3 min

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.