More Same-Sex Households Seen in Vermont, Delaware

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Same-sex couples seem to be settling down — or a least more willing to talk about their living arrangements. New Census 2000 information from Vermont and Delaware shows a huge increase in households containing "unmarried partners" of the same sex. In Delaware, the number of households fitting that description rose 700 percent, to 1,868, and in Vermont — the only state that allows same-sex civil unions — the numbers rose more than 400 percent, from about 370 in 1990 to 1,933 in 2000. Results from the rest of the states, including high-density population centers like California and New York, have not yet been released.

The numbers are a bit of an educated guess — there is no question about sexual preference on the census, but the question establishing the relationship between unmarried adults in a home gives options including "housemate," "boarder" and "other non-relative" in addition to "unmarried partner." Households where adults of the same gender chose "unmarried partner" may indicate a gay or lesbian relationship.

Dwight Fee is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Middlebury College in Vermont who specializes in gender studies. He spoke to Wednesday. What do you think is the implication of this?

Dwight Fee: This is my hunch: This is a pretty conservative time for gay and lesbian life, with lots of exceptions. I had my students read an article by Jeffrey Weeks, talking about how a lot of straight couples are breaking up and having a hard time keeping it together in a de-traditionalizing world. At the same time, I think a lot of gay and lesbian couples are rediscovering family. Particularly among lesbian couples, there is a new fervor around adoption and kids (gay men too, but on a smaller scale). There's a new kind of desirability for children and for constructing a somewhat traditional mode of family.

Vermont and Delaware are the only states reporting so far — is this trend going to hold up?

I wonder whether Vermont might be unique from other states around here. Vermont has always been an escapist kind of state — people come from all over to rediscover their roots, to settle down, to reinvent themselves. The fact of the civil unions bill could be implicated in this as well — Vermont is seen, though it may not always be, as a very welcoming place for same sex couples.

Do you think these preliminary statistics may indicate that gay and lesbian couples are just more comfortable putting down on paper that they are living together?

Gay life is simply more visible in the culture now. Chris Rock is out there saying "Everyone has a gay cousin." Gay life is now close to most people — people are having people come out to them at work all the time, and having to readjust their understanding of friendships and relationships. There is a general mainstreaming and accepting of gay life, especially when it involves settling down and having kids. I think those things make straight society more comfortable with the idea."