WASHINGTON -- They could have called themselves ''roommates'' or ''boarders.'' Even ''other non-relative'' would have been appropriate.
Instead, on his Census 2000 form, Ronald Nelson checked off the box next to the words he felt best symbolized his long-standing and committed relationship with the man he's lived with the last five years -- ''unmarried partner.''
Gay and lesbian rights groups encouraged other couples to do the same this year, hoping it would provide the most comprehensive statistical look ever at the size of America's same-sex-couple population. The first Census Bureau results are scheduled to be released early next year.
Gay groups believe homosexuals should volunteer this information, which technically can only be inferred from the responses to the ''unmarried partner'' box on the Census form. The government does not directly ask people their sexual preferences.
''In the same way that the government wants to know how many, say, Samoans, there are in the United States, they need to know there is a gay and lesbian population,'' said Nelson, who lives in the nation's capital. ''We don't have little pink triangles near our names in the telephone book, and this is a way to get some hard numbers.''
Because no question on the Census form specifically asks about sexuality, there is no official count of the number of homosexuals in America. Approximately 150,000 households included same-sex unmarried partners in 1990, the first year the Census forms contained that option.
Gay rights advocates contend updated numbers could influence policy decisions at the federal, state and local level.
It might help make the argument for providing Social Security and survivor benefits to same-sex couples, for instance, or play a role in three states -- Mississippi, Florida and Utah -- where adoptions by gay couples have been banned, said Sean Cahill, policy director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
''It might mean, from a policy perspective, we go to Health and Human Services and say, 'You know what, we have to change the rules on Social Security.' Or it might mean we go to Congress and ask for tax relief. We won't know for sure until the results come out,'' said Paula Ettelbrick, the task force's family policy director.
''There's an enormous amount of public policy that flows out of the census,'' said David Smith, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group. ''Part of our message was this is a process you can trust. It is highly confidential and it's used for statistical purposes only.''
One section on the Census form offers choices for people who are related, such as ''father'' or ''daughter.'' The ''unmarried partner'' box is in a section with other choices for people who live in the same households but are not related.
Those who want gay couples to be counted say that if a gay person and his or her partner both check off the same sex, and then check off ''unmarried partner,'' that can be equated to someone admitting their same-sex relationship. That inference can be drawn, they say, because the form has other options available to describe the relationship.
Census Bureau officials say the ''unmarried partner'' category was added to keep up with the country's changing demographics, but they stress there are no plans to ask directly about a person's sexuality.
''What we are doing in the 2000 Census is coding the unmarried partners of the same sex living together, so that becomes a category. That category did not exist in 1990,'' Census Director Kenneth Prewitt said. ''So that's already a reflection of an attempt to maintain a Census operation which is somewhat consistent with the change in social dynamics of this country.''
Although Vermont recently passed a civil unions law expanding benefits for same-sex couples, the fact that Congress and at least 30 states have passed laws denying recognition to such ''marriages'' may have made some couples uncomfortable about checking off the ''unmarried partner'' box.
''A lot of gays and lesbians are a little hesitant to do that, or think it's not important because they are not allowed to get married,'' said Ron Lewis of Silver Spring, Md.
On the Net:
Census Bureau: http://www.census.gov
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force: http://www.ngltf.org
Human Rights Campaign: http://www.hrc.org/
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