Census will count gay couples who check "husband or wife"
Gay and lesbian couples who share a home may identify one another as "husband or wife" on their 2010 census forms if that's how they view their relationship — even if they have not legally married in any of the places where it is allowed. And whatever they say on that form is precisely how the government will count them.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Gay and lesbian couples who share a home may identify one another as "husband or wife" on their 2010 census forms if that's how they view their relationship — even if they have not legally married in any of the places where it is allowed.
And whatever they say on that form is precisely how the government will count them.
Advocates who have long sought a complete count of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community say this falls short but is still a partial breakthrough — one they say offers tacit acknowledgment of the very relationships the federal government legally denies.
"Even in the absence of federal recognition of our relationships, we have an opportunity to say on an official form that, 'Yes, we are married,' 'Yes, our relationships are every bit as equal to everyone else's,' " said Josh Friedes, executive director of Equal Rights Washington, a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) advocacy group in Seattle.
And Friedes encourages same-sex couples — including thousands registered as domestic partners in Washington state — to "do what's in your hearts" and check the "husband or wife" box if they see themselves as spouses, even if marriage isn't the term they use to describe their relationship.
Unmarried couples who live together, whether same-sex or heterosexual, may also check the unmarried partner box on the census form.
Census officials say people are free to fill out their forms however they feel best reflects them — that the Census Bureau can no more tell people how to define their relationships than it can tell them what their race or gender is.
But groups opposed to same-sex marriage call that dishonest. They say the census goes too far and is playing into a political agenda that's ultimately aimed at legalizing same-sex marriage in the U.S.
Gary Randall, president of the Faith and Freedom Network, said giving gays such leeway reflects "the president's agenda to advance the gay agenda — to build the numbers artificially so that consequently you create a power base that's unrealistic and inflated."
But Friedes and others in the LGBT community say the census doesn't go far enough — that data the bureau will begin releasing at the end of this year will leave most LGBT people unaccounted for because forms don't ask a person's sexual orientation or gender identity.
Of course, everyone who completes a 2010 census form — including those in the LGBT community — will be counted as part of the overall population.
And the information they provide on race, age and homeownership status, for example, will be reflected in all demographic data the government will publicly release.
But Friedes says that's not enough — that there are concerns specific to LGBT people in areas of aging, health care and discrimination for which more targeted data collection is critical.
Knowing the size and makeup of the population helps to direct funds and arms advocates with appropriate information when they compete for public or private grants.
"We simply do not have accurate data about how many gay people there are in America, where they live ... ," Friedes said. "The census will still leave many, if not most, LGBT people invisible."
Hilary Bingman, a census partnership specialist doing outreach to the local gay community, acknowledged the need for accurate data but pointed out that census questions are decided by Congress — not the bureau — and settling on specific language can take years.
And despite a push from within the LGBT community, she said, there still hasn't been a strong enough advocacy for adding a question about sexual orientation and gender identity. "It literally takes the squeaky wheel," she said.
Jaime Grant, director of the Policy Institute at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, doesn't buy that. "What they tell us is that it's too costly; our numbers are so small so it's not worth it; that the data is superfluous and has no real effect; they don't know how to ask the question and that when they do ask such questions, it offends people and they stop answering. See? Excuses."
Big outreach efforts
The Obama administration is making a big push to get the LGBT community included in the 2010 census, bringing partnership specialists on board to do outreach and educating people around the issues — the first time that has happened in a decennial census.
The administration is also studying ways to use future survey data to help advocates and demographers better understand the community's demographic makeup.
LGBT advocates have been pursuing this for years, and in 1990 saw their first chance when the census began allowing unmarried partners sharing a home to indicate their status on the form.
The government's goal at the time was to capture information on the growing number of heterosexual couples living together out of wedlock. For demographers, however, it was the "first opportunity to use federal data collection to see how LGBT people were organizing their lives," Grant said.
In 1990, however, the ongoing AIDS epidemic had engendered fear among some gay people of being stigmatized or harassed, and many were reluctant to disclose their sexual orientation on any form.
That was changing by 2000, when gays and lesbians were coming out in large numbers and forming unions sanctioned by their religious leaders. Many in committed relationships checked "husband or wife" on census forms that year — even though same-sex marriage wasn't legal anywhere in the U.S.
But in the publicly reported data, the census instead reflected their status as unmarried partners, following a legal opinion under the Bush administration that the federal Defense of Marriage Act prevented the agency from recognizing gays as married.
Seattle area ranks third
The most current census data show an estimated 565,000 same-sex couples in the U.S. — including those who checked the unmarried-partner box, as well as same-sex couples who indicated they were married.
Of those, an estimated 17,756 live in Washington, ranking it fourth among the states after Oregon, Massachusetts and Maine in the concentration of same-sex-couple households. Among the 50 largest metropolitan areas, Seattle ranks third, after San Francisco and Austin.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Commerce, which oversees the Census Bureau, reversed the Bush-era policy, making it possible for married same-sex couples to check "husband or wife" on the 2010 decennial form now sitting on many kitchen tables across the country.
While this year's changes don't directly benefit them, transgender people are encouraged to check the box — "male" or "female" — they feel best describes their gender identity, said Marsha Botzer, a local leader in the transgender community and co-chair of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
As the push continues for getting "clearer sexual orientation and gender-identity questions on the census," Botzer wants LGBT people and their allies to apply to their 2010 census form a bright red sticker urging the federal government to "queer the census."
Committed same-sex gay couples, meanwhile, may need to give special attention to how they complete the form.
"Right now legally, socially and politically, same-sex relationships are very complicated," said Gary Gates, senior research fellow at UCLA's Williams Institute, which specializes in LGBT research.
Heterosexual couples, he points out, are either married or not. But same-sex couples can be married, in domestic partnerships, in civil unions or be designated beneficiaries. "And all these nuances are not part of the census form — yet," Gates said.
"The advice is to pick the one that best applies."
The push by LGBT advocates to get more same-sex couples to identify as married is a strategy that's both symbolic and political. Some gay-rights advocates believe that having the numbers strengthens their case for legalizing same-sex marriage.
Groups opposed to same-sex marriage recognize that, calling it a "miscarriage of accuracy."
Said Randall of the Faith and Freedom Network, "The idea is to use those untruthful, inflated numbers to create pressure on lawmakers, state by state and in Congress."
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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