I zipped through the first few questions on the census (age, place of birth, type of housing, education), then stumbled to a stop.
What is your sexual orientation? Please check the appropriate box: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Asexual, Heterosexual.
A flash of fear went through me. What possible use would it be to the government to know my orientation? I didn’t remember them asking this question on the previous census.
Things had changed since Pearce became president. A product of the extreme religious right, he’d stumbled into office during a chaotic election year when a divisive country had been unable to settle on only two candidates. A strong Independent had been listed, and the Green Party offering had been attractive to many. Votes from a pissed off citizenry had split in four directions, and America had ended up with the worst choice possible.
I pressed my lips together and re-read the question. If I was honest, I’d check Gay, but doing that meant declaring myself. Only a few people were aware of my orientation, and I trusted every one of them. This was not a time when one was open about such things. Hate crimes against LGBT+ people had climbed since Pearce took office a year ago. Just last week, someone I knew had been beaten bloody in an alley because a group of kids decided he “looked” gay. They were not charged with the crime.
I turned the census over, studying the header and footer on every page. It was supposed to be anonymous, but I’d never believed that, and now more than ever, I felt I was being tracked, watched. Surveillance had become ubiquitous, and I was sure the public remained unaware of half the means being used.
My gaze drifted to a photo on the shelf over the desk. It showed my grandmother and her lifelong friend, Emmy, holding their shoes, and dancing and laughing in a downpour. Best friends forever, moving in together after their respective husbands died, only death had separated them; Emmy had died two years ago from pancreatic cancer. I’d always suspected there was more between them than friendship, and Gran was one of the few who knew I was gay.
I called her. “Hey, Gran. How are you doing?”
“Fine, Paul. Worked in the garden some this morning, put up a few jars of tomatoes this afternoon. How about you?” When I hesitated, she jumped on it. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing really.” I bounced the eraser end of the pencil off the desk. “I was filling out the census, and one of the questions bothers me. Have you done yours yet?”
“Came yesterday, but I haven’t had a chance to open it yet.”
I rubbed my throat nervously. “It asks about orientation. It’s very specific.”
There was a long pause, during which I heard a chair dragged across a floor. There were settling noises. “Are you wondering how you should answer it? Because if it were me, I’d declare myself a heterosexual even though Emmy and me shared more than a house together.”
I’d been right then. I suddenly felt closer than ever to her.
“They’re passing laws against us in half the states in the country,” she said angrily, “and as long as that asshole Pearce is in office, it’s not safe to be out.”
“You don’t believe the census is anonymous?”
“Not for a minute,” she said firmly. “Stay safe, Paul. Lie.”
A sudden bolt of terror made my heartbeat double. Everyone knew the NSA listened to every call made everywhere. What if Gran or I had used a word that alerted them to our conversation and gave them a reason to listen to it?
She must have had the same thought. “We’ll talk no more about this now. Come for dinner Saturday. Bring the census. We’ll do them together.” The only safe way to talk about anything anymore was face to face, and even then, you couldn’t be sure you weren’t heard. “And Paul? I’ve got your back, no matter what. Remember that, okay?”
After I ended the call, I stared at the orientation question for the longest time. It angered me that something this simple had made me feel afraid. Nothing the government did or said could change who I was, so why hide?
“Fuck it,” I mumbled and picked up the pencil. Not ever going back in that closet.
Word count: 733
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