The Census Bureau released a revised estimate Tuesday of the number of same-sex married couples living in the United States: More than 130,000 same-sex households recorded themselves as married. Another 500,000 same-sex households indentified themselves as unmarried.
The figures provide a rare snapshot of married and unmarried gay couples in the U.S. based on the government count conducted last year, when gay marriage was legal in five states and the District of Columbia. It comes at a time when public opposition to gay marriage is easing and advocacy groups are seeking a state-by-state push for broader legal rights.
Some 131,729 same-sex couples checked "husband" or "wife" boxes on their decennial census forms, the first time people could do so since gay marriage became legal in Massachusetts starting in 2004.
Gary Gates, a demographer with the UCLA School of Law's Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy, says that some of those 131,000 might not be legally married, however.
"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 are not legally married," Gates tells All Things Considered host Michele Norris.
The 2010 tally of married gay couples is higher than the actual number of legal marriages, civil unions and domestic partnerships in the U.S. Gates puts the actual number of legally recognized gay partnerships at 100,000, even with New York legalizing gay marriage in June.
The total of 646,464 gay households in the U.S. was a downward revision of the Census Bureau's count of 901,997 released last month. Gates says the bureau had to make the adjustment after determining that coding errors resulted in an exaggerated count for the initial number.
"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," Gates says.
Gates says that there are so many different-sex couples that, if only a few make that error, there's a large group of same-sex couples who might be incorrectly identified as such.
Where Do Same-Sex Married Couples Live?
Broken down by state, the highest share of households with reported same-sex couples — both married and unmarried — was in Washington, D.C., at nearly 2 percent. Washington was followed by Vermont, Massachusetts, California, Oregon, Delaware, New Mexico and Washington state. On the other end of the scale, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming had the smallest shares, each with less than one-third of 1 percent.
"[What] we learn is that there are same-sex couples virtually everywhere in the U.S.," Gates says, "[and] many of them live outside of some of the urban areas that many people associate with the gay and lesbian population."
Nationwide, about 51 percent of the couples last year were female. Nearly 1 in 5 of the same-sex couples was raising children at home — widely distributed among those who reported being married and those who did not.
"Every step is a step forward in acknowledging that, yes, we do exist," said Lois Farnham, of Burlington, Vt., who recorded a civil union with Holly Puterbaugh the first day they were allowed in 2000 and then legally married her in 2009.
Farnham, 67, said she expected the census numbers would underestimate the number of people in such relationships, noting that many same-sex couples keep quiet about their married status. "They can't share that with a lot of people for family or job security reasons. It's still an issue and people are still being discriminated against," she said.
Puterbaugh, 65, said many couples live as if they're married without making it formal. "You have to remember that there are many straight couples who have chosen not to marry for whatever reason that may be," she said.
Demographer Gary Gates also says that many same-sex couples still use terms like "roommate" explicitly to hide their identity, so he says that the new number might still be an undercount of the number of same-sex marriages.
"About 514,000 additional same-sex couples use the term 'unmarried partner,' Gates says. "We did a survey suggesting that at least 4 percent of those couples are actually legally married, but they use the term 'unmarried partner' because they thought [the census] was a federal survey and the federal government doesn't recognize their marriage — so they thought the term 'unmarried partner' was more accurate."
The new same-sex data also come as battlegrounds lie ahead over gay rights. Voters in North Carolina and Minnesota will be deciding next year on the fate of constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, while the Maryland Legislature is expected to consider a bill that would legalize it.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.