Nancy Polikoff

Same-sex couples and the Census: Are they asking how we think of our relationships?

Filed By Nancy Polikoff | March 23, 2010 7:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: Gary Gates, same-sex marriage, US Census, Williams Institute

If thinking of yourself as married to your partner turned you into husband and husband or wife and wife, then we wouldn't need a marriage equality movement, right? So imagine my puzzlement to find gay organizations instructing us to fill out the 2010 census based on how we think of our relationships. The Williams Institute, to whom I turn for all things demographic about gay men and lesbians, offers this advice, which other groups are repeating:

Same-sex couples who have been legally married or consider themselves to be spouses should identify one person as a "husband or wife".

Other same-sex couples may be more comfortable using the term "unmarried partner". In general, this designation is designed to capture couples who are in a "close personal relationship" and are not legally married or do not think of themselves as spouses. (emphasis mine).

Now I understand the Census is an imperfect instrument (very) for counting our relationships. If a couple does not live together, they will not be counted, because the Census counts households and the relationships of the people in each household. There is also no option for those who are registered as domestic partners or in civil unions. I applauded when the Williams Institute and others won from the Obama administration the right to be counted as same-sex spouses when they were same-sex spouses.

But now it appears that labeling the person you live with your husband or wife is actually not going to measure the number of same-sex married couples but rather the number of couples who consider themselves spouses, whatever that means -- and I truly do not know what it means.

Gary Gates, demographer par excellence at Williams, explained to me that the Census does not ask marital status. In other words, it does not ask you to say whether you are single, married, divorced, etc. He's right. But it does seem to me that asking us to choose "husband/wife" or "unmarried partner" actually is asking us to say if we are married. Admittedly, whether we are married can be contingent. Those couples who have married in a state or country that allows same-sex couples to marry are married in some places. I think they should mark the "husband/wife" box. Those who have not married are "unmarried partners." To me that is not a lesser status; it's just a different one.

The Williams Institute materials are clear that you can identify only one adult in your home as a "husband/wife." What about those who consider themselves married to more than one person? If the line isn't legal recognition, what is the limiting principle?

How about those who have entered a civil union or the kind of domestic partnership that confers virtually all the state-based consequences of marriage? This is a challenge. My partner and I have been registered domestic partners for many years. When I look at the Census form I gravitate to "unmarried partner" because we are not married (and we don't plan to marry even though DC now allows it). Yet I admit that some couples who enter this status because it's available where they live may well consider each other husband/wife, and since there is no way to accurately capture their legal relationship then I'm okay with selecting whichever designation fits their own understanding.

But here's another puzzle in the advice from Williams. What does it mean to say that we "do not think of ourselves as spouses"? Either "spouse" has a meaning and you either are or are not, or, well, it has no meaning at all. If my partner and I were to marry I am not sure I would think of her as "my spouse" if that means some traditional notion of marriage. I know I would never call her my "wife." But if we marry, am I not supposed to check the "wife" box for her regardless of how we think of ourselves?

I've tried to think of this from a straight person's point of view. What do an engaged couple living together mark? "Fiance" is not an option, and they may never have thought of each other as "unmarried partners," but they know they are not yet husband/wife. What do they check? Or how about the couple who think they are "common law" married but they aren't, because their state does not recognize common law marriage (only ten states and the District of Columbia do)? They will check "husband/wife" and it won't be accurate.

Gary Gates tells me that the Census Bureau wants all people who are not sure what to check to select the answer that best reflects their household as they understand it. I could not find that advice anywhere on the Census2010 website. But I did call the Census "help line" and said I was in a same-sex registered domestic partnership and did not know which box to check. The person I spoke with said it was my "preference," and if I saw her as a "married partner" I should check "husband/wife" and if I saw her as a "unmarried partner" I should check that.

