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More listed in state as same-sex couples

By Peter Schworm and Matt Carroll
Globe Staff / February 8, 2011

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In the decade that saw Massachusetts become the first state to legalize gay marriage, the number of reported same-sex couples in the state climbed sharply, suggesting to many advocates that there is a growing public acceptance and that more gay couples are willing to declare their relationships openly.

Since 2000, the number of couples living together in the state who identified themselves as same sex rose roughly 17 percent, to more than 20,000, according to the latest estimates from the US Census Bureau.

In 2009, the state’s proportion of same-sex couples ranked among the country’s highest, and census surveys showed gay couples living across the state, in communities large and small.

The census counts same-sex couples who share a home and identify themselves either as married or as “unmarried partners.’’

The relationships are self-reported, and demographers do not know whether the increase reflects a rise in the number of couples, particularly since gay marriage was legalized, or simply more truthful reporting.

Yet demographers, advocates, and gay couples alike believe that the rise reflects a greater willingness among gay couples not only to identify themselves on the census, but to live openly.

“As it becomes safer to come out, people come out,’’ said Kara Suffredini, executive director of MassEquality, a gay rights group.

The census figures show that gay couples are now commonly reporting living together in a range of cities and suburbs, not just in Boston and towns with a gay-friendly reputation, like Provincetown and Northampton.

“That’s been a huge change,’’ said Arline Isaacson, cochairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay & Lesbian Political Caucus. “The joke used to be that we all live in gay ghettos. But you can’t make that joke any more. They have expanded significantly in the suburbs.’’

The increase in same-sex couples was more pronounced nationally than in Massachusetts, suggesting that changes in reporting were largely responsible, according to Gary J. Gates, a researcher who specializes in same-sex demographics at UCLA’s Williams Institute.

Gates notes that the largest increases tended to be in rural and socially conservative parts of the country where couples might have previously been reluctant to acknowledge their relationship, if only by checking a box on a census form.

“You would expect they would have a bigger closet in 2000,’’ he said, listing Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Utah among the states with the largest increases in same-sex couples.

With its reputation for liberalism and a substantial gay population, Massachusetts saw a more moderate increase.

Yet gay-rights advocates say the advent of gay marriage, giving both legal sanction and public affirmation to same-sex relationships, has encouraged more closeted gays to come out, often by their partner’s side.

Karin Blake, for example, had never dared identify her relationship with her longtime partner on census forms, afraid that the information would somehow become public.

“We were deeply in the closet,’’ she said. “The last thing we would do is check a box. We didn’t give it a second thought.’’

But when the census form arrived last year, Blake and her partner, Connie Tassinari, proudly reported they were married.

After years of hiding their relationship, the couple took great satisfaction in revealing their true selves, Blake said.

“The government needs to know we’re here, and we’re strong in numbers,’’ she said. “We exist, and we’re always going to be here.’’

Blake, 68, who lives in Carlisle, said many older gay couples remain wary of reporting their status honestly, despite the legal gains and cultural shifts.

“The habits of a lifetime,’’ she said.

That is changing, especially among young adults.

“The younger cohort is much more comfortable being open,’’ said Isaacson. “They’ve grown up in a world that is much more accepting.’’

Stacy Godnick, an assistant dean at Boston University, thought the increase showed that fears about coming out have diminished.

By way of comparision, she pointed out that as depression became better understood, diagnoses surged.

“It’s very encouraging,’’ she said. “The stigma has faded.’’

Since same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts in 2004, four other states (Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, and New Hampshire) have followed suit, while four more now provide nearly all spousal rights to same-sex couples, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Such advances in gay rights, combined with a dramatic shift in public attitudes toward gay relationships, have encouraged many couples to make their relationships public.

“That level of social affirmation of our relationships is crucial,’’ said Jennifer Chrisler, executive director of the Family Equality Council. “It’s just a monumental shift.’’

Still, many gay-rights advocates believe that the surveys continue to underestimate the number of same-sex couples, because people are “nervous or hesitating to answer honestly.’’

“You would think in 2010 that wouldn’t be the case,’’ she said. “But it is, even in Massachusetts.’’

Same-sex couples who reported living together are less than 1 percent of all households nationally and about 1 percent in Massachusetts, census figures show.

Many same-sex partners report that they are married, even in states where gay marriage is not recognized. In the most recent census survey, some 47 percent of same-sex couple households in Massachusetts described themselves as married, compared to 33 percent in 2000.

Nationally, about 26 percent did in 2009, compared to 42 percent in 2000, probably a reflection of the national debate over gay marriage.

From 2007 to 2009, the number of gay marriages in Massachusetts jumped by 84 percent, from 1,524 to 2,814.

A hefty majority, 1,668, involved out-of-state residents, according to state records.

And while gay couples have shared lives long before gay marriage, some speculate that the social affirmation of a legal marriage has created more expansive outlooks on committed relationships within the gay community.

“It was something we never thought we’d see,’’ Suffredini said. “It creates a world of possibility.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Matt Carroll can be reached at mcarroll@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @globemattc.