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Mon July 8, 2013

How Many Gay Couples Have Tied The Knot? Nobody Knows

Originally published on Tue July 9, 2013 11:36 am

Since the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act in June, many questions have emerged about what the ruling may mean for same-sex couples.

There's one question, though, that would seem easy to answer: How many legal same-sex marriages are there in the U.S.?

The Limitations Of Self-Reporting

It turns out the answer is actually very complicated — so complicated that even experts such as Bob Witeck, president and founder of Witeck Communications, a marketing firm specializing in gay and lesbian consumers, are stumped.

For two decades, Witeck has advised big companies such as Wal-Mart, Disney and Verizon Wireless on how to market to gay customers. He says knowing basic statistics about the LGBT community is "essential" to his business. "When we speak to corporations, the business case is made up of numbers," Witeck explains.

The exact number of legal same-sex marriages, though, has been elusive for Witeck. And it's not for a lack of trying. His desk is covered with market research reports and printed data tables.

Witeck has also worked with the government agency that's charged with tracking numbers about American lives — the Census Bureau, whose latest estimate for same-sex marriages is about 168,000 couples.

But here's one problem with the census number: Not all of those couples are legally married. The bureau ultimately relies on self-reporting, which, of course, doesn't always match with a couple's legal status.

So if you can't rely on the Census Bureau for exact numbers, why not just count the number of marriage certificates that have been issued to same-sex couples in the U.S.?

The New York Times recently attempted that method and came up with "at least" 82,500 couples, noting: "The quality of record-keeping varies: some states rely on estimates, while others keep more detailed records."

A Hodgepodge Of Record Keeping

In California, where gay couples can legally walk down the aisle again now that courts have lifted the ban that was in effect since 2008, marriage licenses are "gender neutral," according to Anita Gore, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Public Health.

"We don't ask for the gender of participants nor whether the marriage license is for an opposite-sex couple or a same-sex couple," says Gore, whose department does not keep a record of the number of same-sex marriages that have been authorized.

Marriage license applications in Iowa, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2009, do ask for an applicant's gender, but answering is optional.

"So if [gender is] not reported to us, then we have no record that [a marriage] is a same-sex marriage" or a marriage between a man and a woman, explains Jill France, chief of the Iowa Department of Public Health's Bureau of Health Statistics

The range of available data among states can be frustrating for demographers like Gary Gates, a scholar with the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Using data from the Census Bureau and other surveys, Gates has come up with his own estimate: 114,000 couples. It's the most widely cited estimate out there, more so than the Census Bureau's larger number.

Still, marketing expert Witeck believes Gates' number is an undercount. He says the hodgepodge of state laws and the uncertainty before the June Supreme Court rulings meant some gay couples wanted to stay off the radar.

But one thing Witeck is certain of is the trend line for legal same-sex marriages — and it's going up.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's been more than a week since the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and there are still a lot of questions about what it means for same-sex couples, as the Obama administration and some states revise their rules and regulations. There's one question, though, that would seem easy to answer: How many legal, same-sex marriages are there in the U.S.?

As NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports, the answer is actually very complicated.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: So complicated that even experts like Bob Witeck are stumped. For two decades, he's been advising big companies like Walmart, Disney and Verizon Wireless on how to market to gay customers. So let me ask you a very basic question: How many legal same-sex marriages are there currently in the United States?

BOB WITECK: Got me.

(LAUGHTER)

WANG: Witeck is president of Witeck Communications in Washington, D.C., a marketing firm specializing in gay and lesbian consumers. So it's pretty important for you to know numbers about the LGBT community?

WITECK: It's essential. When we speak to corporations, the business case is made up of numbers.

WANG: The exact number of legal same-sex marriages, though, has been elusive for Witeck, but not for a lack of trying. His desk is covered with market research reports and printed tables of data. And Witeck has worked with the government agency that's charged with tracking numbers about American lives - the Census Bureau. Their latest estimate for same-sex marriages is about 168,000 couples. But here's one problem: Not all of those couples are legally married.

You see, the Census Bureau ultimately relies on self-reporting, which, of course, doesn't always match with a couple's legal status. So if you can't rely on the Census Bureau for accurate numbers, can't you just count the number of marriage certificates that have been issued to same-sex couples in the states?

ANITA GORE: California marriage license applications are gender neutral.

WANG: Anita Gore is with the Department of Public Health in California, where gay couples can legally walk down the aisle again now that courts have lifted the ban that began in 2008.

GORE: We don't ask for the gender of participants nor whether the marriage license is for an opposite-sex couple or a same-sex couple.

WANG: So you don't know the number of same-sex marriages that have been authorized?

GORE: No.

WANG: Hi, Ms. France. Can you hear me?

JILL FRANCE: Yes.

WANG: So let's try another state.

FRANCE: My name is Jill France. I'm the chief of the Bureau of Health Statistics with the Iowa Department of Public Health.

WANG: And it's her job to collect data on vital statistics. Do you know how many same-sex marriages have been licensed in Iowa?

FRANCE: I know what's been reported.

WANG: Well, what's reported, though, depends on whether or not people choose to share their gender.

FRANCE: So if it's not reported to us, then we have no record that it is a same-sex marriage.

WANG: Or if it's a marriage between a man and woman.

GARY GATES: In some states, you really just don't have the information.

WANG: That's Gary Gates. He's a demographer with the Williams Institute at UCLA, and he's come up with his own number.

GATES: I estimate that there are about 114,000 same-sex couples who are legally married in the United States.

WANG: Yes, he estimates using data from the Census and other surveys, but it's the most widely cited estimate out there, more so than the Census Bureau's bigger number. Bob Witeck in Washington, D.C., believes Gates' number is an undercount. He says the hodgepodge of state laws and the uncertainty before the Supreme Court rulings meant some gay couples wanted to stay off the radar. One thing he certain of, though, is the trend line for legal same-sex marriages, and it's going up. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.