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Unbinding the Ties: Edit Effects of Marital Status on Same Gender Couples

Written by:
Working Paper Number POP-WP034

This paper was originally presented at the 1999 Annual Meeting of the Population Association of America, New York, NY, March 25-27 1999


This paper reports results of research and analysis undertaken by Census Bureau staff. It has undergone a more limited review than official Census Bureau publications. This report is released to inform interested parties of research and to encourage discussion.





The purpose of this research is to assess current Census Bureau edit procedures for marital status and household relationship among same gender couples. We examine data collected at two Census 2000 Dress Rehearsal sites, and compare couples reporting a relationship of spouse with those reporting a relationship of unmarried partner. The current Census Bureau editing policy changes the relationships for people self-identified as same gender married couples into unmarried partners. A very small proportion of people in this situation have their gender changed based on their first name. We find that those couples self identifying as married couples are different from couples self identifying as unmarried partners on a number of important characteristics. Most especially children are much more likely to be coresident in married households. Our findings clearly indicate that the Census Bureau edit process is combining heterogeneous groups of couples.


This research evaluates data from the Census 2000 Dress Rehearsal, the implications of the current editing process on the presentation of household relationship items for same gender couples in the 2000 Census, and more generally, the presentation of family and household items for this population in all Census Bureau data collection efforts. Same gender couples reporting that they are married on Census Bureau surveys are edited in one of two ways: 1) the person reported to be the spouse is edited to be an unmarried partner, or 2) the gender of one of the partners is changed. The first is by far the most common type of edit, the gender of a partner is only changed in about one percent of the occurrences of couples reporting that they are "married" and of the same gender.

The origins of this edit process come from two directions. First, the "legal" definition of marriage evolved in this century from the common usage and normative understanding of the term marriage and became defined as a "[l]egal union of one man and one woman, as husband and wife." The census edit process recognizes this commonly understood definition of marriage, resulting in a defined universe of married couples that excludes same gender marriages.

Congress has recently addressed recognition of same gender marriages. Legislation recently passed, H.R.3396 of the 104th Congress, the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, is summarized as follows:

Defense of Marriage Act - Amends the Federal judicial code to provide that no State, territory, or possession of the United States or Indian tribe shall be required to give effect to any marriage between persons of the same sex under the laws of any other such jurisdiction or to any right or claim arising from such relationship.

An implication of this legislation for the edit process of Census data products is that, although a person may hypothetically be legally married to someone of the same gender in one state, the edit process would need to be informed by the specific marriage laws of the state where the couples reside at the time of Census enumeration. This legislation further defines marriage and spouse as follows:

`In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word `marriage' means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word `spouse' refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.'

While this is not a binding definition for state legislation and decisions, it would present some inconsistencies for Census Bureau data processing should states decide to recognize same gender marriages.

Second, same gender unions create inconsistencies in the presentation of data where characteristics in a table stub assume that the spouse of the householder is the opposite gender of the householder. An example of this type of tabulation would be presentation of a table of male householders showing the children ever born to the spouse of the householder. The implication is that all of the spouses are females, and therefore at risk of childbirth. Additionally, balancing the number of husbands and wives is a priority for presenting tables and making a consistent presentation of data, where users are able to match universes across tables.

These are both institutional reasons for maintaining the status quo in data collection and processing. Any suggested change to the current collection methodology and editing would have to be demonstrated and defended through research and then carefully planned and implemented, taking into account the potential policy and processing implications.

This work addresses one of the research issues. This paper examines the heterogeneity of the populations self-identifying as same gender married couples, compared to those identifying as same gender unmarried partners. If these populations prove distinct, then consideration would need to be taken when analyzing the results of the Census 2000 enumeration, because researchers will not be able to distinguish between these two differently self-identified households once the editing procedure has occurred. Both published tabulations and micro-data files released to the public will only contain the final edited results.

