April 7, 2010 | Kansas City Star | Original Article

Bureau wants same-sex couples to check the 'married' box on census form

Legally, the federal government, Kansas, Missouri and 43 other states do not recognize same-sex marriages — the union of two men or two women.

But one curious aspect of the 2010 U.S. Census?

It does — whether gay marriage is legal or not.

In fact, representatives of the U.S. Census Bureau are so interested in counting same-sex unions or partnerships that on Tuesday they traveled throughout Kansas City, as they have been throughout the nation, trying to assure lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals that not only is it safe to check the “married” box in states where same-sex marriage is not recognized, it’s encouraged.

Another part of their message: If you’re transgender — born genetically male but having changed to female, or vice versa — feel free to check the gender box you prefer.

“The census is a portrait of America,” Che Ruddell-Tabisola, the national LGBT partnership leader for the Census Bureau, said Tuesday in Kansas City. “Our job is to get an accurate count. … One of the most important things is for same-sex couples to know that it is 100 percent safe to participate in the census.”

Safe for two reasons:

First, individuals’ census data are confidential. Second, nowhere on the 2010 census form does the government actually ask for anyone to identify his or her sexual orientation. Boxes exist for “male,” “female” and for spousal relationship. The existence of a same-same marriage or partnership is surmised from the data.

Despite the anonymity, the issue of being counted draws mixed reactions among gay and lesbian couples.

Many, such as state Sen. Jolie Justus of Kansas City — who married partner Shonda Garrison in a May ceremony in Iowa — see the Census Bureau’s move as a small, positive step.

“I guess that I’m impressed that there is a branch of the United States government that recognizes that families come in different forms, including same-sex couples,” Justus said.

At the same time, she and others wonder whether the count actually goes far enough.

The census may capture the small percentage of the gay and lesbian community who list themselves as married couples or as partners in a household. But it does not include single or divorced gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender individuals, so it will offer no realistic sense of how many of them live, work or pay taxes.

Some conservatives worry that the census action actually will produce inflated data for gay-marriage advocates. Even if it doesn’t, they see it lending its legitimacy, another step toward redefining marriage.

In a blog posting, Gary Randall, at the Faith and Freedom Network, said it was “leaving it to responders to characterize their own relationships, regardless of legal status.”

“Will homosexual numbers be inflated by this ‘you decide what you are’ policy? Probably,” Randall wrote, calling it “another attempt to confuse the discussion about marriage.”

Since the census began, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force has been calling on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (the LGBT community) to “Queer the Census.” They ask people to place pink stickers, found at www.queer thecensus.org, on the outside of their individual census packets. The stickers ask that the senders be identified by their sexual orientation.

Activists said the move is as much about political influence as it is cultural and individual recognition.

“We have to show we are here,” said Doug Gray, a Kansas City political consultant who is gay.

In numbers come power, recognition and the ability to influence policy, he said. Without them, it’s easier for policymakers to marginalize issues affecting the gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender community.

Despite being in a committed relationship for a decade, Gray said he purposely did not identify himself as married in the census to make a point.

“I don’t consider us married, because our federal government tells us … we are not worthy of the institution of marriage,” he said. “We need to change that.”

Jason Clinton of Prairie Village, chairman of a local chapter of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network, which helps make schools safe for gay, lesbian and transgender students, did the opposite.

“My partner and I sent our survey back a few weeks ago,” he said. “We put we are married, even though it is not technically true. The census can look and see we are both male and disregard that, or they can choose to see that as what it is — an attempt to be seen as legitimate.”

Until 2003, no state granted marriage licenses to same-sex couples in the United States. Massachusetts became the first in November 2003, followed briefly by California in 2008. Connecticut allowed same-sex marriages in 2008, as did Iowa and Vermont the next year and New Hampshire in January.

It is unclear exactly how many gay and lesbian married couples reside in the United States. A 2008 American Community Survey estimates that of the 112 million U.S. households about 565,000, or about one-half of 1 percent, contain same-sex couples.

The survey also estimates that between 3 percent to 4 percent of the U.S. population, or about 10 million individuals, generally are thought to be gay or lesbian, although numbers vary greatly, depending on the questions and the surveys.

Justus said that getting an accurate count was important. She is working to get sexual orientation added to Missouri’s nondiscrimination act.

“You can be kicked out of your job because you’re gay,” she said. “There is no protection.”

The Rev. Kurt Krieger, pastor at Metropolitan Community Christian Church in Kansas City, which held a forum Tuesday on LGBT issues and the census, said such vulnerability was why some in the LGBT community were slow to reveal their relationship status.

Ruddell-Tabisola reiterated the message: The U.S. Census is confidential.

“If a couple feels they are spouses, if they feel that the person they live with is, in every respect, their husband or their wife, that is how they ought to identify. The bottom line is, this is your census.”