Gay Marriage Numbers Don't Add Up

Census study draws attention to muddled legal status of same-sex couples

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    Even without the right to wed, some same-sex couples in California consider themselves free to call themselves married.

    Something's not straight about these numbers.

    In 2008, in the four-and-a-half-month window when California legalized same-sex marriage, 18,000 couples managed to get hitched. But 23,000 gay couples in the state filled out Census surveys identifying themselves as married, according to records published this week.

    Why the 5,000-couple discrepancy? Some advocates of same-sex marriage attribute it to the presence of gay couples legally married in other states and countries -- marriages which California doesn't currently recognize.

    The 18,000 couples wed last year during the period after the State Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was legal in California and before a majority of voters passed Proposition 8 defining marriage as strictly between a man and woman. But neither the court nor the voters seem to have the final word on how couples view their marital status.

    “I think we have a number of people who got married during the window, but there are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands who got married in Massachusetts or Canada,” said Geoff Kors of Equality California, an activist group which advocates for equal treatment of same-sex marriages.

    Kors said those couples return to or move to California and continue to identify themselves as married. Kors said he believes what these couples are doing is in line with what the State Supreme Court decided earlier this year when they upheld Proposition 8. According to Kors, the court was clear in stating that “all that Prop 8 did was say that same-sex couples could no longer, after November [election], have the designation of ‘married’ if they weren’t already. But they have the same rights and benefits.”

    Kors is backing SB 54, a California Senate bill which would recognize gay couples wed in other locations as legally married in California as well.

    Gary Gates, a demographer for the Williams Institute at UCLA, said while the term “marriage” is legally off-limits, many same-sex couples still use it to identify the nature of their relationships.
        
    “Same-sex couples use the terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ and consider themselves married separate from that legal environment,” Gates said. “Gay couples borrow those terms whether or not it’s legal because they have no other real option.”

    “Even in civil unions or domestic partnerships, they don’t have a word for the partner,” Gates said. “In marriage, there is a husband, wife or spouse. Couples are very likely to choose the words that are available.””

    Gates explains that many of these couples may have been married in local churches, other states, or in Canada, but there are no accurate figures for that.

    This new Census survey is a good preview of what 2010’s Census data collection should demonstrate, Gates said.

    Gates disagrees with Kors on one point. Gates said the new information could be read as undermining the court’s reasoning rather than reinforcing it. There are approximately 50,000 reported domestic partnerships and civil unions in California, yet the number of couples who called themselves “married" in the Census survey is less than half that.

    “The original court decision is that the word ‘marriage’ matters, said Gates. “Same-sex couples view it differently, even though theoretically it’s the same responsibility. Otherwise, I would have thought more would have reported themselves as married.”

    What do you think? Weigh in on the question of counting same-sex couples in the comments.