The data for this paper include responses to the Census 2000 Dress Rehearsal conducted in April 1998 from sites in Sacramento, California and South Carolina. We evaluate the characteristics of the same-gender couples' households that would be expected to differentiate married from unmarried. The prevailing discussion of the determinants and characteristics of marriage and cohabitation are primarily from a heterosexual perspective. We attempt to integrate this perspective with lesbian and gay perspectives on the institution of marriage. From this, we address three hypotheses differentiating the characteristics of same gender couples identifying as married from those identifying as unmarried partners:

  • Couples identifying as married will be older compared to those identifying as unmarried partners.

  • Children will more often be coresident in married couple households.

  • Married couple households will also be households that have greater financial resources.


Marriage of same gender couples is a subject of controversy both within and outside of the homosexual community. To date the family research literature has been quite limited with respect to research on lesbian and gay families (Allen and Demo, 1995). In their discussion of future research directions, Allen and Demo (1995) observe the trend toward secondary data analysis in family research and note that the "a priori exclusion of lesbians and gay men from these samples precludes examination and comparison of particular kinds of questions and subjects." It is unlikely that federal data collection agencies will begin including questions on sexual orientation in current national data collection instruments without a legislative requirement or mandate. However, data collection and processing might be revised to address some aspects of these current exclusions.

The recognition of same gender unions is not a new debate. Boswell (1994) shows evidence that the significant religions of the time in pre-modern Europe sanctified and performed marriage ceremonies to people of the same gender. He finds this evidence in language, liturgy, images, and legend from a significant and varied number of historical sources. There is consensus among historians that it has only been since 1300 AD that the Catholic Church sought to discourage same gender unions. Today a number of religious denominations recognize same gender marriages, and perform ceremonies of marriage for same gender couples.

Even given a historical context and some recognition by present day religious groups, marriage as an institution has not been fully embraced by the gay and lesbian community. To many within the gay and lesbian community the institution of marriage represents the antithesis of sexual freedom and gender equality. However, activists fall on both sides of the fight to legalize same gender marriages. Eskridge (1996) and Strasser (1997) discuss both sides of this debate predominantly focusing on the legal context of marriage of two men or two women.

Advocates for the inclusion of gay and lesbian unions within the legal institution of marriage argue strongly on a number of points. First, discrimination on the basis of gender is unconstitutional. Second, gay men and lesbians vehemently argue that through same gender marriages they should have the right to attend to their partners' financial and health issues with the same rights as heterosexual spouses. Marriage would allow partners the right to make medical decisions, be covered by a partner's health insurance, and gain survivorship, visitation, and inheritance rights. Additionally, many argue for marriage as an environment for raising children and as a necessity to provide guardianship rights for both partners (Eskridge 1996, Strasser 1997). Some states, including California, have domestic partnership laws which address some of these arguments.

Opponents of marriage within the gay and lesbian community do not dispute that they should be given the option to marry, but more often question why any gay man or lesbian would want to participate in marriage. Many on this side of the debate find marriage, as an institution, distasteful due to its patriarchal past, embedded gender roles, and mainstream connotations. These resonate with the position that many feminists have taken with marriage as an institution (Folbre 1994, Risman 1998).

Many have turned to alternate ceremonies of commitment to signify the depth of their relationship to themselves and to others (Stiers 1999, Eskridge 1996, Strasser 1997). Gay and lesbian couples seem to be able to define their own relationships within normative roles in the gay and lesbian community. The social identity these couples develop for themselves, their families, and in their public interactions are often less clear when children enter the picture, or they attempt to identify themselves as married to those external to their community. Sullivan (1998) presents a poignant discussion of the development of new social roles and evolving social identities associated with "co-parenting" among lesbian couples with children. As Sullivan points out, having borne a child gives a woman an identity as "mother", that is accepted without question and assumed by most to reflect a heterosexual orientation. The "co-mother" role or identity is not so clear.

