We welcome the good news that the US Census Bureau has announced it will publicly release counts of same-sex married couples identified in Census 2010. In Census 2000, the Bureau altered the responses of same-sex husbands and wives, counting them instead as “unmarried partners.” With marriage equality now established in six states and an estimated 35,000 same-sex couples already legally married in the US, this decision seems like a no-brainer. But the change in policy has important ramifications for researchers (like me), policy-makers, and the LGBT community.
Census same-sex couple data have been critically important in undermining pernicious stereotypes and myths about the LGBT community. For example:
— Many believe that gay people only live in large urban areas and in neighborhoods like the Castro in San Francisco and Chelsea in New York. Census 2000 found same-sex couples living in 99% of US counties.
— Few people think of LGBT people as parents, yet a quarter of same-sex couples are raising children. Among couples that include a non-white partner, childrearing is substantially higher.
— Despite the military’s “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” policy making gay and lesbian servicemembers invisible, Census same-sex couple data were critical in estimating that 65,000 LGB men and women are serving in the US military.
As more same-sex couples marry and the marriage equality debate continues, Census data that allow us to distinguish between same-sex spouses and those who use the term “unmarried partner” can be similarly important. A recent paper I published in Demography compared traits of same-sex couples who registered as domestic partners in California (the state didn’t have marriage when the survey was taken) to non-registered same-sex couples. The differences were very similar to those we observe between married and unmarried heterosexual couples. It may be that, demographically, same-sex married couples look quite a bit like their different-sex married counterparts. Such a finding undermines arguments that same-sex couples are just fundamentally different.
But these data can be useful beyond LGBT issues. Marriage plays a role in tax policy, health care insurance provision, and access to federal poverty programs. More accurate data means all of these policy debates can be better informed with facts, not myths and stereotypes.
Of course, counting same-sex spouses is also just the right thing to do. An accurate decennial Census is critical to our representative democracy. With the recent California Supreme Court ruling upholding Prop. 8, LGBT Americans are a bit extra-sensitive these days around issues of public recognition of same-sex relationships. Counting same-sex spouses assures the LGBT community that the Census respects their families and makes it more likely that they will contribute to a good Census tally. It also comports with the Bureau’s well deserved reputation for quality and accuracy.