Gates also says, and I suspect he is right on this, that no amount of education by gay organizations would yield an accurate count of legally married same-sex couples given the constraints of the form itself. So what will gay groups say the Census has shown once it's tabulated? Will they qualify the number of claimed "married couples" with the caveat that it is couples who think of themselves as married? I'm guessing there will be comparison of the geographical location, income, etc. of those who identify as same-sex unmarried partners and those who identify as same-sex husbands/wives, rather than simply an adding together of the two categories to tell us about same-sex couples in general. But the categories are unstable and I have trouble imagining what legitimate conclusions could be drawn from the raw data.

And here's another tantalizing nugget from Gates. Apparently the American Community Survey forms (they replaced what were once Census "long" forms) ask both marital status and the relationship of the people in the household, and more same-sex couples check "husband/wife" than report being married. He's trying to sort out what that means. Fascinating, isn't it? He's going to have lots more sorting to do over the next several years.

crossposted from Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage

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I remember wondering similar situations. To start with, I'm not married. I don't really like the political label of "partner" and I'm not in a domestic partnership with by boyfriend of 5 years, with whom I live.

But, I wanted to be counted... so I went ahead and checked the unmarried partner because that's how I interpreted it.

If we were married legally (in-state or out-of-state), I would have just checked married and not had to worry about being counted.

Also, it made me realize how weird a lot of the stats used by this are really screwed by not having the difference between living with someone who consider to be a girlfriend/boyfriend and someone you consider your "partner"... I'd imagine that even if someone had just started dating (who could have been previously living together), they'd fill out "unmarried partner", which I wouldn't think is an appropriate label. Certainly "unmarried couple" would solve that, but it would conflate the two situations though.

Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | March 23, 2010 8:00 PM

The census form suggests that "Person 1" in a given household be the owner, renter, etc., but if the owner lives elsewhere, than "any adult". All relationships for everyone else (up to 11 in a household) are to be specified with respect to "Person 1". So even aside from the issues concerning same-sex couples, one can have a situation where, for example, a married couplehas their adult sone and daughter-in-law living with them, but another adult child fills out the form and is therefore "Person 1". Under that arrangment although there are two married couples in the household there are treated as if they were not there.

bigolpoofter | March 23, 2010 9:28 PM

You nail my central complaint. I filled out the form for this household and marked my partner as "unmarried partner." Persons 3 and 4 are my ex and his partner, and the census will not count their relationship.

We were given magick beans. We should have kept the cow.

If the they're willing to at least count us as married--as the purpose of the census is to count, not legislate--then from this they know exactly how many people would be married if there was no federal law prohibiting it. And so they know how many people DOMA affects. This is exactly in line with the purpose of the Census.

Even those that are married in states that recognize it are not recognized by the federal government because of DOMA. The Census is federal.

I'm in a marriage that isn't recognized by the state. We're married by virtue of being a family unit--we have become related. A spouse is a relative and I consider her to be my relative, not just a person who lives with me.

Marriage forms a family...this is true in the civil sense, the religious sense or the social sense. It's a cultural practice. If two people feel a familial connection to each other and live together, they have taken part in that cultural practice regardless of what it's called.

"Boston Marriages" aren't even new and weren't even reliant on sexual intimacy in the late 1800s. Why do we let it be something only the state or church can define?

If your definition is narrower, as meaning only something civil or religious, then that's your opinion.

I agree with your comment generally, that a marriage can be real even if the government doesn't recognize it. But:

If the they're willing to at least count us as married--as the purpose of the census is to count, not legislate--then from this they know exactly how many people would be married if there was no federal law prohibiting it.

I don't think that would result in an accurate count. I think there are a lot of same-sex couples who consider themselves married who would still say they aren't because they didn't get the message from the Williams Institute, the Task Force, etc., and they think the question is asking about their legal status.

There would probably be enough same-sex couples in either category for the data to be unusable. well, not unusable because it will get used. But unreliable.

People would mark they were married without guidance from the Task Force or Williams Inst.

I probably shouldn't have said "exactly".

Should I conclude there is a problem with no solution?