In much the same way Sullivan's "co-mother" is seeking to develop her own identity and the nature of her kin ties with her children, both for private and public consumption, defining themselves as married may be a starting point for gay and lesbian couples in developing their own family identity. This may be especially true as their relationship involves children, extended family, and in particular public interactions. Perhaps describing a union as a marriage specifies a division of labor in the household and a different type of investment in the family economy for the partners. Perhaps it identifies a situation where parenting responsibilities exist. Whatever the reason, the question remains about whether the couples that say they are married are different from those who choose not to identify as married. We would benefit by recognizing characteristics of these family systems as soon as possible.

Data and Methods

In the course of reviewing the data collection and processing of the Census 2000 Dress Rehearsal household and family relationship survey item, we are fortunate to be able to examine characteristics of same gender couples prior to their aggregation into unmarried partners. The Census 2000 Dress Rehearsal was conducted in April of 1998 in Sacramento, California; the city of Columbia, South Carolina and eleven surrounding counties; and on the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin.

After initial processing of the returned forms, a data file is generated that has the raw response data for each household. This file is called the Census Unedited File (CUF). Excluding group quarters and military forms, the CUF included approximately 135,281 households in the Sacramento, California site, 239,048 households in the Columbia, South Carolina and surrounding counties site, and 1,307 households on the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin. This is only an approximate count, as it will change once the final edit processing of the data is completed. For the purposes of this research, we excluded the Wisconsin site because the population of same gender couples was too small for adequate analysis.

From these data, a file was compiled of both married and unmarried couples based on their response to the "relationship to householder" item on the questionnaire. This is an item included on 100% of the forms (in census jargon, this is a 'short form' question). We performed some initial edits to minimize the chance that the couples being examined were included erroneously. First we exclude spouses, partners, or householders who are under age 15. We also removed duplicate person records where full names, ages, and gender matched, as well as any households with missing data on relationship to householder, age, or gender.

Table 1 presents the number of households once these preliminary edits were completed. We have a sample of same gender unmarried partners totaling 819 households in Sacramento, California, and 326 households in Columbia, South Carolina. Our sample of same gender married couples yielded 360 households in Sacramento, and 849 households in South Carolina. For these samples, we show distributions of basic demographic characteristics, including age, race, presence of children in the household, age of children in the household, and presence of other adults in the household in tables 2 and 3. For approximately 1/6 of these households we show distributions for additional variables collected only on the long (sample) enumeration forms. From the long forms, we are able to add questions on individual education, marital status, migration, and employment shown in tables 4 and 5. Additional long form variables will be available in the future once final processing of the sample data is completed.

Table 1. Number of households by household type and Census 2000 Dress Rehearsal site.

Self-identified Household type CENSUS 2000 DRESS REHEARSAL SITE
Sacramento, CA Columbia, SC
ALL Households "Long Form"
Sample ONLY
ALL Households "Long Form"
Sample ONLY

TOTAL HOUSEHOLDS 128,498 17,607 227,053 33,246
Total Married 49,942 6,832 109,571 16,128
Opposite gender couple 49,582 6,770 108,722 15,963
Same gender couple 360 62 849 165
  Male/male 165 27 353 61
  Female/female 195 35 496 104
Total Unmarried Partner 7,184 771 7,516 829
Opposite gender couple 6,365 658 7,190 785
Same gender couple 819 113 326 44
  Male/male 400 64 161 19
  Female/female 419 49 165 25
Total Neither 71,372 10,004 109,966 16,289
Male householder ONLY 26,829 3,753 35,684 5,233
Female householder ONLY 44,543 6,251 74,282 11,056

This is a descriptive analysis, and as such, an examination of simple univariate and bivariate distributions comprise the bulk of this work. First, we compare unedited distributions for "married" and unmarried same gender couples, and compare these with their combined distribution as would be the case once the Census 2000 edits are performed. These distributions are shown separately for male/male and female/female couples. We attempt to further identify relationships that persist in the presence of other covariates. To this end we summarize the descriptive findings with multivariate logistic regressions that measure the strength of the associations between the covariates and same gender couples who identify as married rather than unmarried partners.


