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Census Releases Data On Same-Sex Couples

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Tuesday, the U.S. Census Bureau released new data on married same-sex couples. Currently, same-sex marriage is legal in six states and the District of Columbia. Michele Norris talks to Gary Gates, a demographer with the UCLA School of Law's Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy, about the new numbers.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: Today, the Census Bureau released new estimates of the number of married, same-sex couples in the United States. As of now, same-sex marriage is legal in six states and the District of Columbia. And the Census puts the number of married, same-sex couples at just over 130,000.

Gary Gates is a demographer who peer-reviewed these Census numbers. He's with the UCLA School of Law's Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy. Welcome to the program, Mr. Williams(ph).

GARY GATES: Thank you very much. It's great to be here.

NORRIS: Now first, as we noted, these are revised numbers. Tell us what that means.

GATES: They are. Well, so the Census has been releasing numbers all summer for their counts of same-sex couples. And what they realized was, these numbers are kind of over-representing same-sex couples because of some errors among other kinds of couples. If a different-sex couple makes an error such that they record the wrong sex for one partner, they look like a same-sex couple. And there are so many different-sex couples that if only a few of them make that error, there's a large group of same-sex couples who might be incorrectly coded as such. And so the Census has created new estimates that they think are more accurate.

NORRIS: And let's just clarify how the Census defines a same-sex couple.

GATES: A same-sex couple is a couple where one person is identified as either the husband, wife or unmarried partner of the other, and they're both adults, and they're both of the same sex.

NORRIS: And as we mentioned, 131,000 of these same-sex couples identify themselves as being in a marriage.

GATES: Well, they identify as husband and wife. Our analyses suggest that quite a few of those are perhaps not necessarily legally married. We think that about 70 percent of them might be legally married, but some of them are in civil unions and domestic partnerships. And some of them just view their relationship as spouses, even though they've not been legally married.

NORRIS: As we mentioned, there are 131,000 married couples in same-sex relationships. How many same-sex couples are not married?

GATES: About 514,000 additional same-sex couples use the term unmarried partner. But what's interesting about that is that we did a survey suggesting that at least 4 percent of those couples are actually legally married, and they used the term unmarried partner because they thought it was a federal survey, and the federal government doesn't recognize their marriage. So they thought the term unmarried partner was more accurate.

NORRIS: And when we look at these figures, what do we learn?

GATES: First of all, we learn that there are same-sex couples virtually everywhere in the United States, and we learn that many of these couples look quite a bit like their different-sex counterparts. Perhaps almost one in five of them are raising children. Many of them live outside of some of the urban areas that people normally associate with the gay and lesbian population. And, you know, that's the kind of information that we can't get anywhere else but on the census.

NORRIS: Is there anything that is at all controversial in these numbers? Are people saying that this is an over-representation or an undercount?

GATES: Well, I think at this point, it's clear that it's an undercount. I think that many same-sex couples still use terms like roommate, explicitly to hide their identity. So - I'm someone who works a lot with data around LGBT people, and those data are almost always controversial to someone.

So someone either thinks they're too high or too low, and that's a common issue because we don't have a lot of data. And so when we do get data, people pay a lot of attention to it.

NORRIS: Gary Gates, it's been good to talk to you. Thank you very much.

GATES: My pleasure.

NORRIS: Gary Gates is with the UCLA School of Law's Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy.

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