June 10, 2016 at 10:24 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Laverne Cox promotes LGBT ‘data’ bill at U.S. Capitol

Laverne Cox, gay news, Washington Blade, Orange is the New Black

Laverne Cox (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Transgender actress Laverne Cox called on Congress to pass a bill that she and seven U.S. House members joining her at a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol on Thursday said would enable LGBT people to be counted in important government surveys, including the U.S. Census.

The news conference was called by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the author and lead sponsor of the LGBT Data Inclusion Act, which calls for improving federal population surveys “by requiring the collection of voluntary, self-disclosed information on sexual orientation and gender identity in certain surveys.”

With more than a dozen fans cheering, Cox said she would do all she could to help Grijalva and the 77 House cosponsors who signed on to the bill build support from the public to persuade Congress to pass the legislation.

“Thank you so much Congressman Grijalva for inviting me to be here today to discuss what I feel is a vital issue — and that is the need for our government to improve and expand data collection about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities,” she told the gathering.

“One of the great joys of the work that I do is getting to travel the country and meet LGBT people and people beyond the LGBT community who tell me that my visibility, that the character that I play on television, that my own personal story has inspired them to believe they can live the full truth of their lives and pursue their dreams of living that full truth,” she said.

“But indeed because the federal government doesn’t track LGBT people, especially sexual orientation and gender identity data, the lives of LGBT people in this country in a very specific way do not count,” she said.

Grijalva and other House members who spoke at the news conference, including House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), and openly gay Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), acknowledged that the LGBT Data Inclusion Act isn’t likely to pass this year in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

But the LGBT-supportive lawmakers appearing at the news conference said they were hopeful that public education efforts by supporters like Cox would draw attention to the need for the bill and lead to its passage in the near future.

“The LGBT Data Inclusion Act is an important piece of legislation,” said Hoyer. “It will make certain that all Americans are equally counted in federal surveys, including the census,” he said.

“When we fail to give members of a group the opportunity to raise their hands and say we’re here, we count, they run the risk of losing their equal share access to federal resources and their fellow citizens’ respect.”

Maloney noted that under the current federal data reporting system his own family, which he said includes his husband and three children, most likely is not accurately recorded and reported in federal reports.

“It seems to me we ought to show up on a census in some way,” he said. “And I think it’s pretty fundamental that the first way they discriminate is by denying you exist,” said Maloney.

“So while this bill may seem like a small step it’s actually critical to brining people into the light of government data so some people can no longer deny that there’s a full and vibrant and responsible and contributing community of LGBT people who are Americans, who work, who pay taxes and deserve to show up, like all Americans, in all other ways in these kinds of government reports and counting,” he said.

The other House members who expressed strong support for the bill at the news conference were Reps. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.Y.), Dina Titus (D-N.Y.) and Ted Deutch (D-Fla.).

Also discussing the bill’s provisions and how they will help keep track of LGBT people were Laura Dorso, senior director of the Center for American Progress’ LGBT Research and Communications Project; Adam Romero, senior counsel for the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law and Harper Jean Tobin, Director of Policy for the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Romero pointed out that bill includes a strict privacy and confidentiality provision that keeps the identities of LGBT people who participate in various government surveys confidential. He noted that the bill also makes answering survey questions about someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity voluntary and prohibits any penalties for withholding such information or providing an incorrect answer.

Under House procedures, the bill has been sent to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which is chaired by longtime LGBT rights opponent Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). A committee spokesperson for Chaffetz didn’t immediately respond to a question by the Washington Blade asking whether Chaffetz planned to schedule a hearing for the bill and an eventual committee vote on whether it should be sent to the full House for a vote.

Maloney and Hoyer told the new conference that they believe there are enough votes to pass the bill if it were to come before the full House for a vote.

The Blade asked Cox and Maloney what they would say to Chaffetz if they had a chance to talk to him about the LGBT Data Inclusion Act.

“Well I would just say to him that LGBT people exist,” Cox said. “We are a vital part of the fabric of this country and we just want to be counted.”

She added, “I’d just say one other thing. It’s a matter of life and death. People are committing suicide. People are being murdered because of a systemic level we’re often told that we don’t exist, that our lives don’t matter and we’re not who we say we are. Bills are being passed that stigmatize us and criminalize us. It’s a matter of life and death.”

Maloney said he would point out to Chaffetz that the public supports this and other LGBT inclusive bills and that those bills would pass if the House Republican leadership didn’t prevent them from coming up for a vote.

“It is the Republican leadership that is standing in the school house door here,” he said. “They have to get out of the way. And if they don’t want to be part of the progress, just get out of the way, right? It’s pretty simple. Lead and follow or get out of the way. That’s what we’re saying.”

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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