Describing Same Gender Couples from the 100% Results

An initial examination of the data in Tables 1, 2, and 3 shows some basic patterns. The relative proportions of same gender married and unmarried partner households are reversed for the two sites, with unmarried partners more prevalent than same gender married couples in California, but the reverse in South Carolina (Table 1). This pattern repeatedly emerges both in the total and sample data sets. The similarity in the numbers is coincidental. One possible reason for the reversal is the provision for persons in California to have domestic partnerships, and the fact that the population in California may be more familiar or comfortable with the concept of an "unmarried partner." However, an argument could be made that California has a more active homosexual community and there may be more interest and awareness in the same-gender marriage debate. This is conjecture and something that will not be revealed by this data. Nonetheless we continue to examine patterns of the other covariates by marital status, and by site. If there were significant differences in the meaning of "marriage" by site, it is our hope that site specific tables will illuminate these differences.

Tables 2 and 3 present distributions of basic "short-form" characteristics; age, race, presence and age of children, and number of unrelated adults in the household for same gender couples by gender and type of relationship in California and South Carolina respectively. These results show age distributions that reveal striking differences. For both sites, the proportion of respondents (person 1) over age 50 in married couple households is much greater than in unmarried partner households, indicating a relatively older population for married households. This is true whether one examines male/male or female/female households. The mean age difference between person 1 and their spouse/partner is less than 3 years although there are sizable standard deviations, indicating some spread in individual age differences. A greater proportion of married male couples are in the same age group than are male unmarried partner couples.

The distributions of same gender couple households by the race of person 1 show differences for both the site at which the data was collected and for married versus unmarried partner households. In California (Table 2) less than 50% of the married couple households have a householder identifying only white as their race. Compared to about 80% of the householders in unmarried partner households. This pattern persists in South Carolina, although there is only about a 10-15 percentage point difference between married and unmarried couple households. Overall, South Carolina has less racial diversity than California with approximately 95% of householders either White or Black regardless of couple status; so this finding was not unexpected. For both sites, in both married-couple or unmarried partner households, the majority of partners identify the same racial group as person 1. There are only marginally greater proportions of interracial couple households in California (about 15 to 20 percent) than in South Carolina (5 to 10 percent).

Household composition proved to hold some interesting differences between married and unmarried partner households. Children were coresident in a much greater proportion of married couple households than in unmarried partner households. Between 50 and 60% of married couple households in California and between 45 and 50 % of married couple households in South Carolina have children in the household. This contrasts sharply with the unmarried partner households where only 8 to 20% of households in California, and between 18 and 22% in South Carolina, had coresident children. We also examined the number of coresident unrelated adults, and found very few households (generally less than 5 percent), either married couple or unmarried partner, that had any coresident unrelated adults, other than the respondent and their spouse/partner. This finding was similar by gender of the couple and survey site.

The two columns of "edited" data in tables 2 and 3 indicate the estimated number of same gender unmarried couples which would result after all married couple households were edited into unmarried partner households. For the California site, about 30 percent of unmarried partner households would be comprised of households originally designating themselves as married-couple households. For South Carolina, this percentage would be 70 percent. A combination of these two demographically different household structures into a single edited household type could affect the analyses of same gender households, especially if different areas produce an aggregate total from different proportions of household types.

Describing Same Gender Couples from the Long Form (Sample) Results

Long form distributions for California and South Carolina are presented in tables 4 and 5. These tables present data from the sample "long" form for same gender couples by gender and type of relationship. For this set of tables we include: the respondents' reported marital status, the educational attainment of the respondent and the similarity of this level for the spouse/partner of person 1, the employment status of person 1 and of their spouse/partner in the last week, and an indicator of their residential stability. The frequency distributions in tables 4 and 5 are based on very small numbers of households. The percentages should be considered cautiously. However, it should be noted that when aggregated and analyzed in a logistic regression the relationships cursorily observed in these tables persist. Discussion of the regression results follows the discussion of these tables.

