U.S. Census figures released Tuesday, 564,743 self-identified same-sex couples were recorded in 2008, a
nearly 25% drop from 2007, when 753,618 couples were counted.
Gary Gates, a demographer
at UCLA's Williams Institute, attributed the sharp decline to more
accurate reporting rather than a downward trend in the number of
same-sex couples nationwide.
"The reason for that drop is that in past census data collection there's been a problem with the way they collected data," said Gates, who is advising the Census Bureau on the matter. "The Census for the first time is very seriously trying to approach how to count and describe same-sex couples."
The fluctuation is consistent with a Williams Institute estimate earlier this year that about 30% of the same-sex couples counted in 2007 may have been miscoded different-sex couples, which would have artificially inflated the total number of same-sex couples for that year.
The data also revealed that about 150,000 same-sex couples used the terms "husband" or "wife" to describe their partner -- well above the nearly 11,000 marriage licenses that had been distributed to same-sex couples nationwide in 2007, when only Massachusetts had marriage equality.
Gates estimated that somewhere between 30,000 and 35,000 legally married same-sex couples live in the country now and said the disparity between his numbers and the 150,000 who reported using those designations probably has more to do with terminology.
"A large number of same-sex couples use the term 'husband' and 'wife' as a social construction rather than a legal definition of their relationship," he said.
This is the first time the Census Bureau has included same-sex couples in their formal release of data. In order to reduce miscoding, the data form has been restructured to work less like a butterfly ballot, which often confused people because they had to mark information boxes across the row for each person in their household. Now, an entirely separate page is dedicated to each household member.
According to Gates, some different-sex couples may have accidentally misidentified their partner's sex on the old forms. Since about 100 married different-sex couples are counted for every one self-identified married same-sex couple (legally sanctioned or not), Gates explained, "even a really small error rate among different-sex couples created a big problem in the same-sex couple sample."
Overall, Gates believes the nearly 565,000 same-sex couples in the newly released data does represent an undercount even if the information was collected more accurately.
"Even if we take away the problem of miscoding, there's been a 20% increase in same-sex couples since 2000," he said, which compares with about a 3% population increase and a 15% jump among opposite-sex unmarried couples in the same period. "I don't think there's suddenly all these gay people who are coupling. I think that people are becoming more and more willing to identify, suggesting that there's still this underlying group that are nervous about doing it."
Even though census collection is completely anonymous, Gates hypothesized that some people in same-sex relationships are disinclined to report truthfully because they work in the military or as a clergy member, they may be divorcing or involved in a custody battle, or they might simply fear being stigmatized based on where they live.
In some cases, he added, people are simply befuddled by the fact that the federal government doesn't recognize their relationship even if the state or city they live in does offer some form of civil union or domestic partnership.
"I think a lot of same-sex couples want to be accurate but there is some confusion about the way to do it," he said. "The official Census Bureau line is, use the term that best describes your relationship. So if you think of a person as your spouse, then use that term." Same-sex couples who have questions about how to report can get more information at www.ourfamiliescount.org.
The 2008 figures released Tuesday are part of the American Community Survey conducted every year, but Gates says the numbers preview what can be expected for 2009 as well as the once-a-decade Census survey in 2010.
In addition, the Census Bureau is now working on a project in 2010 that will more accurately count legally married same-sex couples as well as those in civil unions and domestic partnerships.