Ten years ago, Lara Shelton wasn't ready to tell the world she was gay. ¶ Not her parents. Not her boss. And certainly not the federal government. ¶ But last year, for the first time, Shelton was counted as a member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population when she reported to the federal government that she lived in a same-sex household. ¶ She's part of a growing population in Florida and Tampa Bay, which experts attribute to more people feeling comfortable being honest about their sexuality.
In 2010, Florida had slightly more than 65,000 same-sex households, a 60 percent jump from a decade ago. More than 16 percent of those are in the Tampa Bay area, which also saw big increases in its same-sex household population.
In fact, increases in local counties ranged from 53 percent in Hillsborough to a 91 percent spike in Hernando. Pinellas ranks as one of the top counties in the state for same-sex couples, with slightly more than 11 per 1,000 households, experts say.
Many couples in these households are raising children, the data show.
"I was still very much in the closet 10 years ago," said Shelton, executive director of First Night St. Petersburg. The 37-year-old lives in Largo with her partner and their 7-year-old daughter. "Now I'm very out."
The trend isn't just happening here.
Gary Gates, a demographer for the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy at UCLA, has been studying the LGBT population since 1990. He said experts anticipated an increase in same-sex households from the 2010 data, particularly because it still is a relatively new choice on the form. Same-sex households weren't a category on the census before 2000.
Yet it's not so much that same-sex couples are flooding certain states, Gates said, but that they're more willing to tell the government of their status.
"I have to admit that I didn't expect the increase to have been this large," Gates said. "The bulk of it has to be the willingness to report."
After all, many in the LGBT community say, social acceptance of their way of life has increased since the beginning of the new millennium.
A major marketing campaign aimed at getting the LGBT community to participate in the census also helped.
Tampa resident Ed Lally remembers e-mailing and lobbying fellow gay friends last year, encouraging them to fill out the census.
"Everything in this country comes back to numbers," said Lally, the Tampa Bay development director for Equality Florida. Lally, 58, has been with his partner Phil Dinkins for 34 years; the couple married in 2003 in Canada.
"That's why I think this is a critical piece of information. It gives us a voice. Until the numbers are concrete and in writing, it's almost as if you're not there — you don't even exist."
Gates said the census data is particularly significant because there isn't much broad demographic data on the LGBT community, yet their lives are debated "at almost every level of government."
Still, many believe the numbers remain low because some people are still wary of coming out — whether it's to their family and friends or the government.
"I just think people are stepping out and identifying themselves now, and I think the number will go up," said Hayden Sutherland, treasurer of a newly formed Tampa chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Sutherland, 44, came to Tampa more than 20 years ago after his family in Mississippi threw him out because of his sexual orientation.
He said the Tampa Bay area is more accepting of gay people than other areas of the South.
"We're no gay mecca, but we're a hell of a lot better than Mississippi," he said.
The existence of that local gay community also may be drawing more people to move or retire to this area, which also may account for some of the population increase, said Chris Rudisill, the executive director of the state's largest gay event, the annual St. Pete Pride Promenade Parade and Street Festival.
"I only moved here a few years ago and immediately was happy to find such a diverse community and a large LGBT presence, especially in Pinellas County," Rudisill said. "Society has changed a lot over the past 10 years. More and more people come out of the closet and less people feel that they need to, or worse yet, have to hide who they are."
That's how it was for Shelton. She said shortly after moving to Florida several years ago, she came out to her boss and her family.
"I realized it was really a nonissue," she said.
Kameel Stanley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8643.