U.S. Census Reveals Rise of Same-Sex Unions

Published in: January-February 2012 issue.


THE WILLIAMS INSTITUTE, a prestigious GLBT think tank located at the UCLA School of Law, recently released a report with some fascinating statistics. In a comprehensive study based on the last decade of U.S. Census data and statistics from state marriage and domestic partnership registries, researchers Lee Badgett and Jody Herman surveyed the number of same-sex couples that married or registered in civil unions or domestic partnerships. They also looked at the gender and age of those who did so. And they tried to compile the number of couples that are formally ending their relationships each year, in comparison to the divorce rate for straight couples.

Some of the major general findings of the study* (“United States Census Snapshot: 2010”) are summarized as follows:

1. Nearly 150,000 same-sex couples have either married or registered as civil union or domestic partners, which constitutes about one-fifth of identified same-sex couples in the U.S. (i.e., a fifth of those who acknowledged themselves as such in recent U.S. Census reports).

2. About one percent of the total number of currently married or registered same-sex couples get divorced each year, in comparison to about two percent of married straight couples. (Note that the percentage of couples that get divorced eventually is close to fifty percent, but only one or two percent of them get divorced in any particular year.)

3. Couples are more likely to formalize their relationship legally when marriage is an option in their state than to pursue domestic partnership or civil union registration in states where only those options are allowed.

4. Nearly two-thirds of registered or married same-sex couples are lesbians, and only about a third are gay men.

5. A smaller percentage of same-sex couples register or marry compared to straight couples, but if current trends continue, the marriage or registration rates for same-sex couples will be similar to straight marriage rates in five to ten years.

What do these statistics tells us about what is happening with gay marriage and divorce?

First, fully equal marriage (even absent federal recognition) is more attractive to same-sex couples than a legal equivalent such as civil union or domestic partnership registration. This finding is consistent with earlier studies which have shown that same-sex couples are more interested in the social symbolism and community acceptance bestowed by marriage than in the material or legal benefits of a domestic partnership or civil union registration.

Second, marriage is more appealing to lesbians than to gay men. There are some socio-economic reasons for this pattern. Women are more likely to be raising children; they’re more likely to have one partner who’s unemployed (and thus needing health benefits); and they tend to have lower income than their male counterparts, which could increase the importance of the economic benefits of marriage. But one also senses that there’s a cultural basis to this trend. For all the feminist arguments to the contrary, women seem to be more interested in marriage and a long-term (monogamous) relationship than are men, regardless of their sexual orientation. Intriguingly enough, however, some studies have shown that committed lesbian relationships don’t seem to last any longer on average than do gay men’s relationships. It will be interesting to see whether this trend holds as more same-sex couples of both sexes tie the knot.

Third, the divorce rate is lower for same-sex couples than for straight couples. It would be wonderful to proclaim that this shows an admirably high level of commitment on the part of same-sex couples—and, in light some high-profile quick divorces (think Kim Kardashian), this wouldn’t seem that crazy. However, I suspect that this may be attributable more to the kinds of couples getting married in these early years of same-sex marriage, and not a testament to the overall stability of lesbian and gay relationships.

There’s no statistical data out yet on this particular dynamic, but in my experience as a lawyer working with same-sex couples, the partners who are getting married tend to be those who have already been together for quite some time. They’ve already weathered the stormy middle years of coupledom, and they are consciously committed to being a family. For that reason, we should not be surprised that they’re not rushing to get divorced so quickly. Think about it: there are still many more obstacles to getting married if you’re gay, so those in shaky relationships are not as likely to travel to Iowa or New York to tie the knot—and there certainly are no “shotgun” marriages in the gay community!

Despite the uncertainties about statistics and the limited data available, the trends uncovered by this report tell us a lot about the new world of same-sex marriage. Opponents of same-sex marriage are still railing against it and trying to pass new laws to stop it, but it may just be that this demographic tide of actual married couples that will soon overwhelm these efforts.


Frederick Hertz, an attorney, is the author of Making It Legal: A Guide to Same-Sex Marriage, Domestic Partnerships & Civil Unions (2011; see www.MakingItLegal.net). This article was adapted from a piece that was first published on-line at Huffington Post / Gay Voices.



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