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Experts question data on same-sex couples

Same-sex couples account for less than 1 percent of all Florida households, according to a new report from the 2000 census.

The numbers also show that slightly fewer people are married today than 10 years ago and more unmarried people are living together. The numbers for same-sex couples could not be compared with 10 years ago because the information was not collected the same way.

Demographers and other experts say the statistics for same-sex couples are almost certainly wrong. Two surveys of same-sex couples by the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies found that at least 16 percent did not use the "unmarried partner" category on the census report.

"I have many, many friends who did not report themselves as same-sex couples on the census," said Karen Doering, 38, a lawyer for the Tampa regional office of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

"Until there is some equality and legal protection in this country," she said, "many in the gay, lesbian and transgendered community will not feel comfortable stepping forward in reporting."

The 2000 Census was the first in which same-sex couples could describe another household member as an "unmarried partner." Experts say this allowed the census to collect information on a group that engenders considerable public policy debate, but about which the government has little information.

"I think this is significant," said Gary Gates, a demographer at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan public policy think tank in Washington D.C. "It's the first official Census investigation that examines the demographic characteristics of same-sex couples, and I think that is an indication that the Census Bureau is aware that family structures in the U.S. are changing."

Married couples represent 52 percent of all households in the United States, down from 54 percent 10 years ago. Some 5.5-million couples are living together but are not married, up from 3.2-million couples in 1990.

Meanwhile, about 595,000 same-sex couples across the United States told the government they were partners in the 2000 census. In Florida, about 41,000 same-sex couples reported they were partners, including 2,855 couples in Hillsborough County and 2,846 couples in Pinellas.

Monroe County, which includes Key West, had the highest percentage of gay and lesbian couples in Florida, with 1.59 percent. Hillsborough County had the fifth-highest number of gay and lesbian couples in the state, behind Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Orange counties.

Estimates of the total number of gays and lesbians in the population range from 5 to 10 percent. Gates, the demographer, said studies show that some 30 percent of all gays and lesbians are part of a couple at any time.

"We feel it's extremely important that there be a recognition of the number of same-sex relationships," said Jackie Mirkin, 72, a retiree who lives with her partner of six years, Edie Daly, in Gulfport.

"It has an impact on funding, and we feel the more visible we are, the more people learn to accept that we're part of society with the same needs and rights as any other citizen."