07/30/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Are You Really Married? (Hundreds of Thousands of Gay Couples Say They Are)

At the big-box home center today I strolled out of the garden section pushing a cart with $10 worth of supplies, right past three employees who wished me a good day without any verification that I had paid for my goods (I had, at a register inside, out of their sight). When I travel for work, no one in the hotel lobby has ever asked me to show a room key before going up the elevators, even late at night. These are just tiny examples of invisibly-claimed normalcy. It relies on the unspoken recognition of social cues, especially those indicating my race, class and age. Marriage is a more important example.

One of the dirty not-so-little-secrets of the same-sex marriage debate is that the everyday benefits of marriage don't require legal marriage at all. Married people -- or people who claim they are married, or just act married -- walk around getting the social benefits (and paying the occasional small social cost) of the institution whether they are legally married or not. Some of those benefits are intangible personal valuations that really do mean a lot, like being assumed to be good parents, or parents at all, to your children.

Wearing a wedding ring helps, as does driving in a minivan together with some kids in the back, or reading the newspaper over dinner for two in a family restaurant. And of course, being of the opposite sex.

Even some of the more important benefits, like filing joint tax returns, don't really require marriage. The IRS doesn"t seem to care, as long as the name on your return matches the name in the Social Security Administration database. Professional tax preparers will extol the benefits of being married, but they don't warn you to prove your marital status.

Getting health insurance that insures a married spouse might require a marriage certificate, but it hasn't yet in my experience. And if you want to change your name legally after marriage, which most people still do, you might need to show your certificate here and there. But you don't need to change your name when you get married, and young people increasingly don't.

None of this is meant to diminish the importance of legal access to marriage rights. When the law gets seriously involved (divorce, estates and adoptions come to mind), the document is the difference. But in the olden days, few marriages were legal. As historian Nancy Cott has explained, before the state had sufficient power (or interest) to control family life, marriage was a matter of local community recognition -- and it was not a weaker institution for it.

Can you just claim it?

More and more same-sex couples around the country are telling Census survey staff that they're married, even in states where gay marriage is not legal. The latest Census Bureau estimate is that 741,000 same-sex couples were living together in 2007, 45% of whom reported themselves as married. Not many of them are legally married, or even registered domestic partners. As the Bureau's Martin O'Connell and Daphne Lofquist reported earlier this year, "It is clear that the numbers of reported same-sex spouses greatly exceed the benchmarked administrative data, and that further investigation goes beyond the statistical issues into the sociological domain of self-identification of relationships among couples." Census doesn't ask, and doesn't tell, whether the marriages it counts are on the books.

The recently announced change in Census Bureau procedures, to recognize same-sex couples as married when they identify themselves that way, won't require much change on the Bureau's part -- they have been "unmarrying" these couples (in various ways) to comply with the Defense of Marriage Act. They have the data.

Like race, ethnicity, age, education, and income, most demographic data collection regarding marriage relies solely on self reports. If people think they're white, they're white as far as most demographers -- and the government -- are concerned.

When it comes to marriage, believing it, and being recognized for it, is part of what makes it beneficial. Whether that works for same-sex couples who are denied the legal right to an enforceable marriage is yet to be determined. But as more same-sex couples claim married status, and more of the people they meet acknowledge same-sex marriage as normal -- legal or not -- we may find out.

So, are you really married? And if you are, have you had to prove it lately?