LAS VEGAS - The number of same-sex couples sharing a home in Nevada nearly doubled from 2000 to 2010, revealing a budding constituency in a state where voters have banned gay marriage, but embraced domestic partnerships.
Nearly 4,600 homes in Nevada were headed by lesbian couples at the end of the last decade, according to Census data released this week, while 4,724 households were headed by two male partners. The data shows that the number of gay and lesbian households in Nevada jumped 87 percent during the last decade, and about a quarter of those couples are raising children. Lesbian couples were more likely than the male couples to have children at home.
In all, Nevada had more than 9,000 households led by same-sex couples in 2010, up from fewer than 5,000 such households counted in 2000.
To be sure, same-sex couples living together remained a minuscule population among Nevada's more than a million households. But their swelling ranks reflect Nevada's increasingly gay friendly stance less than a decade after 67 percent of the state's voters defined marriage as "between a male and female person."
"Folks who are LGBT may not have been excited (before) to move here from, say California, where they enjoy a lot of legal protections," said Michael Ginsburg, southern Nevada director for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. "Now that Nevada is catching up, that may not be a factor for people anymore."
It's also possible some of the new same-sex households reflect an increased willingness among gay couples to come out to the government, rather than actual growth. The Census doesn't capture the overall gay population in Nevada, because it doesn't allow single people to identify their sexual orientation.
Gay activists insist Nevada is home to many more gay couples who cohabitate, and that the 2010 Census numbers only reflect people who were comfortable identifying themselves as gay to Census takers.
"Are there even more? Absolutely," said Candice Nichols, executive director for The Gay & Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada. "I don't think it's a clear cut view of how many same sex households there are actually are in Nevada. People don't identify for various reasons, it just depends on their own comfort levels."
Ginsburg said he couldn't recall if he or his live-in partner had confirmed that they were a couple to the Census. He wondered if gay couples were not coming out to the federal government because the survey does not allow unmarried participants to identify themselves by specific terms, such as transgender or domestic partners. The questionnaire asks homeowners to identify the people sharing their roof under specific familiar categories, such as child, parent or spouse. Couples who live together but are not married may only self-identify themselves as an unmarried partner.
"You could look at those Census numbers and say, 'wow, there are no gay people in this state,' which is laughable," Ginsburg said.
The Las Vegas Valley, where most of the state's 2.6 million people live, is home to the majority of Nevada's same-sex households.
As with many states, Nevada has become more gay friendly in recent years, passing local and state laws recognizing the rights of domestic partners. The state Legislature passed a law recognizing domestic partners in 2009, but only after then Republican Gov Jim Gibbons vetoed it. State leaders went further this year, passing a series of laws that extended discrimination protections to transgender people and prohibited housing or employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. Casino executives, the state's business elite, have supported the pro-equality measures.
Still, overturning a gay marriage ban passed by Nevada voters in 2002 could take years because of the state's complicated constitutional amendment process.
Nichols said marriage equality proponents in Nevada agree their best option is to wait for the federal government to recognize gay marriage.
"It's going to be much easier for the states to say, 'wait a minute, the federal government finds this unconstitutional," she said.