Census details on Virginia’s same-sex couples to be released on Thursday

July 18, 2011

On Thursday, detailed census data will be released about same-sex couples in Virginia, though they are still defined as unmarried partners. (Mark Newton, 2011)

RICHMOND, Va. ― On Thursday, July 21, the United States Census Bureau will release the 2010 Census Summary File 1for Virginia, which details a wealth of information about each county and city in the state. For the LGBT community, this means more than a rough guess of how many same-sex families live in the state. It means the chance to be somewhat counted and, therefore, hopefully better represented politically.

That number is a rough guess, however, because the census only specifically asks about legally married same-sex couples and unmarried partners and not about one’s sexuality. Married couples, however, have the option of selecting whether his or her spouse is a husband or wife. This is a major change from the 1990 census, which corrected the mistake of listing a partner of the same sex, and the 2000 census, which only counted unmarried partners.

This leaves two somewhat reliable government sources: the 2010 Census and the American Community Survey (ACS), which monthly asks questions that were once only in long form census.

The closest the 2009 ACS came to identifying same-sex relationships was asking about householders and their partners in “unmarried partner households.” This data, however, is problematic, according to Dr. Gary Gates, the Williams Distinguished Scholar at the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute, which pays special attention to statistics about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals in the census.

“Same-sex couple figures from both data sources are affected by a problem whereby small portions of different-sex couples who make a mistake on their form and miscode the sex of one spouse or partner, making it appear that they are a same-sex couple,” Gates said. “Our estimate is that about 15 percent of same-sex couples in the current ACS and as many as 25 percent in the decennial Census are miscoded different-sex couples.”

For example, a 2005 Williams Institute estimate using 2000 Census and 2005 ACS data estimated 19,673 same-sex couples in Virginia, compared to the Institute’s estimate of 220,309 gay, lesbian, and bisexual Virginians (out of an estimated 9 million LGBT Americans).

A 2008 estimate lowered the number of couples to 12,639. In that report, Gates cited better data processing procedures and wrote that “the entire decline was in the number of reported same-sex spousal couples.”

Above is a ManyEyes visualization of the number of same-sex couples in Virginia by county and city. This data, provided by the Williams Institute at UCLA, was assembled by analyzing information from the 2000 census and the 2005 American Community Survey. The Institute’s 2008 Census Snapshot of Virginia can be read here and the data can be downloaded here. If you can’t view the PDF, get Adobe Reader here.

Despite these problems, the census data provides not just important demographic data, but also power to the LGBT community as a constituency. As Gates put it, “These data are one of the very few sources of information that we can use to inform these debates with sound
facts instead of anecdote and stereotype.”

Within Virginia, this data will aid efforts like those of Equality Virginia, a state-level lobbying group that has worked for LGBT rights in the state through “education, outreach, and legislative activities” for 22 years, according to executive director James Parrish.

Parrish’s work currently focuses most on workplace discrimination protections, a school district-by-school district basis to strengthen the current bullying policies of our secondary schools with enumerated policies and a road map to allow LGBT parents to participate in a Virginia foster care system.

Same-sex marriage, however, is not easily attainable and is therefore not one of the most pressing issues for the organization. An amendment to the Virginia constitution requires that “the language be passed by two consecutive general assemblies separated by an election,” Parrish explained, “so the earliest it can get on the ballot in Virginia would be the fall of 2013 because we have an election this fall.”

For now, then, the LGBT community will have to work on a grassroots level through local organizations such as the Gay Community Center of Richmond, which offers a variety of social projects to the community at large and helps fund pro-equality projects. Program Director Cindy Bray pays close attention to a number of legal issues, especially the effects of the 2006 Marshall-Newman Amendment. The amendment bans any legal statuses that “intend to approximate the design, qualities, significance, or effects of marriage.”

“You have to be really careful if you’re a gay couple, how you write your contracts, such as wills, powers of attorney, that type of thing, because it could be left open to the judge’s interpretation,” explained Bray. “If it went to the wrong judge, it could be interpreted as a recognition of a same-sex relationship.”

One of the authors of that amendment, Del. Robert Marshall (R-Manassas), has also fought against recognizing the LGBT community of Virginia, notably railing against the Federal Reserve Bank’s decision to support its employees by flying a rainbow flag for LGBT Pride Month this past June.

Those issues are just a few of the problems that those in the LGBT community face and that could be solved with further recognition as a result of the census data. Outside of those estimates, though, Richmonders already know about the relatively small size of the community.

Or, as Randy Rose, a costume designer at Dogwood Dell, puts it, “The people that are in the gay community stand up for each other, or have each others’ backs. They stand up for each other.”

And while small, the difference between the gay population of Richmond and a city like Newport News is vast for former Christopher Newport University students Rose FaJohn and Jerica Nonell, both of whom now live in Richmond.

“When we volunteered at CNU, we actually came to Richmond as a university,” Nonell recalled. “It’s completely different.”

FaJohn quickly responded: “That, and you’re almost guaranteed to run into a gay person every hour on the hour in the streets. There’s a lot of gay people here versus Newport News.”

A good estimate of the LGBT population in Richmond will be seen in the census data on Thursday, said Gates. “The biggest increases have been observed in the most conservative states, so I expect Virginia will show a large increase.”

“As this visibility grows in more conservative parts of the country,” he continued, “it will likely lead to greater acceptance and eventually political and legal advances for the LGBT movement.”