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“Do Tell, Do Ask!”

Davitt Moroney, professor emeritus of music | October 26, 2009

The wording here confused me a little, since I prefer to be optimistic and celebrate any and all advances in LGBT rights rather than to dwell on the never-ending setbacks and litanies against our rights. For clarification: last June, officials of the Census Bureau announced that “married same-sex couples will be counted as such in the 2010 national tally, reversing an earlier decision made under the Bush administration”. Now, last week, we were told: “Statistical problems related to the development of the 2010 census form and the evolving legal state of same-sex relationships led census officials to conclude that trying to include married gay couples in the overall snapshot of household marital status could yield an inaccurate number.” This quotation is from our colleague Gary J. Gates (now a Williams Distinguished Scholar at the UCLA School of Law, who advises the Census Bureau on LGBT issues). So we have an October reversal of the June reversal. (As long as the federal DOMA is still law, it’s hard to see how they could get round it. It should be repealed immediately.) But I think it’s an oversimplification just to see the reversal by comparison with last June. We shouldn’t lose sight of something that is not a reversal, by comparison with the 2000 census.

The positive step, as announced by Associated Press, is this: “in a marked policy departure, the agency plans to make the data on same-sex couples who described themselves as married available on a state-by-state basis.” So although information specifically about legally married same-sex couples won’t appear in the 2010 census results (where these couples will be counted as unmarried), same-sex couples will still have the possibility of identifying ourselves as such on the census forms (even though the federal computers will later unfederate us, and make us single again). And having thus identified ourselves — whether legally married, or domestic partners in California, for example — this information will then become available. This is a step forward. Same-sex couples won’t be there as married in the 2010 census, but we can (and need to) stand up to be counted as same-sex couples.

The June plan sounded great, of course, to count the lucky couples who by quirks of state politics have been able to become legally married. But that plan slightly bothered me, also, because it would not have included committed couples in states that recognize only domestic partnerships or civil partnerships but not same-sex marriages. The statistic about the exact number of legally married same-sex couples would have been the sharp spear-head of the statistic for all same-sex couples in committed, legally recognized relationships. Yet the blunter statistic concerning all committed same-sex couples who stand up to be counted by defining themselves as married (even when their state forces them to use an “everything-but-marriage” term for it) is important in a different way, and it is a larger, more inclusive number.

However, step forward or not, there is a nice irony in all this. Information on same-sex couples will be collected by the census but will not made part of the official report, yet it will nevertheless be made available through the back door. So they are saying “please tell us about being married (legally, or in a civil or domestic partnership, etc), and then please do feel free to ask us for the results privately, because you won’t be getting them in the public report.” Well, maybe that’s how politics works. Maybe we should take this as a clear sign that the writing really is at last on the wall for the concept of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. The new flavor of the month seems to be “Do Tell, Do Ask!”