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Census Bureau now categorizes same-sex married couples as ‘families’

New census data released Thursday made a simple but substantial change in categorizing same-sex married couples: They now are considered families.

In prior years, the U.S. Census Bureau counted such couples as “unmarried partners,” even if they were legally married. But now, starting with the new annual American Community Survey, they are in among the family totals.

The change delighted Lynn Helms and Laura Murphey, a Stallings couple who got married in Washington, D.C., in 2011. They also have a 10-year-old son.

“We certainly talk about us as a family,” Helms said. “It’s nice for the census to come into this century and do the same.”

Murphey agreed and called the change an important step in acknowledging the diversity of American culture.

“It’s nice to be recognized,” Murphey said. “We see each other as a married couple on a day-to-day basis. (The census change) makes a difference in the bigger picture.”

That picture includes nearly 56 million married-couple households in the nation last year, according to the new estimates. Same-sex couples accounted for a sliver of that total, some 251,695 homes.

In North Carolina, there were an estimated 19,327 households with same-sex couples, including 6,469 homes, or nearly 34 percent, with married couples. In 2012, an estimated 27 percent of same-sex couples were married, the data showed.

South Carolina had 8,347 same-sex couple households, including 2,583 homes, or 31 percent, with married couples. The previous year, about 28 percent of same-sex couples were married.

Same-sex couples who live together but are not married are still counted as “unmarried partners,” the same designation for unmarried opposite-sex couples. The Census Bureau has counted same-sex couples since 1990.

The change in handling same-sex married couples followed the June 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act, said Rose Kreider, chief of the Census Bureau’s Fertility and Family Statistics Branch. Gay married couples in states where that practice is legal must receive the same federal benefits that other married couples receive, the court ruled.

“The (census) change makes sense given the Supreme Court decision,” Kreider said.

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriages, a movement that began a decade ago in Massachusetts. Legal challenges continue to percolate, and the U.S. Supreme Court is ultimately expected to settle the issue.

North Carolina passed a same-sex marriage ban, known as Amendment One, in 2012. But in July, Attorney General Roy Cooper said the state will stop defending the ban after a federal appeals court ruled Virginia’s ban unconstitutional.

A McClatchy poll released last month found 54 percent of Americans support gay marriage, which is double the total for 1996.

Reflection of society

Gary Gates, a UCLA expert in demographics of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, called the census move a welcome one.

“It’s a very positive step that comports with the law and more closely (reflects) how society understands same-sex couples and their families,” he said.

The change, however, won’t have a big effect on overall family statistics given how small the same-sex totals are, Gates said. And there is a chance some opposite-sex couples checked the wrong box and were counted in the same-sex figures.

Unlike the decennial census that goes to every household in the country, the annual ACS makes an estimate based on a sample survey. Some 3.5 million households across the nation were surveyed throughout last year for the ACS, including about 161,000 in the Carolinas.

As it does with other questions, the Census Bureau is refining how it asks people to report their marital status and hopes to get more accurate same-sex responses when it counts couples in the 2020 decennial census.

‘Strengthen the family’

The Rev. Robin Tanner of Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church in Charlotte has officiated at same-sex weddings out of state for her congregants. She praised the census move.

“It can only strengthen the family structure to have all families literally counted,” Tanner said.

Among the weddings she presided over was for Cornelius resident Elaine Deck and her partner in May in Washington, D.C.

Deck agreed with Murphey and Helms that the census move was an encouraging one. “It further legitimizes our status as families,” she said.

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