Q: How many same-sex marriages will there be in the U.S. in 2010?

Elizabeth's picture

A: None, according to the U.S. Census

Why? A New York Times article on July 18 quotes Steven H. Murdock, director of the U. S. Census Bureau, who explains that because of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act marriages between people of the same sex cannot be recognized or counted even in the states where they are legal. Even by the Census.

Why does it matter? Gay rights activists argue that it matters because it renders married same-sex couples invisible. I agree. That absolutely matters. But it also matters because it is evidence of our government's blinding itself to reality. It is further evidence, as with interference in climate research and health research, that the government cannot be trusted to put science and reason ahead of ideology, religion and faith.

Of course there is a lot that the census does not help us see in relation to gender and sexuality. It doesn't ask about sexual orientation at all for example and it doesn't offer more than the standard M/F sex categories, thus not really taking gender into account at all. Perhaps the debate around the counting of same-sex marriages will lead the Census Bureau to start a process of inquiry into gender and sexuality as it has done with race. The most recent major change having to do with race occurred in the 2000 Census when respondents were allowed to choose more than one race. Acknowledging that race categories are not mutually exclusive was an enormous step toward addressing the complexity of race, moving away from an understanding of race as biologically grounded and toward an understanding that it is grounded in identity, culture and social structure. It is not unthinkable that we could see the same thing happen regarding sex and gender.

Counting and categorizing are often controversial acts. There is disagreement, for example, over whether or not we should continue to count race because it reinforces categories that are socially constructed in problematic ways, and yet it is important to be able to record changes in communities, and in making sure that we have all the information necessary to enforce (and evaluate the need for) civil rights laws. I have a similar sense of tension around the question of counting marriages: I'd like for marital status to be absolutely irrelevant to anything having to do with income, education, or general life-chances for children. I'd like for "family" to be a set of relationships that people identify for themselves and for households to have equal chances whether or not their members adopt marriage as the model for their relationships. The current reality is, though, that marriage matters. It matters partly because it includes legal obligations that other relationships do not. It matters partly because it comes with a great deal of social support that other relationships do not. Do we reinforce the importance of marriage by counting marriages and comparing them to other kinds of relationships? Yes, I think we do. But we also learn a lot that can help us think about creating parity between married-couple households and other kinds of households. Being blind to a social fact is not a good way to change it.

In the mean time, consider writing to your representatives to let them know that you think that DOMA should not be interfering with the collection of important information about the US population. Since the census collects data at the most local of levels it should count all marriages whether or not the federal government recognizes them for other purposes. (Of course you might also tell them that it is long past time to repeal DOMA anyway!)

It comes down to this: The federal government should not allow its official picture of the nation to be drawn inaccurately because of religious disagreements about the morality of homosexuality. The fact is that states govern marriage and if the census is going to count married people in states it should count all people who are legally married according to those states. Religious disagreements about homosexuality have no place in determining what our government can know about our nation and its people.

Technorati Tags: politics, census 2010, Same-sex marriage