Deb Price | Census Bureau Begins to Set a Good Example

The 2010 Census will have a new message for same-sex married couples like Joyce and me: “You count.”

Reflecting a refreshingly new era at the Census Bureau, the nation’s pre-eminent collector of data is upgrading how it deals with those of us who are gay.

But given that most gay couples in marriage-level committed relationships can’t yet legally marry in their home state, plus the social and legal discrimination we still face, portraying us accurately is a real challenge even for an enlightened Census Bureau.

After taking its count, the agency will announce how many of us described ourselves as “husband or wife” and how many opted for “unmarried partner.” Before the Obama administration, that data was collected, but in public reports all same-sex couples were lumped together as “unmarried partners.”

Acknowledging that thousands of gay couples are legally married and that many more lack marriage licenses but consider themselves married is a major leap forward. The bureau is also reaching out — starting last month in Los Angeles — to educate the gay community about the upcoming Census. So is a gay Website, OurFamiliesCount.org.

All this is incredibly important: The faster Uncle Sam understands gay lives, the sooner we’ll achieve full equality.

Census data, in addition to determining how many U.S. House seats each state gets, are used to divvy up federal funds for such things as social services and highways.

Better numbers on same-sex couples will help our allies on Capitol Hill as they push, for example, to get rid of the 1996 law barring federal recognition of gay marriages. And taking a more accurate survey of how gay couples view ourselves moves our government closer to the day when it will include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in surveys.

The 2010 Census will be the first since American gay couples began marrying legally. Joyce and I were part of the first wave. We wed in Canada in 2003. Since then, gay couples have married in Massachusetts, California (where 18,000 gay marriages are still recognized by the state, despite the November 2008 ban that halted the weddings), Connecticut, Iowa and Vermont. New Hampshire is set to join the parade in January.

Altogether, about 35,000 same-sex couples are legally married in this country, estimates gay demographer Gary Gates of the Williams Institute.

Far more same-sex couples consider their relationships to be marriages. The Census asks the person filling out the form to identify how others in the household are related to her or him. Gates and Our Families Count encourage gay couples who consider themselves married to check the box beside “husband or wife,” even if they don’t have a marriage licenses. Other same-sex couples should simply check “unmarried partner.”

The Census is totally confidential. Actual forms are not shared with other government agencies. So there is no need to fear that answers will be used to target gay immigrants for deportation or gay soldiers for dismissal.

Already, we’re getting a clearer picture of same-sex couples in America, thanks to an annual snapshot called the American Community Survey.

In September, the Census Bureau for the first time officially released data showing how many same-sex couples actually checked “husband or wife” versus “unmarried partner.” In the 2008 community survey, we now know that an estimated 149,956 same-sex couples identified with the marital phrasing “husband or wife,” while 414,787 identified as “unmarried partners.”

Drilling down into those results, Gates found that same-sex spouses are very similar to mixed-sex married couples in terms of age, education, income, home ownership and likelihood of being interracial. (See his findings at www.law.ucla.edu/williamsinstitute.)

Eventually, every gay American — whether coupled or not — will count in the eyes of every government agency. The Census Bureau is already headed in the right direction.

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