The reported marital status of person 1 is the first of the variables added from the sample forms. This was included to evaluate the responses entered for relationship to household reference person (person 1). The distribution of the marital status item for both men and women, in both data collection sites, and for married couples and unmarried partners, prove to be consistent and validate the responses to the relationship item. The distributions do not reflect perfect agreement, but the overwhelming trend is in a direction that is consistent and distinguishes these two groups of households. In California, 74 percent of partners were reported to be in agreement with the respondent, that they were married spouse present. In South Carolina, between 80 and 85 percent of partners were reported to be in agreement with the respondent, that they are married spouse present in married couple households. The percentage of respondents and partners in unmarried partner households both reported in agreement that they were "currently not married" ranges between 84 and 97 percent of the households for the two sites and gender combinations.

There are greater proportions of respondents in unmarried partner households that have experience in college, and there are correspondingly higher proportions of respondents in married couple households that have high school degrees or less. Current employment status follows a trend consistent with educational status between these two types of couples. For both male and female couple households, a greater proportion of unmarried partner households have both the respondent and spouse/partner currently employed than in married couple households. Residential stability also indicates some differences by type of couple. Higher proportions of married couple households have both the respondent and their spouse reporting that they lived in that house five years ago. These patterns are consistent with the age pattern of the householders shown in tables 2 and 3 which indicate a higher proportion of householders age 50 years and over among the married couples than unmarried partner households. Younger couples have probably benefitted from more recent trends in increasing educational levels, and are now more mobile, and likely to be employed than are people who are older.

Multivariate Summary of Same Gender Couple Household Results

Table 6 presents the results of simple multivariate regressions on the probability that a same gender household is also a married couple household by various characteristics. It is important to point out that these are probabilities of associations, not cause. The data collection sites are combined in these models, and a dummy variable is added to indicate the collection site. Although we believe that there are interactions present in the underlying relationship, for the purpose of this paper we do not attempt to model them. In model A we include the variables available from the short form (100%) only. The relationship between having children in the household and being married is quite strong. Same gender households with children are 7 times more likely to be married couple households. Households in South Carolina are also more likely to identify as married couple households, 5 times more than those households from Sacramento. Controlling for the relative age of the partner, householders who are 40 years or older are more likely to identify as married couple households (3 times more likely), and partners who are in the same five year age group are more likely to also be married compared to those whose partners are in the adjacent or more distant age groups.

In model B, we add variables from the long form, and correspondingly reduce the sample to long form respondents. The relationships between presence of children, age of the respondent, and data collection site and the likelihood of being married persist in the presence of additional covariates from the sample form. In model B, the variable indicating the presence of other unrelated adults is dropped because it failed to attain significance in the 100 percent models. In addition to these relationships, respondents with any college experience are less likely to be in married couple households 74% less likely than respondents with a high school degree. Respondents in stable households, those where both partners lived at that residence five years ago, are more likely to also be married. Households in which both the respondent and their partner worked last week, are less likely to identify themselves as married couples, 53% less than households where only one of the partners is working.

Models C and D show results for the variables included in model A, but stratified by site. The results in these models only differ from the combined model in two places. First, for the Sacramento site, couples in which the respondent and partner identify the same race category are more likely to also be married. This effect would not be expected to be present at the Columbia, South Carolina site because of the very high overall level of racial homogamy in both married and unmarried partner households. At the Columbia site, female couples are 38% more likely to also be married compared to male couples.

Appendix A shows results for the same four models, only exchanging marriage for the presence of children as a dependent outcome. These models present a consistent picture with that shown for marriage. Some of the interactions present in the data begin to be apparent when these results are examined. Because the presence of children was such a strong correlate for being in a married couple household, this appendix is included as reference.

