DAVID GREENE, HOST:
So the federal government has revealed the questions for the 2020 census. And for the first time, couples living together will be asked whether they are in a same-sex or opposite-sex relationship. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports on what this change means for the LGBT community.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Since 1880, the U.S. census has asked about how people living together are related. But it never had a checkbox that could fully define one of the most important relationships in Wendy Becker's (ph) life.
WENDY BECKER: I got married to Mary Norton (ph) in 2006.
WANG: And before they tied the knot, Becker remembers having to choose boxes on forms that could never quite describe their long-time relationship, like once in a hospital where a woman asked her...
BECKER: Married, single, divorced, widow? And I said, I understand what the categories mean. But I've been with my partner for 15 years, and none of this fits me. And I remember being so upset when she checked single.
WANG: Becker says that's why she's excited to be part of the practice run of a 2020 census that's taking place right now in Rhode Island's Providence County. People living there, like Becker, can choose from new relationship categories the rest of the country will see in two years, including same-sex husband or wife or spouse and same-sex unmarried partner.
BECKER: It really normalizes our experience on an American government form so that everybody looking at it and everybody filling it out sees that we exist.
GARY GATES: Groups often don't count until they are counted.
WANG: This is Gary Gates.
GATES: Formerly the research director at the Williams Institute at UCLA.
WANG: And a consultant for the Census Bureau on collecting data about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. He says the bureau has tried to count how many same-sex couples live in the U.S. before. It's put out numbers from 2000 and 2010 after matching up responses about a person's sex and relationship. But Gates says sometimes people accidentally checked off the wrong box for their sex.
GATES: Even if only a few different-sex couples make an error where they appear to be same-sex couples, it's a large enough problem that it, for lack of a better word, contaminates the same-gender couples sample.
WANG: That's why Gates says to get a more accurate count in 2020, the bureau decided to spell out categories for same-sex and opposite-sex relationships. But whatever the tally ends up being in 2020, it may not include Ronald Lewis (ph).
RONALD LEWIS: Correct. I'm not in a relationship unless something changes before I, like, fill out the form - yeah.
WANG: Lewis lives in Providence, R.I., and is openly gay.
LEWIS: I personally would be comfortable giving that information out.
WANG: But on the 2020 census form, there won't be a place for Lewis and other single LGBT people to indicate their sexual orientation. That means for now, there are no reliable national data about how many LGBT people live in the U.S. that can inform public policy.
LEWIS: If this is about how resources are spent or given to communities - and we are talking about the LGBTQ community, not everyone is married or in a relationship.
WANG: And Cecilia Chung says not everyone identifies as male or female.
CECILIA CHUNG: I am the senior director of strategic projects at Transgender Law Center.
WANG: And back in 2010, Chung says she mailed back her census form with a sticker attached.
CHUNG: It's pink. And it has a couple of boxes. One box is asking sexual orientation. And the other box is asking gender identity.
WANG: And those are the questions, Chung says, she hopes to see on a future census form with categories that reflect a wider range of identities.
CHUNG: If we don't have the proper labels when we try to look at the picture, there will be a lot of missing pieces, like jigsaw puzzles.
WANG: In 2020, Chung says, even with same-sex couples recognized on the census, there'll be a lot of other people in the LGBT community missing from the picture of America. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York.
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