As bans on gay marriage and civil unions spread across the majority of America in the past decade, new U.S. Census figures reveal a starkly different trend: The number of same-sex partnerships skyrocketed even in the most prohibitive states.
Some 646,464 gay couples said they lived together in last year's census, an increase of 80 percent from 2000, according to revised figures released this week. Same-sex couples make up just 1 percent of all married and unmarried couples in the U.S., but as a group they nonetheless made large gains in every state.
The results include the first estimate of the nation's gay married couples. More than 131,000 same-sex couples identified themselves as husbands or wives, accounting for about 1 in every 5 gay couples who live together.
But the new numbers may not represent a real increase in gay couples as much as a change in attitudes. Some demographers say the stigma of homosexuality is easing, emboldening more people to disclose their same-sex partnerships. As evidence, some of the biggest increases in gay couples occurred in unlikely places.
"I think it tells us how same-sex couples view their relationships, as apart from the legal definition. Many of them view themselves as spouses but live in states that don't recognize them in any way," says demographer Gary Gates at the UCLA law school's Williams Institute, which analyzes census data on gay and lesbian couples.
Gates, one of the demographers asked to confirm the data's accuracy for the Census Bureau, points to his own post-census survey that indicated increasing openness among gays and lesbians. His report found that 10 percent of same-sex couples declined to reveal their relationship to census takers, down from 20 percent in 2000.
The census data provided plenty of room for interpretation among those on both sides of the debate over marriage rights for gays and lesbians.
"It shows an exponential increase in the number of same-sex couples that are standing up and being counted," Brian Moulton, chief legislative counsel for the gay-rights group Human Rights Campaign, says. "It continues to demonstrate to policymakers, in particular, that their families are out there, they do exist and need protection."
However, opponents say the small number of married same-sex couples fails to justify advocates' call for marriage rights.
"This shows that most same-sex couples living together don't choose to marry," says Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, a conservative group that opposes same-sex marriages and civil unions. "That suggests to me that the majority of homosexuals aren't really interested in participating in the institution of marriage, which calls into the place the whole movement for same-sex marriage, in my mind."
While same-sex partnerships remained most heavily concentrated in the socially liberal areas of the Northeast and the West, many states in the South and Midwest with the most restrictive gay-marriage laws recorded big jumps in same-sex households.
Among the 10 states with the largest increases in same-sex couples, six of the states have laws or constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage and civil unions.
The largest population of same-sex couples resides in California, where a voter-approved ban on gay marriage is being challenged in federal court. The number of same-sex households there increased by 46 percent to more than 98,000 since 2000. The state briefly granted marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2008 before voters passed Proposition 8, which defined marriage as being between one man and one woman. (California recognizes same-sex marriages and civil unions granted in other states.)
Florida and Texas, respectively, recorded the second- and third-largest numbers of gay couples. Both states have constitutional amendments restricting marriage to a man and a woman. Florida's total rose to 48,496 and Texas's jumped to 46,401, with the groups in each state posting an increase of more than 85 percent over the decade.
Socially and religiously conservative North Carolina and Georgia were among the states with not only the greatest increases but the largest populations of same-sex households.
The number of North Carolina's gay couples soared 118 percent to 18,309, as the state earlier this month approved a ballot initiative for 2012, which aims to prevent constitutional challenges to existing law that already prohibits same-sex marriage.
Georgia had the sixth-highest number of gay couples, at 21,318, due to an 80 percent increase over the decade. Georgia voters approved a constitutional ban in 2004, following one of the nation's most widely watched demonstrations in support of it — notably because one of its leaders was the Rev. Bernice King, a daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. Her mother, civil rights activist Coretta Scott King, had been a public supporter of gay rights.
The Census Bureau issued the figures this week to correct its initial release in August, when it put the number of same-sex households at more than 901,000. The initial results also produced a far higher estimate of gay married couples, at a count of more than 349,000.
The bureau says the results were "artificially inflated" because some heterosexual couples checked boxes on the 2010 census form identifying themselves as same-sex couples. The bureau attributes the error to a poorly designed questionnaire that census takers used in recording people's information on door-to-door visits. Some demographers say the form may have produced similar mistakes in the 2000 count.
In all, 29 states have amended their constitutions to effectively outlaw gay marriage by defining marriage as being between a man and a woman. Twelve other states have laws against recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states.
Roughly 19 states have laws against recognizing same-sex civil unions.
At the opposite end of the issue, six states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage. Massachusetts was the first state to do so, in 2004. New York became the latest earlier this year.