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Making gay couples count

The Obama administration believes the Defense of Marriage Act doesn't prevent their number from being reported in the census. That's fine, but Obama should push for the repeal of the law.

July 11, 2009

Counting married same-sex couples should be easy; there aren't that many of them. Instead, the federal Defense of Marriage Act:H.R.3396.ENR: has forced lawyers to jump through legal hoops so this country can obtain a more realistic picture of the diverse families within its borders. And even when the U.S. census count begins in 2010, it won't provide useful information about the marital status of gay and lesbian couples. Nor is it likely even to call them married.

The Obama administration has delivered a logic-defying interpretation of the act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage: It does not stop the Census Bureau from reporting the number of married gay couples, the president's lawyers said. Yet isn't counting these marriages the purest form of recognizing them?

It takes a love of wonkery and hairsplitting debate to get around what would seem an obvious obstacle. Up to now, the census has simply asked an adult member of the household about the other members and their relationships. If a male said the other adult was his wife, the census would count them as a married couple. If a male said the other adult was his husband, the computer was directed to categorize them as "unmarried partners."

Under the new rules, the computer will stop doing that, though the census probably won't classify these couples as married but as something legally safe, such as "spousal-designated same-sex couple." Even trickier is the annual American Community Survey, also conducted by the Census Bureau, which asks out-and-out if people are married. It's unclear what will be done about the survey, though thankfully, it probably won't switch to asking all couples if they are spousally designated.

Neither the census nor the survey will differentiate between same-sex couples who are legally married and those who consider themselves so. In the 2000 census, before any states recognized gay marriage, one-third of the people in same-sex households identified their partners as spouses. But the census already takes the word of heterosexual couples as to whether they're married, so the new count will be fair. It just won't be very informative.

The 13-year-old Defense of Marriage Act has always been discriminatory, and now it is out of sync with the realities of a changing society. With same-sex marriage legalized in six states, the District of Columbia recognizing such marriages performed elsewhere and an estimated 18,000 married gay couples living in California, what's needed aren't convoluted interpretations of the federal law but a push from President Obama for Congress to repeal it.

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