ST. LOUIS • About seven of every 1,000 households in the St. Louis area are headed by same-sex couples, and about 23 percent of those households are raising children.
Census data released today show for the first time at a local level how many same-sex couples are raising children.
The new numbers show a jump in the number of same-sex households from a decade ago, when similar information was collected by the Census Bureau. For example, in Missouri, the number increased to 15,242 couples from 10,881 a decade ago, a 40 percent increase.
Demographers say that is due more to a willingness to identify on census forms as a gay couple rather than a spike in the number of same-sex households.
"There's no question that acceptance (of gays) has increased in the last 10 years and, as a result, more people are comfortable reporting as a couple," said Gary J. Gates, a scholar with the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law focusing on sexual orientation issues. That rationale is the reason for dramatic jumps in rural areas, he said, especially when it comes to those raising children. For example, there was an increase of 42 percent in Washington County and 41 percent in St. Francois County since 2000.
"It's not that gay couples are moving to rural Missouri to raise children," Gates said. "They often come from a socially conservative environment and don't come out until later in life."
As a result, many of those couples include at least one partner who brought children into the relationship.
The Census Bureau has been rolling out new data on same-sex couples a few states at a time. Today's findings include Missouri and five other states. Illinois information will be released next week. Gates said that after reviewing data released on the first 25 states, he estimates the final tally will show 900,000 households headed by same-sex couples, about 50 percent more than in 2000.
Among them are Julie and Kate Brueggemann of St. Louis, who are raising a 19-month-old girl in the Carondelet neighborhood.
"It was 2004 when all the marriage amendments went through the states. That really triggered a lot of people to be more public and talking about their lives," said Julie Brueggemann, 38. "It's not surprising at all to me that the number of couples would have jumped so dramatically."
In the last decade, six states have legalized gay marriage, most recently New York, where the law took effect Sunday. In June, Illinois joined seven other states that allow civil unions or broadly defined domestic partnerships for same-sex couples, but not formal marriage. And a Gallup Poll in May suggests that for the first time, a majority of Americans supports same-sex marriage. When the question was first posed 15 years ago, only 27 percent of those polled said they supported the unions.
But gay marriage and same-sex couples raising children remain divisive issues in the United States. Some conservative groups argue that marriage is for two people of the opposite sex, geared to creating and raising a family.
The majority of states, including Missouri, have constitutional bans on same-sex marriage.
Chris Thetford, 47, and his partner, Tom Kempker, 55, of St. Louis, are raising two adopted sons. Thetford said having an official count of gay couples raising families "lifts up a curtain and allows there to be a discussion in hard numbers." It also shows an evolution in the country, where census numbers more accurately reflect what families in the United States look like, he said.
While the city of St. Louis has same-sex couples living throughout, there are concentrations downtown, in the Central West End and around Tower Grove Park, not far from where Thetford and Kempker live.
Tracking same-sex couples dates to 1990, when the number reported was closer to 150,000. That year, the person filling out the form could identify another person in the household as an unmarried partner. If, however, the head of household marked his or her significant other as husband or wife instead of unmarried partner, the Census Bureau recoded the form and counted it as a heterosexual couple.
In 2000, the recoding was dropped and the Census Bureau assumed that if there were two adults of the same sex marked on the form and the relationship marked as husband or wife, it was a gay couple. With the 2010 data, the Census Bureau will distinguish between those who marked "unmarried partner" vs. "husband/wife" and release that information later this year. This distinction is significant because it will for the first time give on a national scale the number of gay couples who consider themselves married.
The latest census numbers make it possible to determine down to a local level how many same-sex couples have children. Before, that information was available only at a state level.
In St. Louis, 1.4 percent of households are headed by same-sex couples, accounting for more than 1,900 city residences. Of those, 13 percent are raising children. St. Louis County has 2,300 same-sex households, and 25 percent of them are raising children. St. Charles County has 656 same-sex households, with 30 percent raising children.
Michael Sherberg, 54, of Olivette, is raising three sons with his spouse, Dr. Simeon Prager, 50. Sherberg said breaking down the number of same-sex couples raising children gives a better portrait of the country.
Many gay couples are private and don't feel comfortable talking about their home lives, Sherberg said. But with a census form, where the information shared is confidential, it's different, he said.
"It allows you to be more honest about your situation."