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Making us count: Illinois' queer couples and the census
Part I of a Series
by Joseph Erbentraut, Windy City Times
2011-04-13

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In terms of providing reliable information specifically referencing LGBT Americans, the United States Census Bureau has just begun to make modest inroads allowing for demographical analysis of where LGBT people live and work at the state, county or even city level.

However, even it appears a question relating specifically to a respondents' sexual orientation or gender identity will not be added to either the decennial census or smaller, annual American Community Surveys ( ACS ) any time soon, forthcoming 2010 census data are expected the offer the most reliable measures of same-sex couples who report themselves as either married, in "unmarried partnerships" and, presumably, in civil unions. That data, including the first-ever census breakdown between individuals in same-sex relationships who report themselves as either spouses or unmarried partners, is due this summer.

Meanwhile, Windy City Times has taken the opportunity to analyze available ACS data to gain a preview of what the 2010 census data on self-reporting same-sex couples might show with regard to what parts of the state LGBT Illinoisans call home. The analysis will be reported over the course of a three-part series, including an analysis of Chicago neighborhoods and a report on why recognition of queer Americans in census data is both important and beneficial for the community.

Expectedly, Cook County led the way with the highest number of households headed by same-sex couples in Illinois, reported as "unmarried-partner households," representing nearly half of the state's total—25,710—according to the most recent three-year ACS data file. The next five highest counties—DuPage, Lake, Will, Kane and McHenry, respectively—also represent the state's northeastern-most corner and are reportedly home to another 18.5 percent of the state's total of self-reported same-sex couples.

However, all told, that still leaves roughly one-third of Illinois' same-sex couples scattered throughout the rest of the state. Perhaps surprisingly, the remaining counties ranking within the top 20 are in the northwest, central and southern parts of the state.

When self-reporting same-sex couples in "unmarried partnerships" are reported as a percentage of the county's entire population, Cook County only ranks 11th—0.65 percent of the population—but remains well ahead of the state's average of 0.54 percent. Nevertheless, all of the state's top five counties, in terms of the percentage of each county's entire population, are in the southern part of the state: Jackson, Jefferson, Shelby, Williamson and Perry, respectively.

Jackson County, home to the famously LGBT-friendly and politically active town of Carbondale and its Southern Illinois University, led the way with an estimated 1.35 percent of its population of 24,328 individuals in our analysis. Sangamon County, home to the state's capital, notably held the distinction of being one of only two counties, along with Cook, to rank among the 10 highest counties in terms of total self-reporting same-sex couples and highest percentage of the entire population.

Comparing households fronted by two men with two women, a larger representation of women-led households included downstate counties ( Sangamon and south ) . Half of the top 10 counties reporting households led by women who are spouses or are in unmarried partnerships are from the southern half of the state, compared to only one—St. Clair County—among households led by two men. Such findings suggest that a larger percentage, overall, of lesbian households in the state can be found outside of the state's more urban northeastern hubs.

While this analysis offers a suggestion of where LGBT Illinoisans live, this analysis comes with many caveats. First, this measure only includes queer folk who considered themselves, at the time of the 2007-2009 ACS, to be in a spousal relationship or unmarried partnership—both groups are coded as unmarried partners by the Census Bureau. This measure means single lesbian women and gay men, as well as large segments of the bisexual and transgender communities, are likely not represented.

Also, owing to the ACS sample size and the relative obscurity of same-sex couples when compared to the general population, the margin of error for this data is quite high. In Cook County, for example, the reported total of male unmarried partner households is +/- 773 ( roughly 10 percent ) . For female unmarried partner households the margin of error is +/-468 ( 9 percent ) . The margins are often higher for smaller counties.

For this reason, few specific numbers have been presented in this analysis, although the information is publicly available for perusal at the Census Bureau's American Factfinder website.

Gary Gates, a Williams Distinguished Scholar at the Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the UCLA law school, is a pioneering researcher of census data applied to LGBT demographies. Gates has also been instrumental in pushing the Census Bureau to actively encourage queer Americans to honestly report their relationships—even if they are not currently recognized at the federal level.

Gates described the ACS data, particularly pre-2008, as an "imprecise measure" of same-sex couples at the county level, as well as the state level for smaller populations.

Before changes were made to survey design as well as the way the Census Bureau coded same-sex couples in 2008, Gates said there was believed to be some heterosexual couples who mistakingly were categorized as same-sex couples.

Although Gates said such errors are "extremely rare," these false positives did make an impact on the estimated number of same-sex couples. Nationally, the estimate dropped by just over 40 percent between 2007 and 2008 largely due to these false positives. The 2008 and 2009 ACS data, as well as the upcoming 2010 decennial Census data is thought to be far more accurate.

Gates called for caution in interpreting the reported estimates while adding that such reports are "extremely useful" for policy makers and activists alike who sometimes face assertions from lawmakers and other public officials that LGBT people are not part of their constituency. While still awaiting a specific question relating to sexual orientation or gender identity, the upcoming 2010 Census data are likely to be the best measures with which the community can counter such assertions.

Please see Part 2 at www.windycitymediagroup.com/gay/lesbian/news/ARTICLE.php


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