Ten years have passed since Massachusetts became the first state to allow gay marriage. Beginning this fall, the Census Bureau will start counting those couples as married.
We rely on the bureau to tell us about changes in our society. Is our population growing? Are we getting older? How many black families in Boston own homes? It turns out, though, that sometimes things work the other way. When our society shifts, the census has to adapt to keep up. And one of the big shifts happening now is that there are a growing number of gay, married couples and a solidifying consensus among the public that those marriages should count.
Up to now, the bureau has largely acted as if gay married couples didn’t exist. Back in 1990, if it received a form suggesting that two women were married, it assumed there was an error and turned one of them into a man (statistically, anyway). Since 2000, it has used a different tactic: Gay couples who claim to be married have been recorded as same-sex cohabiting couples.
Altering this policy is only the most recent step in a long history of adjustments about who counts and how they should be counted. From the first census in 1790 up through 1850, the bureau didn’t collect information about women or children, much less slaves. Until 1860, Native Americans weren’t officially counted. Now, 2014 will be the year gay spouses are counted among married couples.
Given that same-sex couples currently make up less than 1 percent of all marriages, the numbers may not change much at first. But part of the value of the census is that it allows us to watch our society change over time. Moving forward, we’ll have a much better sense for how many gay, married couples there are, how those couples are doing, and what kinds of policy changes might be beneficial.