Summary and Conclusions

It is clear from the examination of these unedited data that households which are identified as "married couple" same gender households are a distinct group from households which are identified as unmarried partner same gender households. By combining these households, as in the "Edited data columns" in tables 2 through 5, we are distorting the picture for both of these groups of households. We set out by hypothesizing three relationships that might be expected to differentiate married from unmarried partner households. The first was supported, but requires further examination. That is, it does seem that older couples are more likely to also be married couples. One possible explanation is that older "married" couples would have had more time to have been involved in heterosexual marriages previously, which may be related to both the presence of children and their identification as "married." Additionally, older couples may be involved in unions of greater duration which may be more likely to be referred to as "marriages." There are some complications underlying these observations. First, this is undoubtedly a population that has experienced significant cohort effects, people currently under 40 years of age were born in 1958 at the earliest, this would have made them only 12 years old at the onset of the 1970's and only 22 at the oldest by the end of that decade. These are a very different group of people from those in the over 40 age group. It is likely that age and cohort effects might also explain differences in education, current employment, and migration.

Our second hypothesis, that married couple households would be more likely to also have coresident children, was supported. Across gender and site, and controlling for other characteristics, couples with children in the household are much more likely to also be married. Remember that we are using the term "married" in a slightly different context than normal. These are not state sanctioned legal marriages if they are accurately reported as same gender unions. This is more likely the adoption of a social meaning of marriage that is being used in household environments with children. There is no way to validate this speculation from these data. However, it is certainly clear that children are more likely to be found in same gender households reported as "married".

Regarding our third hypothesis, the results are not obvious. Due to data availability issues we were unable to include income, household ownership, occupation, and other measures of individual and household wealth and financial stability from the unedited data file. Our first proxy for financial stability is current work status. While dual earner couples are likely have more disposable income, and in our data set are less likely to be married, it is also true that, on average, financial stability increases with age, and so we found older respondents more likely to be married. Pending additional information about financial stability, and further consideration of interactions, additional conclusions about trends in marital status for same gender couples by financial stability would be premature.

It is important to warn the reader that these data cannot be extrapolated to the nation as a whole. However, these results clearly illustrate that there is a potential for significant increases in the same gender unmarried partner counts. This would seriously impact analytic results, by inflating the number of unmarried partner couples with couples who have clearly different demographic characteristics. Same gender unmarried partners represented about one sixth of one percent of all households in the 1990 Census. This is of course a national average and will vary significantly by region, state, and especially by smaller geography. In the dress rehearsal results, same gender couples represent 0.5 percent of households at the Columbia site, and 0.9 percent of households at the Sacramento site. Altogether, this combined total of same-gender married couple and unmarried partner households makes up a very small percentage of all households. However, after the edit reassignments are made, same gender households will make up about one sixth of all unmarried partner households. On average, adding same gender couples who indicate that they are "married" to same gender unmarried partner counts significantly increases the latter estimate for both sites combined.

It is our conclusion that these two groups of self identified couples are distinct, and consideration of alternative edit decisions and tabulation methods should be explored. Further examination of these populations once the covariates are fully edited, and examination of data from the full Census 2000 enumeration in April, 2000 will further illuminate the degree of heterogeneity caused by our edit process in this population.


Allen, Katherine R. and David H. Demo. 1995. "The Families of Lesbians and Gay Men: A New Frontier in Family Research." Journal of Marriage and the Family 57:111-127.

Boswell, John. 1995. Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Eskridge, Jr., William N. 1996. From Sexual Liberty to Civilized Commitment - The Case For Same-Sex Marriage. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Folbre, Nancy. 1994. Who Pays for the Kids? Gender and the Structures of Constraint. London: Routledge.

Risman, Barbara J. 1998. Gender Vertigo: American Families in Transition, Yale University Press.

Stiers, Gretchen A. 1999. From This Day Forward - Commitment, Marriage, and Family in Lesbian and Gay Relationships. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press.

Strasser, Mark. 1997. Legally Wed - Same-Sex Marriage and the Constitution. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Sullivan, Maureen. 1998. "Alma Mater: Family 'Outings' and the Making of the Modern Other Mother (Mom)." Unpublished.


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