Census undercounts same-sex couples; Respondents grapple with confusing relationship categories

by on September 8, 2010  •  In Social science

The Williams Institute yesterday released a new study showing that while 99% of same-sex couples participated in Census 2010, 1 in 7 same-sex couples will not be identified as such.  In addition, survey findings also show that 30% of same-sex couples have a legally recognized status: roughly equal numbers were married (14%) or in a civil union  or registered domestic partnership (15%) (CU/RDP). Of the couples in a legal relationship, 30% were married in a state that recognizes the marriage; 16% were married in state with no recognition; 30% were in a CU/RDP in a state that recognized that status; and about 25% were in a CU/RDP but living in a state with no recognition. 

Same-sex marriages are performed in Connecticut, DC, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. Out-of-state marriages between gay partners are recognized by Maryland, New York and Rhode Island. Statewide systems for CU/RDPs have been established in California, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington.

The online survey was conducted by Harris Interactive in June, asking more than 600 individuals in cohabiting same-sex couples about their participation in the census. It was designed to understand if and how same-sex couples completed their census form and why they chose the options they did to characterize their relationship. The census historically has been framed to count the population by "households" with self-labeling of the relationships within the household. As a result, only same-sex couples can be identified; there is no question asking for individual self reports of sexual orientation.

The survey found that 1 in 10 individuals in same-sex couples opted to identify as roommates – rather than spouses or partners – on their census forms.  Respondents cited three main reasons for that decision.  About a third said that they thought of their relationship in some other way; a quarter cited confidentiality concerns about disclosing their relationship;, and a third were protesting either because they opposed the fact that the Census was not asking a sexual orientation or gender identity question or they were offended by the options presented.

 In other words, as study author and Williams Distinguished Scholar Gary J. Gates noted, "While many [couples] still experience stigma and are reluctant to call themselves spouses or partners, an even larger group seems perfectly comfortable identifying but feels the Census does not provide an appropriate term or even a question" to identify their relationship.

Virtually all couples who were not in a legally recognized relationship called themselves unmarried partners. Those who are married but live in states that do not recognize the marriage or those who are in civil unions or registered domestic partnerships faced more confusing options. Most married couples (80%) called themselves spouses, but that figure was higher (89%) in states that recognized the marriage.  Only 62% of married couples in states that did not recognize the marriage used husband or wife. Approximately 84% of those in civil unions or registered domestic partnerships called themselves unmarried partners.  A quarter of these couples who lived in states where their status was recognized called themselves spouses, compared to just 12% among those who lived in states with no recognition. 


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