Guest Blogger

Privacy and the 2010 Census: Count Me In

Filed By Guest Blogger | May 01, 2010 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Politics, The Movement
Tags: Census 2010, Masen Davis, Our Families Count, transgender

Editors' Note: 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 theMasen Davis Transgender Law Center, a civil rights organization advocating for transgender communities.

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:

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.

Here, in his own words, Masen Davis, talks about the 2010 Census.

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Thanks for taking this issue on. My concern has always been the same: I've lost at least one, quite possibly two, jobs directly due to gender no-match letters being sent to my employers outing me as a transsexual woman. These letters were sent by the Social Security Administration, despite HIPPA laws that explicitly protect the privacy of personal medical information, because (I believe, but not a lawyer so not sure) of provisions in the Patriot Act requiring it.

Even if we can be confident that the Obama Administration won't use this information against us, can we really be sure the next one won't? If they decide they want to use our personal information to discriminate against us, like the last Administration did, is there really anything to prevent them from doing so? Can't they just write and pass another law to permit it, just like they did in this case?

My biggest problem, Mason, is that your argument requires us to trust that the federal government will respect current law in perpetuity and not do an end run around the privacy protections of census law the same way they did around HIPPA protections last time.

Given the history here, I believe that when you ask transpeople to trust the government not to discriminate against us you're asking us to take a very significant gamble with our personal information on an entity with a long history of misusing that information to our detriment.

I'm sorry, but I'm still not convinced that providing the government one iota of personal information that you don't absolutely have to is anything other than an unreasonable risk and just a really bad idea in general.

I mailed mine in. Simple and it keeps me a law abiding citizen. No need to answer the door that way. Not that I mind answering the door. Its always fun to talk to people who show up in two's with religious books.

Becky, I agree with you. Moreover, how many instances have we had where supposedly secret/classified information suddenly turned up on someone's laptop which was sitting in the front seat of an unlocked car or found in some portable hard drive or storage media?

Masen, I respect your emphasis on the importance of people "coming out" but, unfortunately, the legal infrastructure to prevent discrimination from happening when you do just isn't there. Even anti-discrimination legislation which exists (in the city we both live in) is incredibly "leaky" in protecting trans people from a multitude of possible situations. Moreover, there are many people who aren't out yet to their partners, children, housemates who are going to be very intimidated to "out themselves" to a complete stranger appearing at their door. It's easy to say "come out" when you've already transitioned, have a job and a social structure which supports you.

The decision was made for me by someone I live with, who, knowing I'd have an issue, filled out the form and mailed it back before telling me. My concerns remain as noted above. I think things are and will continue to become increasingly better under Obama, but we have no guarantees about what may come afterward. Information is forever, the Obama Administration is not.

That was supposed to be in reply to Deena, btw...

I attended a LGBT / US Census seminar in Kansas City, Mo in March and we posed a similar question. The answer was very surprising but, so simple: The current census (2010) and questions on it were devised under the Bush Administration (surprise!) as it takes several years for the form to be developed and approved. In other words, it was a conservative administration that approved it. Taking that, unless there is a major swing in power and administration to one that is extreme right, the answer is: Don't worry about it.

@ Rebecca & others...

I got a no match letter @ my last job. I didn't get fired, just cause it happened that I was working in a super-queer friendly environment.

My employer even printed out a copy of my letter for me. NCTE and the civil rights project @ the task force are both looking for people to send them copies of the no-match letters so they have them on hand. Don't worry, they redact any identifying info.

They were especially glad to get mine. They've been trying to talk to the govt for awhile about stopping doing these letters altogether. And I guess they'd been told that they hadn't issued a no-match letter for a couple of years.

Nice try. I got mine in April 09, and now NCTE has a copy in their hands for proof.

If you can get a copy, pass it on to them.

It's way too late for that for me, and besides I never got to see the letters my employers received. I was working for large retail chains and those letter went to the corporate HR departments. I'd get a call at my store from the HR department that led to an uncomfortable conversation. Within a couple of weeks, I'd find myself out of work.

You see, if not for the no-match letter, I could have worked at least one of those jobs for years. The management staff in the store I worked in was 3/4 gay and lesbian and my being trans was no big deal for them. Once corporate became aware of it, though, it was only a matter of time. There was a corporate-ordered layoff of one person, me (I did see that memo).

The problem is that because of "right to work" laws companies don't have to give a reason when they fire you. They simply let you go or lay you off and never rehire you. It's an easy back door for those who want to discriminate in states where there's a law against it. The standard for proving a discrimination case is pretty high, and companies know that most employees won't be able to afford the expense of pursuing it. The deck is totally stacked in favor of big business and against the average worker so it's worth it to these companies to take the risk.

