The number of gay Americans telling the U.S. census they're living with same-sex partners nearly doubled in the past decade and more than 130,000 recorded partners as husband or wife.
Census figures released Tuesday provide a rare snapshot of married and unmarried same-sex couples in the U.S. based on the government count conducted last year, when gay marriage was legal in five states and the District of Columbia. It comes at a time when public opposition to gay marriage is easing and advocacy groups are seeking a state-by-state push for broader legal rights.
Some 131,729 same-sex couples checked "husband" or "wife" boxes on their decennial census forms, the first time people could do so, after gay marriage became legal in Massachusetts starting in 2004.
That 2010 tally of married gay couples is higher than the actual number of legal marriages, civil unions and domestic partnerships in the U.S. Even after New York legalized gay marriage in June, a Census Bureau consultant, Gary Gates of UCLA, put the actual number of legally recognized gay partnerships at 100,000.
"There's no dispute the same-sex population increases from 2000 and 2010," said Martin O'Connell, chief of the fertility and family statistics branch at the Census Bureau. In cases of couples who reported they were living in a marriage relationship, "they basically responded that way because that is truly how they felt they were living."
The total of 646,464 gay couples in the U.S. was a downward revision of the Census Bureau's count of 901,997 released last month. The bureau said Tuesday it had to make the adjustment after determining that coding errors resulted in an exaggerated count for the initial number.
Still, researchers believe the new estimate could be as much as 15 percent lower than the actual number of gay couples in the U.S. because of social stigma, discrimination or other concerns about confidentiality. In a small number of cases, younger gay couples also may not have been counted in the census if they were "doubling up" in a home where neither was the head of household.
Based on revisions made to the 2000 census figure as well, the number of same-sex couples nationwide rose 80 percent from an adjusted 2000 figure of 358,390. Previously, the Census Bureau had reported there were 594,391 same-sex couples in the U.S. in 2000.
Nationwide, about 51 percent of the couples last year were female. Nearly one in five of the same-sex couples was raising children at home -- widely distributed among those who reported being in marriage relationships and those who were not.
Broken down by state, the highest rates of increase in gay couples -- both married and unmarried -- were in lesser-populated states such as West Virginia, Montana, the Dakotas, Oklahoma and Kentucky, each rising at least 150 percent from 2000. In contrast, the larger, more traditional gay places including the District of Columbia, California and New York, posted the smallest percentage increases -- 60 percent or less.
Gay rights groups say the latest census numbers are an important step in increasing visibility and helping to dispel notions that they live primarily in big cities on the two coasts. Still, because the census forms do not ask about sexual orientation, some activists have complained that single gays -- as opposed to those with live-in spouses and partners -- have no means of gaining collective representation through the census.
"Every step is a step forward in acknowledging that, yes, we do exist," said Lois Farnham, of Burlington, Vt., who recorded a civil union with Holly Puterbaugh the first day they were allowed in 2000 and then legally married her in 2009.
Farnham, 67, said she expected the census numbers would underestimate the number of people in such relationships, noting that many same-sex couples keep quiet about their married status. "They can't share that with a lot of people for family or job security reasons. It's still an issue and people are still being discriminated against," she said.
Puterbaugh, 65, said many couples live as if they're married without making it formal. "You have to remember that there are many straight couples who have chosen not to marry for whatever reason that may be," she said.
Brian Moulton, chief legislative counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, described the latest census numbers as a "tremendous increase," demonstrating a culture shift and sending a signal to local officials and governments that gays and lesbians exist and deserve rights and benefits.
"A lot of couples who are reporting they are same-sex are in places where it's been legally and culturally more challenging for our community," he said. "That's not a reflection of couples suddenly popping out of nowhere -- the culture is changing in those places to a degree people feel comfortable coming out on the census form."
The new same-sex data come as battlegrounds lie ahead over gay rights. Voters in North Carolina and Minnesota will be deciding next year on the fate of constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, while the Maryland Legislature is expected to consider a bill that would legalize it.
An August poll by The Associated Press and the National Constitutional Center found a narrow majority of Americans support legal recognition of same-sex marriage -- 53 percent to 44 percent opposed. That is largely unchanged from last year but a shift from 2009, when a slim majority opposed government recognition of gay marriage.
Groups opposing gay marriage have challenged the view that same-sex marriage will inevitably become the law of the land, saying that opponents have prevailed repeatedly in statewide votes. The National Organization for Marriage has been asking GOP presidential candidates to sign their marriage pledge, which includes support for a federal marriage amendment defining marriage as the union between one man and one woman. So far, it says it received commitments from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Sen. Rick Santorum.
Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, notes that in the final census analysis a little over one-half of one percent of U.S. households are made up of same-sex couples -- or 1 in 180. "This is a tiny, tiny segment of the population -- the homosexual population is small, and the percentage in actual, committed partnership relationships is even smaller," he said. "We would hope politicians would not feel a need to pander to that small population."
In 2000, citing the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the Bush administration directed the Census Bureau to re-code same-sex couples who identified themselves as married to be counted as unmarried partners. Pressed by gay-rights groups in 2009, the Obama administration reversed that policy, allowing the bureau to count same-sex couples as married.
Last week, the U.S. military passed a historic milestone with the repeal of its "don't ask, don't tell" ban on gays serving openly.
The census figures were welcomed by many gay people.
"It makes me feel like I am part of this country," said Al Koski, 69, a retired Social Security claims representative from Bourne, Mass., who married his partner Jim Fitzgerald in 2007 after they were together for more than 30 years. "I don't have to be in the background anymore. I am glad people are coming out of the closet and are not afraid to check that box."
Koski said he is hopeful that the census count will help in the push to legalize gay marriage in other states.
"Every time I see something happening, like `don't ask, don't tell' falling by the wayside, every time something happens, it's another little domino falling," he said.
The highest share of households with reported same-sex couples -- both married and unmarried -- was in Washington, D.C., at nearly 2 percent. Washington was followed by Vermont, Massachusetts, California, Oregon, Delaware, New Mexico and Washington state. On the other end of the scale, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming had the smallest shares, each with less than one-third of 1 percent.