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Why the census matters to queers

Why the census matters to queers

By now, you've probably heard some of the objections to the mandatory long-form census and the questions it asks. Among the list of "intrusive" questions listed by some right-wing commentators, like Niels Veldhuis of the Fraser Institute, was that the census asks one's sexual orientation, which the government "has no business" knowing. He's actually not technically correct about that question, but this objection is important for us to deconstruct.

The question that appears on the 2011 "National Household Survey" only applies to cohabiting couples. The options available for the relationship of Person 2 to Person 1 include opposite-sex husband or wife, opposite-sex common-law partner, or same-sex married spouse, or same-sex common-law partner. That in a way is a roundabout way of asking sexual orientation for cohabiting couples — but it's not going to capture all queer Canadians.

What's significant is that in 2006, the previous census cycle, the relationship question options were husband or wife of Person 1, opposite-sex common-law partner or same-sex common-law partner. The listing for same-sex married spouse was listed at the bottom of the "Other" category.

Egale Canada at the time told same-sex married couples to fill out the "husband or wife of Peron 1" option anyway rather than be treated as second-class citizens. And Statistics Canada said that they would capture that information regardless. But it was an act of resistance that ensured that queer couples were equal not only under the law, but also in status.

There is actually a history of write-in campaigns when it comes to the Canadian census, most significantly in 1991, when the Toronto Star encouraged people to write-in "Canadian" under ethnic group, in order to counter what they saw as the Balkanization of the country. They got a 3.3 percent response rate, but Canadian became a listed option in the 1996 census, which got a 24.1 percent response rate.

This was an example of how a census can help shape national identity, and in the same way, we've been using it to help shape queer identity in Canada. By demanding to be included in the government's count of Canadians, we're showing that we are a visible part of Canadian society.

That's not to say that there wasn't hesitation on the part of the community to be counted. After all, for some, the memories of the RCMP keeping files on suspected homosexuals as "security threats" were still fresh. Nevertheless, in the 2001 census, a significant step was made with 0.5 percent of couples reporting to be same-sex, and more significantly, 15 percent of lesbian and three percent of gay male same-sex couples reported raising children.

That visibility also goes to counter attitudes like Veldhuis', who apparently thinks that being queer is something that should be kept hidden, thank you very much. But keeping quiet and hidden has not helped us advance our rights, and being queer is more than just what you do in the privacy of your bedroom.

Of course, being able to have a quantifiable measure of minorities is likely one of the reasons why Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants to do away with the long-form census. If you don't have reliable data on your population, you can't be pushed to do anything to help them. If queers — or any other minority — can be made invisible in the eyes of the government of the day, then there's no impetus for the government to do anything for them. And we all know that this is a government that professes to want to do away with governing.

So is there a future for write-in campaigns for the queer community with the census — or "National Household Survey," if that's the route that the government ends up taking? Perhaps trans people could write "trans" in under gender if that is how they prefer to be identified rather than as male or female? Or perhaps they could write in their gender identity?

"Definitely," says Egale Canada's executive director Helen Kennedy. Especially given that there is currently no protection for gender identity and gender expression under the Canadian Human Rights Act (NDP MP Bill Siksay's bill on extending those rights will appear in committee this fall), this is one more way of getting trans people counted in Canada.

While it may take lot more thought and consultation before we can capture sexual orientation on the census (given that there are so many ways of self-identifying these days, not to mention all those who "don't believe in labels"), we can at least continue to make these changes that Statistics Canada will capture, so that we can be counted.

Let's just hope that the long-form stays mandatory so that those statistics will actually be valid.

Dale Smith is Xtra's federal politics reporter. Read his blog Hill Queeries every weekday.

