News & Politics

Census Ignores Same-Sex Couples

Lawmakers need data that tell truthful stories about America's diverse households -- yet another reason DOMA needs to get wheeled to the curb.
Curling up with a 28-page questionnaire from the U.S. Census Bureau isn't my fantasy of how to relax after work.

But Joyce and I recently were picked along with 3 million other "housing unit addresses" to complete the annual American Community Survey. This nationwide survey, an upgrade from the old Census long form, provides a snapshot of how folks live in America.

Census says the chore takes about 38 minutes. But, just in case you've got other plans for your time, Census mentions that federal law "requires that you provide the information asked in this survey to the best of your knowledge."

That got our attention. So, Joyce and I began our journey into the sherbet green pages.

What quickly becomes clear is that Uncle Sam wants very detailed information.

For example, you choose among 10 options to describe your housing situation, nine options for the fuel "used MOST" for your heating and 12 options -- including "ferryboat" -- for how each person in your home usually gets to work.

Some questions are personal: Anyone in the household have trouble remembering? Skip work last week? The value of any inheritance?

It's understandable why the government wants households to honestly and carefully fill out the survey: Lawmakers and businesses use the results in deciding how to distribute road and education money, or where to locate coffee shops and new homes.

But, unfortunately, as our country continues to evolve on how it treats gay couples, Census isn't keeping up.

The reason? The cynically named Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, which defines "marriage" as between a man and woman -- for any federal purpose.

DOMA was enacted four years before Vermont created civil unions -- a marriage-lite legal union for gay couples -- seven years before Canada started allowing gay couples from anywhere to marry and eight years before Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to allow its gay couples to wed.

To its credit, Census does try to get a snapshot of couples other than heterosexual married ones. It offers "unmarried partner" as an option for how people in a household can describe their relationship.

But, illustrating one of the umpteen reasons Congress needs to get rid of DOMA, Census purposely blurs its snapshot of gay America before making it public.

The reality is Joyce and I are a couple of 23 years and were married in Canada five years ago.

Joyce -- "Person 1" -- responding to the question of how I -- "Person 2" -- am related to her, checked the "husband or wife" box.

Later, for both Persons 1 and 2, she checked each is "now married," has been married "once" and got married in "2003."

But Census data crunchers will see that we are both women and -- because of DOMA -- lump us in with same-sex couples who identify as "unmarried partners."

Why does it matter? For the same reason the Census officials offer 14 choices for describing race, and if it still misses yours, they provide a box to write it in.

As lawmakers weigh fixing inequalities faced by gay Americans, they need data that tell truthful stories about America's diverse households. So when the next Congress starts tidying up, let's hope DOMA gets wheeled to the curb.

Deb Price of The Detroit News writes the first nationally syndicated column on gay issues.
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