New census data showing the number of households occupied by same-sex couples rose by 50 percent in Minnesota over the last decade could have rippling effects as the state heads toward a constitutional vote on same-sex marriage in next year's election.
People in almost 14,000 households throughout the state told the census last year that they were living with their unmarried same-sex partners. Gay and lesbian couples account for less than 1 percent of households across the state.
One such household was in the Longfellow neighborhood of south Minneapolis. Peter Sage is a teacher who lives with his partner of ten years, and their four year old son.
"For us, it was about letting it be known that we are out there, hopefully in significant numbers," Sage said. "I think 10 years ago, it would have been different. People would have been more hesitant."
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Ten years ago was the first time the census counted gay couples. Same-sex marriage wasn't legal in any state in 2000. Minnesota struck down its sodomy laws in 2001 and the federal government did so in 2003. When Americans filled out their census forms in 2010, same-sex marriage was legal in five states plus the District of Columbia, and constitutionally prohibited in 29 others. Minnesota law defines marriage as being between one man and one woman. The measure on next year's ballot, if passed, would add that definition to the state's constitution.
Bill Doherty, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, said the increase in same-sex couples in the 2010 census could be attributed to greater degree of comfort by those who self-report their status, rather than an actual increase in numbers. Forty years ago, Doherty said the census struggled to collect accurate data on another non-traditional family arrangement that was rapidly growing: unmarried straight couples.
"In 1970, it was considered 'living in sin,' and 1980, much more acceptable," Doherty said. "So, we're probably in the same trajectory with same-sex couples being now more willing to report it. That it isn't just a roommate, that it's a partner."
The 2010 census found gay couples in each of Minnesota's 87 counties. That's evidence that the constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman would affect families statewide, said Phil Duran, staff attorney for Outfront Minnesota, a non-profit that lobbies for LGBT equality.
"It just reinforces the fact that same-sex couples are part of the mainstream," Duran said. "They may not be the bulk of it, but the fact is: Same-sex couples are a part of every community throughout Minnesota."
In addition to the increase in same-sex couples living together, the last census saw a 42-percent increase in cohabiting heterosexual couples. Both trends are a concern to Tom Prichard of the Minnesota Family Council. Prichard believes marriage would provide a stronger foundation for children being raised in the male-female households. He is not in favor of allowing the same-sex couples to marry.
"Are we going to allow less than 1 percent of the population to redefine a fundamental institution — marriage. I mean, it's not like we're just allowing a few same-sex couples to marry. We're changing the definition for everybody."
If the amendment passes in 2012, Sage said a household like his — a teacher and a nursing home worker raising a son — might be missing from the 2020 census, in search of a place that's more welcoming.