2010 Census Will Count Same-Sex Couples

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Next year, for the first time, the United States census will count same-sex couples who identify themselves as spouses. Previously these people were identified as unmarried partners. Guest host Jennifer Ludden discusses the effort and its implications for the gay rights movement with demographer Gary Gates; he's a senior research fellow at the UCLA School of Law, and a member of "Our Families Count," a census advocacy campaign for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

I'm Jennifer Ludden, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the latest on questions surrounding the gender of South African runner Caster Semenya.

But first, as part of its 2010 survey, the U.S. Census Bureau will release its first official count of same-sex couples who identify themselves as spouses. In the previous census, such couples were called unmarried partners. Gay advocacy groups welcome the change. About two dozen of them have joined in a campaign called Our Families Count. The aim is to encourage lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender households to take part in the 2010 census.

One member of that campaign is Gary Gates. He's also a demographer from the University of California, Los Angeles, and has advised the U.S. Census on gay issues. Mr. Gates joins us now from Pasadena. Welcome.

Mr. GARY GATES (Demographer, University of California, Los Angeles): Thank you very much. It's great to be here.

LUDDEN: Can you clarify for me more fully, how will this census be different in the way it counts same-sex couples?

Mr. GATES: In the past, particularly in Census 2000, there were two ways in which a same-sex couple would be counted. You could call one of the partners your husband or wife or you could call the partner your unmarried partner. And, of course, we know the sex of both partners. So, from that we're able to determine same-sex couples. But in Census 2000, anybody who used the term husband or wife, they were automatically counted as an unmarried partner.

Between Census 2000 and now, we have legal marriage in this country for same-sex couples as well as civil unions, domestic partnerships, various ways in which couples are legally recognized. So, that decision to call them unmarried partners doesn't seem to make as much sense. So, now...

LUDDEN: I mean, if we're talking semantics, what is the importance of this change?

Mr. GATES: Well, it's not merely semantics. I mean, we'll now find out how many same-sex couples consider themselves to be spouses. Because marriage isn't universal in the United States, there are many same-sex couples who used the term husband and wife, who it appears, are not legally married. So, there's about 150,000 couples who say they're spouses. There's only about 35,000 legally married same-sex couples.

So, clearly for same-sex couples, they might have been married in a religious ceremony, a commitment ceremony, they might be in a civil union, domestic partnership. They use that term in different ways than different-sex couples use it.

LUDDEN: But it sounds like the census has made the clear decision because all these state laws are in such flux.

Mr. GATES: Right.

LUDDEN: I mean, they get passed and they get overturned by referendum and all.

Mr. GATES: Right

LUDDEN: ...they're not going to look at that. They're going to go with the way people identify themselves.

Mr. GATES: Exactly. Census doesn't question a different-sex couple when they use that term. It's not like the Census Bureau asks for your marriage license. So, in essence, they're treating same-sex couples in the same way as they would any other couple.

LUDDEN: Why do you think the Census Bureau is making this change?

Mr. GATES: The political and legal environment for same-sex couples is much different now than it was in 2000 and I think this is a very first and preliminary step to responding to the complexities of the legal status of same-sex couples.

LUDDEN: Now, gay rights groups, though, do want the census to have questions about sexual orientation and gender identity. Why do you think advocacy groups would like this information out there?

Mr. GATES: Because at the moment, it's not that easy for us to answer a simple question like how many LGBT people are there. When a group in data are essentially invisible, it's hard to make an argument that they have needs or that they are treated differently. The gay groups want LGBT people to be visible in government data.

LUDDEN: Now, LGBT advocacy groups have embraced this change and you're involved in their campaign, it's called Our Families Count.

Mr. GATES: Right.

LUDDEN: What's the campaign doing?

Mr. GATES: It's specifically targeting the LGBT community to say this is how you can be counted as a same-sex couple. These are the ways in which Census Bureau data are used and this is why this is so important.

LUDDEN: Have gay families or individuals - has there been a reluctance to tell the Census?

Mr. GATES: Well, I think, it wouldn't surprise me at all if in some of the more conservative parts of the country that there's still a fair bit of stigma associated with being gay and perhaps then that would lead people to be concerned about a question that might give some indication of their sexual orientation and providing that information to the federal government. And what we're telling folks is that in fact these data are completely confidential. It can't be used to harm you and this is why it's so important.

LUDDEN: So, when the census does come out with these new numbers on gay couples, what do you think that we'll learn?

Mr. GATES: We've gotten a bit of a preview of these data using another survey that they do called the American Community Survey. We've seen that same-sex couples who use the terms husband and wife, so these same-sex spouses, they look quite a bit like their different-sex married counterparts and they look different from same-sex couples who use the term unmarried partners. So, they're more likely to have children. They're more likely to own their home. So, they look a lot like different-sex married couples.

LUDDEN: And maybe not like someone's stereotype of a gay couple?

Mr. GATES: Well, absolutely. I mean, one of the bigger ways that census data, you know, broadly has been used - and we've had data on same-sex couples since 1990. They've really been used to break down a lot of stereotypes.

So, a lot of people, mainstream images of gay people tend to be white male, urban and rich. And it turns out that, you know, none of those things adequately describe the LGBT community. And even with same-sex couples, we've seen that, you know, one in six lives in a rural area. One in four is non-white and those non-white couples are twice as likely as their white counterparts to be raising children. And, you know, those kinds of statistics defy some of the stereotypes.

In fact, one of my favorite quotes from when the 2000 census data came out was from a state legislator in a rural area, I believe it was in Mississippi, and he was informed that there were in fact, you know, gay people in his district because there had been same-sex couples. And his response was, wow, I've never met any of these people. And what I think's so fascinating about that response was he didn't suggest they weren't there. He just suggested that he hadn't met them.

LUDDEN: Maybe he should have said he didn't realize that he'd met them.

Mr. GATES: Right. But it goes to the kind of credibility of the census that he didn't question whether they were there once he was told by the Census Bureau and I think we've heard from advocates over and over again that power of being able to walk into a legislator's office and say you just can't tell me that there are no gay people in your district or this isn't a concern of my constituents. Here's data to prove otherwise.

LUDDEN: Gary Gates is an expert on the demography and geography of the gay and lesbian populations in the U.S. He's at the University of California, Los Angeles. He's also a member of Our Families Count, an LGBT census advocacy campaign. Mr. Gates joined us from Pasadena, California. Thank you so much.

Mr. GATES: My pleasure.

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