2020 Census Will Ask About Same-Sex Relationships
by Hansi Lo Wang
March 30, 2018
For the 2020 census, couples living together will be asked to define their relationship to their partners in a new way – “same-sex” or “opposite-sex”? The Census Bureau announced the change Thursday in its report to Congress on the questions all U.S. households will see on questionnaires used for the upcoming national headcount.
‘Some people do occasionally make mistakes’
Conducted once a decade, the U.S. census began collecting data about same-sex couples in 1990, when the “unmarried partner” category was added to the relationship question to measure the growing trend of couples living together before tying the knot.
Husbands, wives and unmarried partners who both marked the same response to the sex question on recent questionnaires have been included in the bureau’s estimates of same-sex couples. In the mid-2000s, though, researchers at the bureau started looking into whether the counts were inflated because some different-sex couples had accidentally marked the wrong box for their sex.
“Some people do occasionally make mistakes,” says Gary Gates, the leading demographer on collecting data about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who has served as a consultant to the Census Bureau. “That mistake can be literally just sort of like an errant, stray mark in filling out the form that then makes it unclear as to which box was checked.”
Since the count of different-sex couples greatly outnumbers that of same-sex couples, Gates adds that a small number of mismarked boxes can have a big impact on data.
“Even if only a few different-sex couples make an error where they appear to be same-sex couples, it’s a large enough problem that it, for lack of a better word, contaminates the same-gender couples’ sample,” says Gates, a former research director of the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.