In Virginia, the census counted 20,500 same-sex couples, a 49 percent increase that amounts to 1.2 percent of couples in the state.
In both states, the number of heterosexual married couples increased only modestly.
The census did not ask people for their sexual orientation, but people were asked about their relationships.
In 1990, when the census added unmarried partner as an option but gave no instructions, relatively few same-sex couples checked it. The number went up slightly in 2000. Then, in the 2010 , the agency formed partnerships with gay and lesbian groups to help encourage people to correctly categorize their relationship and to assure them that information provided to the census is confidential.
As a result, demographers don’t think the actual number of gay couples has increased as dramatically as the numbers suggest. Rather, it reflects more same-sex couples being honest about who they are.
“The bulk of the change is people acknowledging it,” said Gary Gates, a demographer with the Williams Institute, a UCLA think tank that specializes in gay legal and policy issues. “Indicating your relationship on a census form is one way of suggesting people are more open about it. But it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re terribly out in their community.”
In Maryland and Virginia, most of the same-sex couples live in urban neighborhoods. Baltimore and Richmond show the highest levels, and the Washington suburbs are close behind. In some Baltimore neighborhoods, as many as 14 percent of couples are gay and lesbian.
Near Washington, the biggest percentages of gay and lesbian couples are in neighborhoods around Takoma Park, Rosslyn, College Park, Cheverly and parts of Alexandria. The Alexandria Gay and Lesbian Community Association, for example, is so active in civic affairs that it hosts an annual barbecue for the city’s firefighters, police and EMTs.
The census shows that gay and lesbian couples are present in every county in both states. And gay families with minor children were counted in every jurisdiction except for one sparsely-populated Virginia county near the West Virginia border.
Though their numbers are smaller, gay and lesbian couples with children show up at higher rates in many rural areas. Gates said that is because many of them had an earlier relationship and child with someone of the opposite sex.
“It’s more common in socially conservative areas where people tend to come out later,” he said. “The irony is that socially conservative areas create more gay families.”
As gay couples are more frank about their relationships, society at large is becoming more accepting of homosexuals.