Count Me In

By Masen Davis, Executive Director
Transgender Law Center

Starting Saturday, May 1, a small army of Census workers will begin walking door to door throughout America.  While 7 out of 10 households already have mailed their forms back, that still means millions more of us will hear a knock on the door to ask for our completed 2010 Census forms.

For lots of us who really dislike most uninvited intrusions – from telemarketers to phone surveys to junk mail and occasional traveling sales folks who come to the door – having a Census worker show up is as welcome as a cold sore.

For transgender citizens, having a government worker show up at our doorstep can feed deep-seated anxieties about privacy and safety.  Every day in my work at the Transgender Law Center, we deal with these challenges to our identity, and to our health and our well-being.  We also talk with transgender clients honestly and sensitively about the potential risks and rewards of coming out to employers and within other institutions, including various layers of government.  Being cautious about our histories and identities is second nature given the many ways we can be stigmatized, discriminated against or even put in harm’s way.

We all know that the federal government captures a great deal of personal information from all of us, including transgender people, through tax forms and identity documents, for instance. For transgender people, it can be anxiety-producing to have public records that could reveal our private transitions. Imagine the feeling, for example,  of a trans person whose employers receive “gender no-match” letters that inadvertently make public our personal medical information that are protected for all others under HIPPA laws. It is no wonder that privacy and safety are paramount for many of us.

Others therefore have asked my advice and expressed their concerns about the confidentiality of our census data.  They are seeking iron-clad guarantees that our government cannot use or share the information with others in any ways that can harm us.

I can’t make personal decisions for any one else, but I sincerely hope you will take part as I did in the 2010 Census.  And I am very glad I did because I am confident the Census has real privacy guarantees under law, and I know how important census data is to my local community.

My own answers, and yours, truly are private and are protected by federal law (Title 13 of the U.S. Code, Section 9 to be specific.)  It is illegal for the Census Bureau and its employees to share our personal information with any other government agency – not law enforcement, the IRS, any public assistance authorities, immigration services, and so on.  No court of law, not even the President of the United States, can access our individual responses, and no provisions of the Patriot Act touch Census data.

Moreover, every Census Bureau employee must pass a background check before being hired and must swear an oath to protect the confidentiality of Census responses.  This is an oath for life, and any employee who reveals any personal Census information is subject to severe penalties – including a fine of up to $250,000, imprisonment of up to five years, or both.

What are the upsides?  By answering 10 simple questions, you will directly affect your rightful voice in Congress and help your community get its share of more than $400 billion per year in federal funds to help with needs like job training, education, social services and infrastructure.  These benefits matter to all of us – especially given the economic marginalization of a disproportionate number of transgender people

For all LGBT households, we have received unprecedented outreach from the U.S. Census Bureau to ensure we are wanted and welcomed in this year’s count.  For example, same-sex couples are encouraged to self-identify as they see themselves – whether as married couples or as unmarried adult partners.  For the first time in history, our community’s same-sex married couples will be counted.

And for transgender people, on the Census form we select our gender as we truly see ourselves and how we live our own lives every day.  The Census doesn’t define us, we define ourselves. Personally, I hope to be able to identify myself as a transgender man on my Census form someday. In the meantime, I am heartened to know that my identity as a man, regardless of my transgender status, will be recorded and respected.

If you find yourself still waffling or just worried, please know that you are not alone.  When and if you have someone come to your door to ask for your completed 2010 Census, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • First, your answers are absolutely private and protected under Federal law.  It is illegal for the Census or anyone to share your personal information with anyone else or any other government agency under the penalty of fines and even prison.
  • Second, when someone knocks, ask for official Census identification, which a representative will display around their neck in plain view.
  • Finally, Census takers will visit local homes up to 3 times and make up to 3 phone calls to record information for this year’s Census.  If there is no answer, the Census taker leaves a door hanger, featuring a phone number – to allow you to call the number to schedule a visit when most convenient.

Keep in mind that if – for any reason – you have reason to worry that the census taker at your door may not be authorized by the Census, feel free to call your Regional Census Center to confirm their employment by the Census Bureau.  For all relevant Census phone numbers, please visit:  http://2010.census.gov/2010census/contact/index.php

Responding to the Census also is required under federal law, and it is in fact, mandated by the U.S. Constitution.  For years, many of us in the broad LGBT community have fought injustice and inequality by standing up for ourselves and by being visible.  Coming out is a first step in terms of acceptance and inclusion, and the best way that unfair barriers in workplace and other forms of discrimination will fall.

The Census is not yet a perfect way to count all of us, but it is an important start.  It is now, and it will long be, the gold standard in helping define truthfully who we are as American people.  Lesbians and gay men, bisexuals and transgender Americans deserve to be counted – and to be confident of our personal privacy in doing so.

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Masen Davis has been an activist in the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality since 1990. He currently serves as Executive Director of the Transgender Law Center (www.transgenderlawcenter.org), a civil rights organization advocating for transgender communities. His experience includes advocating for survivors of violence; fostering leadership development programs for transgender communities; and leading grassroots advocacy organizations. A social worker by training, his writing has been published in various publications, including Sexual Orientation and Gender Expression in Social Work Practice: Working with Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender People and New Directors in Student Services. His work on behalf of transgender equality has earned him awards from the National Association of Social Workers, International Foundation for Gender Education, Christopher Street West, and UCLA.

Here, in his own words, Masen Davis, talks about the 2010 Census:
http://2010.census.gov/mediacenter/testimonials/84-testimonials-partners-4/transgender-law-ctr.php

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