Ellen Meyers and Elena Yatzeck changed the pronouns in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer for their 2008 commitment ceremony.
CHICAGO — Ellen Meyers and Elena Yatzeck changed the pronouns in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer for their 2008 commitment ceremony.
More than 200 friends and family watched them exchange nuptials on the North Side in a ritual they equated with marriage.
"It was about making a public statement in a familiar way," Yatzeck said. "It changed how they perceived us."
Now, the couple is weighing how they want the country to view their union. For the first time, the census will allow same-sex couples to identify as husband or wife, and will count their responses. The couple is still deciding how they will identify themselves, since their civil commitment isn't recognized by the state of Illinois.
"We have to figure out how we want to do that," Yatzeck said. "(Gay couples) should separate the emotions from the public policy to accurately reflect how we live."
Same-sex couples will have two ways to characterize their relationships on the 2010 census: They can choose "husband or wife" or "unmarried partners." The census will publicly report those responses and recognize demographic differences, such as their ethnicities, where they live, and whether they're raising children, between the two groups.
The modification is an attempt to capture the changing nature of American households. It is part of the evolution of the decennial survey, which adapts to the social climate and is being advertised this year as a snapshot of America.
In response to advocacy from demographers and national gay rights groups, the Obama administration quietly reversed federal policy this summer to allow the Census Bureau to publish tabulations that tell us how many same-sex couples consider themselves husbands or wives.
Previously, if same-sex couples checked that they were "husband or wife," that information was automatically coded as "unmarried partners." The policy was established during the Clinton administration and maintained under the Bush administration because gay couples could not legally get married, and officials said it was more accurate to call them unmarried partners.
In the decade since the last census, however, laws have changed. In 2004, starting with Massachusetts, gay couples were given the right to legally marry. Four other states — Iowa, Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire — have full marriage equality. And New York and Washington, D.C., recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender groups (GLBT) advocated for a census methodology that would accurately account for how married couples and those identifying as partners in these groups live, such as their income and education levels, the same as the census does for heterosexual couples.
The 2010 count, however, should not be interpreted as a federal estimate of how many legally married same-sex couples live in the United States. Technically, it's only going to count how many same-sex couples use the term husband or wife to describe their partners.
"This is the first time you see what is considered the gold standard agency begin to collect data on the LGBT population," said Gary Gates, a demographer at the Williams Institute of UCLA's law school. "Even if the data aren't completely accurate, it gives us a more nuanced picture."
The bureau recognizes that same-sex couples are hamstrung because some of the terms they use, such as civil unions or domestic partnerships, aren't on the form. Although several GLBT groups are encouraging same-sex couples to participate in the census, they aren't telling them how to fill out the form. Instead, they are encouraging them to choose the term that applies best to their relationships.
"The information we have on marital status does not capture that relationship; we are forcing people to mark what is closest to how they visualize their relationship," Martin O'Connell, the census bureau's chief of fertility and family statistics, said of same-sex couples. "No survey can show the absolute truth."
One reason the 2010 census enumeration is significant is because none of the states that allow gay couples to marry uniformly collects or publishes data on those unions. That makes it difficult to get an accurate count of the number of same-sex couples.
Recognizing the opportunity to have some accounting, the Human Rights Campaign is sponsoring the "Our Families Count" campaign to educate gay couples about their options.
"The census is one of the most credible paths to visibility," said Bob Witeck, who is heading the campaign's endeavor. "It's going to show the face of gay families."
The reality is that same-sex couples "live in a murky legal and social environment around their relationship," Gates said. Many gay couples in long-term committed relationships say they won't check the spouse box, because in most states they still can't legally marry.
Some gay rights groups say the census has taken steps in the right direction, but they want greater clarity about the GLBT population. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force wants a question regarding sexual orientation to be added to federal surveys. It is urging its members to "queer the census" and seal their envelope with a pink sticker that reads "everyone should be counted." The stickers allow individuals to check whether they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or a straight ally.
Last month the Office of Management and Budget convened meetings with other federal agencies to determine how all census data should be collected in the future. It has enlisted focus groups to discuss the varying ways people identify themselves.
While it may be a while before more changes are made, O'Connell said he expects some modifications because there are "better ways of describing the relationships people are entering into."
Gay couples, many of whom are not aware of the 2010 census changes, have just started having conversations about how to fill out this year's form.
Meyers, 52, and Yatzeck, 47, said they had not thought about it until asked by a reporter. Meyers' initial response was to declare the couple "unmarried partners." Yatzeck, however, thought referring to each other as spouses was more accurate.
"We will give the answer that sends a message," Meyers said. "Does that mean every gay and lesbian couple is going to fill it out and self-identify? Probably not. We are never going to get absolute quantitative data."
Pat Ewert, 61, said it would be impossible to have enough answer bubbles to reflect how people see themselves. She and her partner of seven months, Vernita Gray, both said they will choose the "unmarried partners."
"There's no need to play house. We can't get legally married in Illinois," said Gray, 61. "I want to be counted, but I also want to count."