SAN FRANCISCO — U.S. Census Bureau officials said Friday that married same-sex couples will be counted as such in the 2010 national tally, reversing an earlier decision made under the Bush administration.
Steve Jost, a spokesman for the Census Bureau, said officials already were identifying the technical changes needed to ensure the reliability of the information, but remained committed to providing an accurate tally of gay spouses.
"They will be counted, and they ought to report the way they see themselves," Jost said. "In the normal process of reports coming out after the census of 2010, I think the country will have a good data set on which to discuss this phenomenon that is evolving in this country."
Same-sex couples could not get married anywhere in the United States during the last decennial count. But last summer, when two states sanctioned gay unions, the bureau said those legal marriages would go uncounted because the federal Defense of Marriage Act prevented the federal government from recognizing them.
Since President Barack Obama took office, his administration has been under pressure from gay rights activists to take a fresh look at the issue. The White House on Friday announced that its interpretation of the act, known as DOMA, did not prohibit gathering the information. Gay marriage is now legal in six states, although the first weddings have not yet commenced in three of them.
"The president and the administration are committed to a fair and accurate count of all Americans," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. "We're in the midst of determining the best way to ensure that gay and lesbian couples are accurately counted."
Enumerating married gay couples will not require any immediate changes in the census forms, which includes boxes for the genders of people living in a household and their self-reported relationships as "husband," "wife" or "unmarried partner," according to Jost.
"This is about folks' identity," Jost said. "We are experienced in dealing with changing social phenomena and how to measure and report that, and we want to get it right."
Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, called the policy change a significant step.
"The census, I like to say, is on its face about numbers. But what the census is really about is telling the story of our country," said Carey, whose group has been among those lobbying the White House. "Many people, including people in the administration, are realizing just how important it is to make sure that (lesbian and gay) Americans are not rendered invisible."
Gary Gates, a demographer based at the University of California, Los Angeles who has been working with the bureau on the issue, said producing a reliable count of same-sex married couples is a doable, but complicated task.
One issue is that some same-sex couples in civil unions or domestic partnerships already identified themselves as husbands or wives, both in the 2000 census and in the annual American Community Survey that the bureau produces each year. So the bureau needs to figure out a way either to separate those couples from legally married couples in the next census, or to create a new designation to capture both groups.
"Thirty percent of same-sex couples in the year 2000 used the term 'husband' or 'wife,' and none of them were married," Gates said. "Granted, now we think maybe there are 35,000 who are legally married, but they are finding 10 times as many using that term."