Gay Couples Increase in Red and Blue States Alike

There are more same-sex couples nationwide.

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New Census data show that same-sex couplehood is on the rise nationwide, even in states where the laws are most unfriendly to those relationships. Indeed, opponents of same-sex marriage have dug in their heels; as the number of self-professed gay couples has increased, so has the number of states restricting marriage to heterosexual couples only.

Revised Census estimates show that the number of couples identifying as same-sex and living together in the same household grew from 358,390 in 2000 to 646,464 in 2010, an increase of more than 80 percent. There was substantial growth in every state nationwide, though the rates of growth vary widely, from a 42 percent jump in the District of Columbia to a 245 percent jump in West Virginia.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

On the whole, states that issue same-sex marriage licenses have a slightly larger share of same-sex households than states with more restrictive laws. But many states with the most restrictive marriage laws have posted big jumps in same-sex couples. North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana all saw increases of more than 200 percent since 2000. All three of those states have constitutional amendments restricting marriage to one man and one woman. Likewise, West Virginia, which posted the largest growth, has a statute restricting marriage to one man and one woman. Though it is true that these relatively low-population states registered few same-sex couples in 2000—North Dakota, for example, had an estimated 176—and could perhaps thus post large percentage gains more easily, same-sex couples' growth nevertheless outstrips general population growth there.

Though gay rights made significant steps forward in that decade, the movement against same-sex marriage also significantly solidified its position over that time period. According to the Human Rights Campaign, an organization that advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, 28 states enacted constitutional amendments restricting marriage to one man and one woman between 2000 and 2010. During that same time period, six states and the District of Columbia began issuing licenses to same-sex couples (though California voters overturned same-sex marriage in 2008).

According to Gary Gates, distinguished scholar at the UCLA School of Law's Williams Institute, the Census data's increases in same-sex couples signify changes in attitude far more than changes in population. "It is likely that the increases largely reflect an increased willingness on the part of [those] couples to report themselves as such, as opposed to some substantial change in either the number of LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] people or the portion of LGBT people who couple in cohabiting relationships," he says in an E-mail to U.S. News. Additionally, he expects substantial gains in the future: "Clearly, at some point, the increases should begin to get closer to overall population increases, but we're clearly not at that point just yet."

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This new inclination toward openness cannot be turned around, says Brian Moulton, chief legislative council for the Human Rights Campaign. "This trend is definitely going to continue. There's no putting this genie back in the bottle, if you will." He also points out that the Census data only reflects the cohabiting portion of a larger population, and that many more single people are not included in these Census counts.

If that is true, it could spell trouble for anti-gay marriage advocates. As Gates notes, "Knowing someone who is LGBT is one of the best predictors of being supportive of LGBT rights. So as same-sex couples become more visible to their family and friends, it's likely that increasing numbers will support their right to get married."

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While same-sex marriage advocates are hopeful, that movement still finds itself on the defensive in many parts of the country. Opponents of same-sex unions fight the practice with ballot measures. Voters in Minnesota and North Carolina, for example, will consider state constitutional gay marriage bans on Election Day 2012. The track record for such initiatives is heavily in favor of gay marriage opponents. Indeed, as the New York Times' Nate Silver noted earlier this year, of the 34 ballot initiatives that have attempted to limit same-sex marriage rights, all but one have been approved.