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Classifying Relationship and Marital Status among Same-Sex Couples

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For purposes of official statistics, relationship to the householder is often used to build and define household units. These units, in turn, are used to establish measures of well-being such as household income and poverty. In order to accurately portray a population’s demographic and social profile, however, the measures used to produce such profiles must keep up with changes in society and laws. While same-sex couples in the United States historically have been denied legal recognition, in 2004, Massachusetts enacted legislation making same-sex marriage legal. Since then, several other states (and the District of Columbia) have passed similar laws. As a result, the number of same-sex couples who select the relationship category “husband or wife” isexpected to increase as well. Recent estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) suggest that the number of same-sex couples reporting “husband or wife” is much larger than the actual number of same-sex couples legally married in the U.S. (Gates and Steinberger, 2009; O’Connell and Lofquist, 2009). One obvious explanation is thatsome same-sex couples equate their living situation to a marriage regardless of legal status. Alternatively, questionnaire design may play a part – the spouse category is first in the relationship category list on both the Census and ACS forms while unmarried partner is next to last in a long list of fourteen. This paper reports the results from focus group research to investigate how gay and lesbian couples think about and report their relationships and marital status. We also explored what certain terms, definitions, and categories mean to this subpopulation. The paper concludes with recommendations for question revisions that can be further tested in cognitive interviews and small-scale field tests.


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