Like many I have paid the price for coming out with my job. A good paying job in an area which is decidedly unfriendly to LGBT persons. I am still unemployed by the way. I feel if I paid the price once for someone finding out about my Trans status, I was not going to pay it again after getting employed somewhere else. So I am pretty much out otherwise and the Census envelope had that big pink sticker on it when it went back. I am not really worried about my safety as much as starving to death. Hopefully ENDA will pass and bring an end to some of the excuses for someone to be dismissed for no other reason except what someone who happens to have a some hangup on how they live their life. I suppsoe I could have sued and possibly got my job back but what is the point? I would just be going back to a toxic work environment, and killing any hope of future employment elsewhere.

SarasNavel | May 2, 2010 6:38 AM

Um, ask any Japanese American whose family was affected by the internments of WWII about the security of confidential census data and you will hear a very different story. You see, just like after 9/11, a law was passed (and repealed five years later, in '47) that allowed the Census data to be used to ferret out future residents of the internment camps.

Detailed analysis:

(specifically, )

"The Second War Powers Act was enacted in March 1942. One section of this law authorized the Secretary of Commerce to provide information to other Government agencies, including micro data collected under a pledge of confidentiality, if the data were needed “for use in connection with the conduct of the war.” The extent to which this provision was actually used has been disputed.

The present paper, based on recent research, provides evidence of specific disclosures made between 1942 and 1947 of micro data collected by the Census Bureau under the confidentiality assurances of Title 13. The examples cited pertain to both businesses and persons, including micro-level information on persons obtained from the 1940 Census. Based on the materials so far located, it appears that Census Bureau staff and management at that time considered such disclosures to be routine."

The Second War Powers Act Text:

I don't particularly want my "confidential" information nor that of my family to be available for even one year. If the last decade or so has taught us anything, it is that there are politicians who, under the guise of God and country, will use almost anyone outside of the fold for their own benefit.

I refuse to assist them in that endeavor in as much as I have the ability to do so.

Some of the enumertators are trans, me for example. I was fired from my job, but this came along and I took it. I have been treated very good by everyone at the census dept, even thought I had to out myself to two people. So if you live in Northern Virginia, plesse open the door and help us out. Hey, it could be me on the other side, and i'm stright friendly.

In the age of the internet, it is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to go stealth.
This is why we need a trans-inclusive ENDA bill passed by Congress. It's also why I support TYFA and their efforts to help children transition so they don't have a lot of records with old information on them.
From what I understand about the Census form, the disadvantage created by not completing the form is greater than by completing it.
I would suggest that transitioning without the aid of an attorney can lead to all kinds of issues. This is one of many details a person need to consider before taking that step.

You can always order a census worker to leave your property or show a court order which they will not have. If they refuse to leave, tell them they are criminally trespassing and call the police and press charges.

This will make things quite interesting.

Anonymous | May 2, 2010 2:08 PM

I am one of the temp US Census workers that go out in the field house-to-house and I just completed the 4-day training program. Our job title is that we are "Enumerators" and the census neighborhood operation is called nationally the "Non-Response Follow-Up" or NRFU.

In our training it was repeated several times how we must handle PII, "Personally Identifiable Information". It must be either on our person, in the custody of another sworn US Census worker, or it must be under lock-and-key. (By the way, the field workers do not access computers at all --- all our work is done and then submitted on paper.)

Our main training manual, the NRFU Enumerator Manual, Form D-547, states on page 8-7:

"Title 13 of the United States Code is the law that guarantees the confidentiality of census information for 72 years ... Title 13 says that information the Census Bureau gathers can be used for statistical purposes only. IT CANNOT BE USED AGAINST ANY INDIVIDUAL BY ANY GOVERNMENT AGENCY." (Emphasis mine.)

That is about as ironclad as any government guarantee can be. While I feel confident that the current government will keep the data confidential, Rebecca is equally correct that this guarantee can be removed by the standard ways to amend laws. And in our post-9/11 era, it is easy to envision a "security emergency" in which the confidentiality of census data is laid aside --- legally or illegally.

While census data is never used to produce no-match letters, the point is virtually moot: I am appalled to read that, in the interest of "national security" the federal government, using other data sources, is sending out no-match letters that often result in transwomen and transmen losing their jobs. In our lobbying for ENDA, every member of Congress ought to be fully informed about this!

Well, I can't send one in because i'm not in the US right now. Maybe in 2020!