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Comments

jim
"I don't believe bisexuals exist at all." -- as my bisexual friend said when someone told her this, "Well, I'm still here." Your belief isn't necessary.
Because...
Jim, as a lesbian, I can sympathize with you: I'll confess that I'm really only mildly interested, if ever, on issues that affect the trans and gay male communities. However, as more and more people are willing to challenge the unwritten (and written) expectations of sexuality and gender, the larger the group, or "community" of non-heterosexual people must expand; I feel that Xtra is simply doing its service to the "community" in reporting on a variety of -- sorry, but I need to use the word here -- queer issues, and a lot of them, frankly, involve trans people. And while I've already admitted that I'm less than passionate about trans issues, it's great that Xtra provides an "official" outlet for their stories, something I've noticed the DOMA and DADT-saturated American queer media doesn't do (though don't take this the wrong way -- DOMA,DADT, etc. rightly take priority). And that may not interest me, but to say Xtra should limit its scope to suit my tastes and what *I* think counts as "queer" is selfish.

PS. I got the impression from your comments that you are an older man, so I can understand how the word "queer" makes you uncomfortable. However, we're taking it back -- the more we use it as a badge of honour, the less our opponents can use it for hurt.

PPS. Remember: drag queens and butch women were all present at Stonewall. ;)
Deconstruct?
Not only "right wing commentators" think that a sexual orientation question on the mandatory census is intrusive! Many people in this country conveniently forget P.E.T's statement that the state has no business in the nation's bedrooms. Rather they would see good decent people go to prison for refusing to answer this sort of question. No amount of " thought and consultation" will convince people to give such personal information to the state. I think the sub text of this question would also include sexual practices. ( What percentage of the female population over 50 engages in anal sex for example - and remember it is mandatory to answer it or you go to prison) Any political party wanting such questions on the mandatory form would face a revolt greater than the anti HST thing in BC. I doubt that even the courts would go with the question.
I'm not queer
This word raises a few issues for me.

I find "queer" to be a hurtful word. I have a strong instinctual dislike of it. Too many people have used the word "queer" hurtfully in my presence over the years. "Gay" has generally not been used in the same context.

Somewhere along the line I vaguely realized that the word "queer" has a certain political meaning for some gays. So when I see that a journalist is using it, I dismiss them as not having a neutral and objective point of view. Perhaps I'm wrong to dismiss them, but you'll notice that it's not a word one would read in the G&M or The Star, for example. I'd like to read serious news reports about gay issues, not biased ones.

The other issue (and I know this is going to be controversial) is that, as a gay man, I don't really care about lesbians or transsexuals. I don't believe bisexuals exist at all. I know lesbians, transsexuals, etc. are an important and welcome part of our community, but why don't they all just realise that our community is mostly made up of gay men and accept that they are just part of that? Everyone I know is a settled, rather dull gay man, so why is there no news outlet that caters to that?

Or to put it in another way: why do I find myself looking for gay news, and end up reading mainly about transsexuals and other issues that are not interesting to me. It just motivates me to turn to the online American gay press, where they tend not to do this. Why is Xtra filled with stories about "trans" people, when surely they only number in the hundreds.

I don't self identify as being "queer" and I don't feel part of a "queer" community. Does this young journalist realise that many gay men like me won't even read an article that has the word "queer" in the headline?
Queer
Jim,

Lots of us in the LGBTTQ2SA community feel that the word gay doesn't capture our sexual and/or gender identities. The word gay has come to mean, almost exclusively, gay male, thus excluding lesbians, bisexual, trans folks who identify as within the queer community, two-spirit people, and those of us who sexually identify as queer. So many prefer to use the term queer because it is more inclusive and more fluid.

Queer in recent years (since about the mid-1990s) has continued to gain wider and wider use as an alternative to the often ridiculously long LGBTQQT2SETCOMG! acronym that no one seems to ever be able to remember in full.

~Morgan, proud to call herself Queer
queer?
Why did you use the word "queers" in this headline? And "queer community" in the body of the text? Why would "gay" not have been enough? I can't get past this word. I immediately question the objectivity of any writer that uses this word.
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