Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Census to count gay couples


Researcher Gary Gates has long studied gay and lesbian population figures. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
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It has been widely reported in the last few days that "the White House said" it was going to start counting same-sex married couples in the U.S. census. Although it's hard to pin down just exactly who in the White House said exactly what, the news is apparently true and it's a big deal to many in the LGBT community. Numbers count in Washington – they justify programs, illustrate the need for certain bills, and give a sense of size for a particular voting bloc. And they can counter a general tendency toward simply ignoring the existence of gays.

"This is a huge win for our community," said Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "Our community and allies stood up and refused to allow same-sex marriages, our families, and our children to be rendered invisible in the picture of our country provided through the census."

Carey noted the decision to change the census policy toward counting same-sex married couples "gives us hope that we will also be able to get the federal government to include lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in the data and reporting on other critical issues, including those having to do with our health, economic issues, safety and life circumstances."

Gay Representatives Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin), and Jared Polis (D-Colorado) issued a joint press release applauding the "announcement" that the "Obama administration is seeking ways to include same-sex marriages, unions, and partnerships in 2010 census data."

Neither the White House nor the Census Bureau issued a press release about the change, and bureau spokesman Jack Martin noted that it does not affect the questionnaire itself. Among the 14 choices for describing the relationship of "Person 2" to "Person 1" are still "husband or wife" and "unmarried partner."

Martin said the bureau is developing written guidelines now to advise affected citizens how to fill out the form. The Human Rights Campaign has already set up a Web page that advises LGBT people who are "living with your married spouse" to check "husband or wife," and other couples to check "unmarried partner."

LGBT population data expert Gary Gates with UCLA's Williams Institute said the change has an impact "only on post-data collection processing." The change in processing will allow same-sex couples who are legally married to identify as each other's "husband or wife."

Prior to 2000, there was no designation that enabled same-sex couples to accurately describe their relationship, and when a same-sex partner checked off the designation of "husband or wife," the census bureau altered the gender of one of the two people, assuming they had accidentally misidentified their gender.

Starting in 2000, the census form provided the new designation of "unmarried partners," which both same-sex couples and unmarried heterosexual couples could choose.

The 2010 census will be the first time in the nation's history when a same-sex couple could actually hold a marriage license and thus accurately identify themselves as "married." Starting in 2004, Massachusetts began issuing licenses to same-sex couples. Now, five additional states do, and New Hampshire will start doing so in January. In California, an estimated 18,000 same-sex couples were married during the five months the state allowed such unions. Those marriages were held to be valid by the state Supreme Court in its decision last month that also upheld Proposition 8, which has since eliminated the right of same-sex couples to wed.

The change in the census "will not explicitly count civil unions and/or domestic partners," said Gates. But, he said, "it is possible" census officials will "begin" consideration of how to change the annual American Community Survey to count civil unions and domestic partners – a "much bigger and more expensive proposition."

Gates also noted that, while the census in 1990 and 2000 were politically unpopular with the LGBT community, they were based on "sound scientific reasoning."

"And in 2010," said Gates, "they are again doing the right thing scientifically, which comports with the right thing politically."

"Granted, change at the census can be a bit slow and can require prodding," said Gates, "but they are not the bad guys."

The LGBT community has been discussing and "prodding" for a change in the census since before 1990, and the change for 2010 is another important incremental change.

DNC fundraiser

But the news does not appear to have made a dent in the anger that erupted this month over a Justice Department brief concerning same-sex marriage. Pro-gay marriage demonstrators stood outside a Democratic National Committee fundraiser in Boston Tuesday night, where Vice President Joe Biden was the keynote speaker. A growing number of well-known gay Democratic supporters have said they will not attend an LGBT Democratic fundraiser in Washington, D.C., tonight (Thursday, June 25).

Nor has the census news quelled a growing chorus of activists pressuring President Barack Obama to do more to end the military's anti-gay "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network announced Tuesday that it is organizing a march to the White House on Saturday, June 27, "to urge President Obama to break his continued silence on repealing" that law.

"As long as the president remains silent on DADT repeal," said the SLDN statement, "men and women in the military will continue to be fired at a clip of two per day on average. The sense of urgency is palpable."

And so continues the tug-of-war. The White House is preparing a commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion to be held in the East Room on Monday, June 29, but news of that leaked out only thanks to a blog of the New York Times. The White House withheld information about its plans even after the Times published its report online.

"It's hard to have any other impression after reading [the Times report] than the Obama administration would really like to hustle the invitees to this Stonewall event through some back door, and hustle the queers back out ASAP," wrote political blogger Pam Spaulding at

The Obama Justice Department agreed to discuss with gay legal advocates the legal challenges against the Defense of Marriage Act.   And White House staff secretary and assistant to the president Lisa Brown told an audience attending a conference of the American Constitution Society June 19 that "there's no question" that there were "some cites" in the DOJ brief in the Smelt case "that should not have been in there." Brown qualified her remark, saying it was a "personal statement."

But asked about Brown's remarks at a press briefing Monday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs appeared to try to deflect the question by noting that "Lisa [Brown] is the staff secretary." (Although the position is an administrative one in some regards, it is also "the last substantive stop," said Brown, before a document is signed by the president. Brown is also a lawyer and a former executive director of the American Constitution Society.)

When a reporter asked him whether any discussion was under way to consider modifying DOJ's position in the marriage lawsuits, Gibbs replied, "Not that I'm aware of."

Gibbs has delivered the "Not that I'm aware of" line or a similar non-response on several occasions when asked about gay-related issues.

Meanwhile, back on the census, the White House press office alerted this reporter to the decision to count same-sex married couples as married by sending her an e-mail that carried a Wall Street Journal article reporting the change. The article stated that "the White House said" on June 18 that "it was seeking ways" to count "same-sex marriages, unions, and partnerships" in the 2010 census. (As mentioned earlier, the change in processing the data will count only same-sex couples who identify as a "husband or wife," not civil unions or domestic partnerships.)

During the Clinton administration, the census bureau declared that it could not count same-sex couples who were married as married, contending that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act prohibited it from doing so. But, the census bureau under Obama apparently has a different understanding of how DOMA does – or doesn't – apply to the processing of data.

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