The Mendoza Line

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By David Mendoza

The United States reached an important milestone yesterday: for the first time ever, a majority of same-sex couples can now legally marry.

Illinois became the sixteenth state to recognize same-sex marriages when Gov. Pat Quinn signed the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act last November. However, most same-sex couples in the Prairie State couldn’t receive a marriage license until June 1. Illinois is home to over 24,000 same-sex couples, according to the 2012 American Community Survey. These same gay and lesbian couples make up 3.9% of all such couples in the United States. And it was this 3.9% that pushed America over the half way point on the road to full marriage equality.

I explain how I reached my results and provide more context about the state of same-sex marriage in America below.

How did I determine the percentage of same-sex couples who can get married?

Over at The Fix, the brilliant Phil Bump answered a similar question to the one posed by this blog. But instead of focusing on same-sex couples, Bump used data from the Williams Institute to find the total LGBT population in the country. He then used those numbers to calculate the percentage of LGBT people living in states that recognize same-sex marriages and those that did not. Ultimately, Bump concluded that 42.9% of the LGBT population was able to marry as of May 14, 2014.

I followed a similar methodology as Bump, but I decided to find more specific estimates for the number of same-sex couples in America. So I instead used figures collected by the 2012 American Community Survey (ACS), a continuous effort by the Census Bureau to collect demographic information about the United States. This data reveals the number of same-sex couples to total approximately 639,000. This includes both married and unmarried couples. Thankfully, the ACS also estimated the number of same-sex couples living in each state, which made figuring out the percentage of same-sex couples able to marry easier.

Using the data from the ACS, I determined that the nineteen states that now recognize same-sex marriage plus the District of Columbia are home to 51% of same-sex couples. The percentage of same-sex couples in each state varies greatly. Same-sex couples in Wyoming make up just .08% of all gay and lesbian couples in the United States. The state with the largest proportion of same-sex couples is California at nearly 14%. As you can see in the GIF, when California first legalized same-sex marriage in 2008, it quadrupled the number of gay and lesbian couples who could marry. Within the same year though, the state passed Proposition 8. Same-sex unions became legal again in 2013.

As a side note, the technical term that the ACS uses to describe same-sex couples is “same-sex couple households,” which it defines as householder that “reports having a spouse or unmarried partner” of the same-sex.

How many same-sex marriages have there been since 2004?

In 2013, Pew approximated that there were “at least” 71,165 same-sex marriages since 2004, but “almost certainly” more than that. Pew found that the state with the most same-sex marriages was, not surprisingly, also the state that first started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples — Massachusetts. Between 2004 and 2012, the Bay State married more than 22,000 gay and lesbian couples.

Another way of answering this question is by finding out what percentage of same-sex couples reported being spouses to the ACS. Using the same data as before, in 2012, the percentage of same-sex couples who report being spouses was 28.5%. This means that there are roughly 182,000 same-sex couples who are married. Yet this number is obviously inexact. Some couples may report being married when they’re not legally so. More problematically, the Census Bureau has had issues overestimating the number of married gay and lesbian couples due to form errors and mistakes by respondents who misidentify the gender of their partner.

The chart below shows the percentage of same-sex couples who are married in every state. Four out of the top five states with the highest percentages recognize same-sex unions as legal. Oddly, South Dakota — a state that bans same-sex marriage — has the highest proportion of married same-sex couples.

How many LGBT people would get married — if they could?

One reason I used data from the ACS and not the data Bump used is because even though all gay and lesbian people should be allowed to marry, not all of them do or want to. That’s why I elected to focus on the people immediately affected by these changes in the law and not necessarily the entire LGBT population. (Although using the same numbers Bump did, we have still surpassed the 50% mark.)

Below, I charted the results from a 2012 Pew survey, which showed that 15% of LGBT respondents answered “no” when asked if they would "like to get married someday." Another 33% said they were “not sure.” The answers varied somewhat between respondents who were gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Despite the uncertainty among some LGBT people about whether they want to get hitched, the same poll found that 58% of all LGBT respondents agreed that full recognition of all same-sex marriages should be the “top priority right now” for the LGBT community.

What does the trend in support for same-sex marriage look like?

Last month, Gallup released its latest poll asking about same-sex marriage. Fifty-five percent of respondents said that they thought same-sex marriage “should be valid” and 42% disagreed. This is the highest level of support for marriage equality in the poll’s history. The rise has been particularly quick among young people, increasing by 37 points over the last 18 years.

As always, please feel free to leave questions and remarks in the comments section.

Update: I’d like to thank German Lopez at Vox and Lynn De La Cruz at The Advocate for featuring my work on their sites.

Correction: An earlier version of this article included a GIF that incorrectly showed Maine as legalizing same-sex marriage in 2009. In fact, though the governor signed legislation to recognize same-sex marriages, the law was preempted from going into effect by a public referendum and the law was repealed by voters in November of 2009. Same-sex marriage became legal in the state in 2012. The GIF has been fixed.

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    This remarkable GIF shows marriage equality’s meteoric rise in the last decade
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