I don't think the guidance from Williams to check "husband/wife" if you consider yourself spouses establishes the number of couples who would marry if it were legally available. (And there is no federal law against it, by the way. The federal law won't recognize your marriage for federal law purposes, but you can marry in a state that allows it.) I think those are two different questions. It would actually measure something real if it asked couples to say if they would marry if their state allowed it, but that's way too complex for the census!

(And there is no federal law against it, by the way. The federal law won't recognize your marriage for federal law purposes, but you can marry in a state that allows it.)

You can marry anywhere. But there are only a few states that recognize it for state law purposes. And in those states that recognize it, the married couples are already counted because they're on the public record as married.

It is those of us who are not recognized by the state as married that aren't counted. And so we seek to be counted. If you don't want to be counted as married then don't mark married.

I'm just saying, my spouse isn't just my domestic partner. We have sex. The civil unions and domestic partnerships compromise has always been about desexualizing same-sex relationships.

Aside from the same-sex partners bit, you know there's going to be folks marking f or m who aren't legally so. And I think they ought to do that too.

The Census isn't the end all be all of data though. There's also the American Community Survey. If we want an accurate count of LGBT people in the 10 year Census, we're going to have to work it into a federal law that mandates it.

They definitely should ask about people in DP's or CU's (maybe a catchall category). It's a legal relationship that isn't marriage that should be counted. It'd be good to have information on that. And while I'm generally entirely in favor of the "You're married if you say you're married" concept, it seems inappropriate on the Census.

The questions on race, people are saying, aren't all that clear. There it really is what you feel you are, as it should be.

I agree they should ask about CU and DPs, although for DPs it would still be hard to discern. DP means so many different things, and even if they referred to it as a legal status, for some couples it's registration with their employer, or the city where they live, and for others it's the whole ball of state-based marriage wax, so we'd get data but not an accurate count of anything.

Consider this twist: I am a transwoman, recently married my husband, who is gay, in Iowa on March 12th of this year.

If we do the Census as suggested by the briefing done by them (the US Census)at NCTE's Policy Conference in DC, March 14-15 (yes, I 'dumped' my new husband 24 hours after getting hitched - beat Brittany Spears by 30 hours ;), I should identify myself as female, ie, "select the gender identity that best describes yourself."

Said in done. So what the Census sees is a female married to a male, a presumption that we are a heterosexual married couple.

That is why we "Queered the Census," (who also briefed us at the NCTE Conference) so our identities, sexual expression and gender were not lost (knowing the Census will only note the pink sticker on the outside of the return envelope).

I have my census form filled out and I am waiting on my sticker before I send it. They are starting to send me letters asking where my form is or if I need help filling it out. Hope my sticker shows up soon.

You can download and print the sticker from here::

Just tape it to the return envelope.

Hi, if you haven't received your sticker and you are getting antsy to send out the census form, you can print one out and tape it on (I just found out about this, so it's too late for me to order.) Just go to and click on "Get The Sticker" and then in the text that follows look for:

"Still want a sticker just for you?
Click here to download our Queer the Census PDF and print your own sticker!"

Or, just click right here... it will send you straight to the pdf:

plantwomyn | March 24, 2010 1:48 PM

I didn't need any "instructions". As thinking adults we answered truthfully.
Person 1 Female
Person 2 Female relationship to Person 1-wife

Act like you are married and feel like/live like you are married are not choices.

If you are not married answer unmarried partner.


Don't overlook the people who are married within a religious tradition that does recognize them (whether it is called marriage, holy union, or something else) but have no civil recognition. While that is hardly everyone being discussed, there certainly are plenty of them.

The real point isn' that this or that answer doesn't accurately describe things. The point is that the census as written doesn't allow for our actual existence - people who would be civilly married if they could and are living our lives as much as possible that way, whether (as my husband and I did) they went to another state to get civilly married but are not recognized at home, or are waiting for the opportunity to do so when it becomes available locally.

The real answer is for us to be treated equally. And telling the closest truth we can on the Census is simply another step along that way.