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Census Bureau to Married LGBTs: You Don’t Count

Another wacky interpretation of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act is on its way to the computer programmers that design the US Census Bureau’s tabulating, reporting, and storage systems. This one will ensure that same-sex marriages legally performed and recognized by at least two states — California and Massachusetts — will be wiped away by the Census Bureau.

The U.S. Census Bureau, reacting to the federal Defense of Marriage Act and other mandates, plans to edit the 2010 census responses of same-sex couples who marry legally in California, Massachusetts or any other state. They will be reported as "unmarried partners," rather than married spouses, in census tabulations – a policy that will likely draw the ire of gay rights groups.

The Census Bureau followed the same procedure for the 2000 census, and it does not plan to change in 2010 even though courts in Massachusetts and now California have ruled gay men and lesbians can marry lawfully.

But what if you fill out your census form and list your same-sex partner as your spouse (or "husband" or "wife")?

The Census Bureau does not ask about sexual orientation, but it does ask people to describe their relationships to others in their household. If a respondent refers to a person of the same gender as their "husband/wife" on the 2010 census form, the Census Bureau will automatically assign them to the "unmarried partner" category. Legally married same-sex couples will be indistinguishable in census data from those who chose "unmarried partner" to describe their relationship.

Will this make gay families invisible in the census data?

"I just think it’s bad form for the census to change a legal response to an incorrect response," said Gary Gates of the Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California-Los Angeles law school that studies gay-related public policy issues. "That goes against everything the census stands for."

Gates, a prominent demographer who was consulted by Census Bureau officials about counting legally married same-sex couples, said one result is that the census will undercount marriages in states with gay marriage. And because the bureau defines a "family" as two or more people related by birth, adoption or marriage, it also will remove many same-sex married couples from being counted as families.

"It’s a systematic hiding not only of married gay couples, but gay couples as families, which I would argue is a fundamentally political decision," Gates said.

This has real-world impact, since not counting these families in the 2010 Census means that they simply won’t appear in our country’s Constitutionally-mandated decennial accounting of ourselves as a nation. This affects Congressional redistricting and allocation of federal dollars. But being made invisible by your own government’s actions has a greater, more pernicious cost.

"To have the federal government disappear your marriage I’m sure will be painful and upsetting," Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, told the newspaper. "It really is something out of Orwell. It’s shameful."

Orwell is the handbook for BushCheneyCo, of course. But is help on the way? The presumptive Democratic nominee has pledged(.pdf) to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. Shouldn’t the Democratic Congress instruct the Census Bureau to prepare a contingency plan in case DOMA is repealed before the 2010 Census? Shouldn’t our government be prepared to count every family, just in case the legal "impediment" to counting every family is removed?

O’Connell said the Census Bureau has been unable to find any federal agency that collects data on same-sex married couples. Changing the policy before the 2010 census also would be a huge and difficult logistical issue.

"The last thing anyone wants is to use the 2010 census as a trial run," O’Connell said.

Yes, we wouldn’t want anything innovative in the 2010 census, especially since you’ve had four frickin’ years since marriage equality became the law in Massachusetts!

Four years ago Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex couples to marry. Since then, more than 10,000 gay and lesbian couples have exchanged vows in the state.

Sounds like it’s time for yet another rendition of the Bush Administration’s theme song: "No one could have anticipated."

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