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Census Count of Same-Sex Couples to Stir Policy Fights

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 2009

The numbers should be eye-popping.

When the U.S. Census Bureau counts same-sex married couples next year, demographers expect hundreds of thousands to report they are spouses -- even though legal same-sex weddings in the United States number in the tens of thousands.

Gay advocates say they plan to use "A Census that Reflects America's Population," as the Census Bureau calls its plan to report same-sex marriage statistics, to push for legislative and policy initiatives, while groups opposed to same-sex marriage weigh a counteroffensive.

Particularly at the state and local levels, gay advocacy groups say census data on income for same-sex couples will show the need for more protections against job discrimination. Statistics on households with children will help them challenge laws limiting gay adoptions and legal guardianship. With raw numbers to illustrate the need, it will be easier to demand services, they say.

"Why does the census ask if people are young or old, black or white, married or single?" said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, which promotes civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. "It's because we want to understand if the country is meeting the public-policy needs of those Americans. That's particularly so for LGBT Americans."

But conservatives say the tally could just as easily support their position that most gay people aren't looking to get married. They say they will oppose attempts to make policies more gay-friendly.

"It seems homosexual activists use these various markers as ways push their agenda, to force people to go along with whatever they demand," said Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, which promotes "biblical values." "Regardless of what the numbers are, they're going to exaggerate the importance of it and claim all of society must change in order to comport with their demands."

The 2010 Census will not be the first in which same-sex couples have identified themselves as married. But it will be the first in which the raw numbers are publicly reported, reflecting an evolution in the way the Census Bureau keeps track of American lifestyles.

The issue of counting same-sex unions first arose in 1990, when the Census Bureau added the category of "unmarried partner," primarily to count heterosexual couples living together. Since no state permitted same-sex marriage, the Census Bureau "edited" the sex of one person in each same-sex couple. For instance, if two women said they were spouses, the Census Bureau changed the sex of one to male.

In 2000, in what was considered a more enlightened approach, the Census Bureau re-categorized those same-sex couples who said they were married, counting them as unmarried partners. But it didn't release the numbers.

That was prohibited by the Bush administration, which cited the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act's ban on federal recognition of same-sex marriages.

This summer, the Obama administration reversed that interpretation and ordered the Census Bureau to release the raw data when it becomes available in 2011. It also is planning to accurately count same-sex couples in programs such as the American Community Survey, a smaller, in-depth study run by the Census Bureau.

The number is likely to be significantly larger than the number of weddings in the six states that have legalized same-sex unions since Massachusetts became the first in 2004. At a conference this spring, a Census Bureau analyst reported that 253,000 of the 594,000 same-sex couples counted in 2000 reported themselves as spouses, an astounding statistic considering that same-sex marriage was not legal anywhere in the United States at the time. In the 2007 American Community Survey, 341,000 same-sex couples said they were married, even though only 11,000 marriage licenses had been issued in the country, all in Massachusetts.

This fall, a coalition of advocacy groups will launch an educational campaign called "Our Families Count," urging same-sex couples who were legally married to mark a box identifying themselves as spouses.

No one will be asked for sexual orientation. But as in all households, the adult who fills out the census form will be asked the sex and relationship of other adults living at the same address.

Julie Verratti and Emily Bruno of Cleveland Park will be among those proclaiming to the government that they are spouses, grateful that their marital status will not be erased or altered. The two women wed in June 2008 at San Francisco City Hall. Bruno wore pink, Verratti blue.

"If they don't have the numbers in front of them, it's easier for the government to rationalize acting like we don't exist," said Verratti, 30, a Georgetown University law student.

Opposition to counting same-sex couples has been muted, even among groups opposed to gay marriage.

Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies with the Family Research Council, said reporting the numbers does not mean the federal government recognizes these self-identified marriages as the legal equivalent of marriage between a man and a woman. His research into the statistics could even buttress arguments against same-sex marriage.

"In virtually all the states, the percentage of same-sex couples who marry is far lower than the percentage of opposite-sex couples who marry," he said. "To us, it says homosexuals do not view the institution of marriage the same way heterosexuals do. In fact, there's a lack of commitment to the institution of marriage in the homosexual community at large. That's one of the reasons why we think same-sex marriage should not be legalized."

Many gay advocates say the count will confirm their presence in virtually every county in the nation and help them dispel the stereotype that gay men and lesbians live primarily in big cities on the two coasts.

"What's at stake is the cultural visibility of having that number come out of the U.S. Census," said Nan Hunter, a Georgetown University law professor who studies state regulation of sexuality and gender. "The stereotypes about gay people have been largely so negative that one imagines the realities will be more balanced and seem less scary and exotic to a lot of straight Americans."

Many gay advocates say census numbers will help them fight for services.

Karen Taylor, director of training for Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders, said social workers trying to get aging gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people into programs for the elderly are hampered because they have only anecdotes to make their case.

"When we say we'd like to talk about inclusive services that include LGBT people, they ask how many are there," she said. "We really don't yet have a way to provide that the way we can with, say, Hispanics or women."

Toni Broaddus, executive director of the San Francisco-based Equality Federation, a network of gay advocacy groups in 45 states, said some state legislators shrug them off, saying no gay people live in their districts.

"We have to make sure our state legislators understand they do have lesbian and gay people and families in their districts, and it's a demographic they need to pay attention to," she said.

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