By Tara Cavanaugh
The 2010 U.S. census data shows that 21,782 same-sex couples call Michigan home, according to a report released by the Williams Institute on Aug. 18. But this is likely just a sliver of the state’s LGBT population, which is a difficult community to measure.
The Williams Institute report says on average, same-sex couples make up 5.6 out of every 1,000 households in Michigan. The top five counties and cities that were home to the most same-sex couples in the state are: Washtenaw, Ingham, Allegan, Kalamazoo and Kent; Pleasant Ridge, Ferndale, Huntington Woods, Ypsilanti and Royal Oak.
Of those 21,782 same-sex couples in Michigan, 21 percent are raising children. Sixty-nine percent of those parents are female couples, and 31 percent are male couples.
Gary Gates, a demographer at the Williams Institute, a think tank affiliated with the University of California Los Angeles that specializes in policy research related to sexual orientation, said same-sex couples who are raising children tend to live in rural areas. This trend holds true in Michigan.
“The media image of same-sex parents is of surrogacy, adoption and artificial insemination,” Gates said, but the majority of same-sex couples who are parents are raising children from previous heterosexual relationships. “These people are coming out later in life, which is common in more conservative, rural areas,” Gates said.
The number of same-sex couples in Michigan appears to be a large increase from the 2000 U.S. census, which reported 15,368 same-sex couples in the state.
Gates, who has studied same-sex couple data since the 1990 census, said there’s still no way to get an exact count just yet.
“It’s impossible to count people who don’t want to be counted,” Gates said, adding that the Williams Institute estimates that roughly 15 percent of same-sex couples would not identify as same-sex couples on the census. In fact, Gates is careful not to label the couples as gay or lesbian: “I call them same-sex couples,” he said. “That’s the only information I know.”
Gates said he faced a lot of negative feedback earlier this year when he released an analysis of population surveys that showed that only three to five percent of the U.S. population was gay. But that estimate was of those who self-identify as gay, Gates said.
“The bigger issue is this whole issue of when we use the term LGBT, what do we mean? We don’t have a standard definition. In my work I reserve those terms for self-identified people.”
Regardless of the difficulties in counting all same-sex couples, Gates said the census shows a 50 percent increase in same-sex couples self-reporting nationwide, which is a huge jump that he did not anticipate.
“This suggests a pretty substantial shift in the last ten years in this willingness to report,” he said. The Williams Institute data is not only adjusted to accommodate the 15 percent of couples who would not report, but also to accommodate the heterosexual couples who accidentally report as same-sex couples. This means that the overall increase in reported same-sex couples is quite remarkable.
The biggest increases are showing up in the most conservative states, Gates said, which brings light to “how very big the closet was” ten years ago: Montana, for example, registered an 88 percent increase in same-sex couples.
The census does not ask individuals about their sexual orientation, but Equality Michigan, a statewide advocacy group, estimates at least 287,000 gay and transgender adults live in Michigan. The organization applauded the news of the increase in same-sex couples and reminded Michiganders that LGBT citizens still lack basic protections in employment and housing.
“Gay and lesbian residents live in every region of our state, yet lawmakers continue to ignore them,” said Denise Brogan-Kator, Equality Michigan’s executive director. “Many of these couples live in fear of losing a job for reasons that have nothing to do with their job performance, or losing access to health care because of anti-gay activists, or being targeted by hate violence.”
Another difficulty in measuring the LGBT population is that the census does not count the “T” part of the community – transgender citizens. “We’re fighting in so many ways in Michigan to be included in everything, and we are making progress,” said Rachel Crandall, director of Transgender Michigan. “However, this is an example that we still have a while to go.”
Crandall said she was unhappy but unsurprised that the census ignores transgender individuals. “How can you address discrimination when you don’t even have an accurate count? It’s just not possible,” she said. “So we’re fighting for them to have an accurate count about everything.”
Mara Kiesling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said she’s working with government researchers to determine the best ways to count transgender individuals. The NCTE published the largest-ever study about the lives of transgender individuals early this year.
“One of our top priorities is to get our government to start counting trans people in surveys,” she said, but it’s not as simple as counting them by the census. The Department of Health and Human Services is working with people who do research on transgender individuals to figure out which government population surveys to use, and how to approach the question in each different survey.
Michigan cities and counties with most same-sex couples
On average, there are 5.6 same-sex couples per 1,000 households in Michigan. But these top 5 counties and cities had higher than average rates of same-sex couples.
11.06 per 1,000 households
8.73 per 1,000 households
8.53 per 1,000 households
7.49 per 1,000 households
6.74 per 1,000 households
59.55 per 1,000 households
35.06 per 1,000 households
21.72 per 1,000 households
20.39 per 1,000 households
13.6 per 1,000 households