The U.S. census questionnaire arrived in our mailbox a few months ago. Just a few simple questions, the government emphasized.
As a history major, I appreciate the importance of the information the census gathers. Among other things, the historical data collected every 10 years provide a glimpse of how the American family is changing over time. In 1980, for instance, the government responded to one big change by adding the choice of "unmarried partner" to get an accurate count of those of us "living in sin."
My partner Sarah and I have been together through 16 years and two censuses. Through those years together we have rented apartments, bought and sold houses and cars, named each other the beneficiaries in our wills, buried pets, seen our parents age, changed jobs and started retirement accounts. Three years ago we became parents. Now we have a happy little boy who is fiercely 2. Tom fills our lives with joy and makes us better parents each day.
I sit down at the kitchen table to fill out the form, thinking about the three prior times I have shown up in the census data. I can see my Dad sitting at a similar kitchen table in 1970 filling it out--a wife and daughter, quick and easy. I see myself in 1980, filling out the college-student form in my dorm room at UNC--no problem. And then I remember, in 1990, the stern warning an older lesbian friend gave me and Sarah to not describe ourselves as unmarried partners. Her concern, apparently, was that the Census Bureau would forward the information to the proper authorities and government agents would drag us away in the middle of the night.
Looking back on it now, I know I should have ignored her paranoia and told the truth on the form. But that was 10 years ago.
This year I vow to accurately reflect the makeup of my household; proper authorities be damned! I list myself as Person 1, describing Sarah--Person 2--as my unmarried partner. That makes our son Person 3. Now on to the next question: "How is this person related to Person 1?" My possible choices: natural-born son, adopted son, stepson, or other non-relative. Hmm. Now I really have to pause and think about this. I envy my father's quick-and-easy questionnaire.
Tom is Sarah's natural-born son, given that she's his birth-mother. North Carolina will not let me adopt Tom unless Sarah yields her parental rights. He's not my stepson because the state won't sanction our union. So I'm left with "Other non-relative." Not a pretty choice. This truth is a lie.
Will I be asked to lie on my census form 10 years from now, I wonder? How many people will I be listing then? My mother has been ill; will she be living with us then? My father? Sarah's parents? Will we have more children? Will the government ever care to describe us as more than "unmarried partners"?
I imagine my son sitting at his own kitchen table, 30 years from now, filling out his census form. How many people will he list? Will I enjoy the company of his beloved? What will he name his children? Will he have to struggle with the same question I'm struggling with right now?
Our son is fortunate, I remind myself, that he has two parents. And he is extremely lucky to have two mommies. Sarah carried him for nine months and passes on to him her beauty, her gentle tenacity, her sweet spirit. He will inherit from me how to bake bread, throw a curveball, vacuum, drive a stick shift and know which way is north by the stars. He has my height, my fair complexion; my last name is his middle name. For a few months, he was even a redhead like me.
I go back to the form and choose "Natural-born son." Let the government authorities come for me. This lie is the truth.