Every 10 years, the federal government wants to know about your household. Censuses have been around since Ancient Egypt and, in this country, since 1790. This data is used, primarily, to help the government decide on congressional districts and program funding.
However, researchers have long used census data to understand demographics, make predictions, and study populations. In the past, researchers were forced to make assumptions about that data to try to count the number of same-sex couples in the United States.
This changed after 1990, when same-sex couples were allowed to describe themselves as “unmarried partners.” The most recent census in 2010 allowed same-sex couples to self-identify as “married” for the first time. Before that, census takers, even if that couple identified as married, changed the information to “unmarried partners.”
Although the laws have changed in many states, and many of those gay couples are actually married, the Census Bureau did not change any same-sex couple’s self-identification. For the first time, gay couples were treated just like every other couple that claimed to be married.
According to the Williams Institute, which studies the census to track the gay population of the United States, there were a total of 10,898 same-sex couples living together in Tennessee in 2010. The nationwide total was 646,464. This represents, statewide, approximately 4.4 couples per thousand households. Unsurprisingly, Tennessee was not the gayest state in the country. That state (if you ignore Washington D.C., with 18 per thousand) was Vermont was 8.4 per thousand.
Nashville led the state with approximately 9.2 per thousand. Two surprising cities that, statistically, have a higher rate than the overall state are Shelbyville with 7.07 per thousand and Red Bank with 9.28 per thousand.
Both Shelbyville and Red Bank are very small towns with less than 20,000 residents. Red Bank is fully enclosed by the city of Chattanooga. Chattanooga has a relatively active gay scene, with several bars and clubs that cater to the area gay population.
Shelbyville, however, is a small town in a sea of small towns. Shelbyville resident Micah Chapman describes Shelbyville as relatively isolated for a gay person.
“There are a few gay people that I know, but I don’t spend time with a lot of them," Chapman says. "There is not much to do up here. We only have two bars.”
For a gay person in Shelbyville, the options are limited and, according to Chapman, “mostly the gay people go to Play Dance Bar.”
“Half of the population here are gay friendly," Chapman says. "But then you have some that would probably harass you if you walked down the street holding hands with another guy.”
This experience and attitude is not unique to Shelbyville. It is clear from the media and national polls that opinions are still divided on gay rights. More opportunities to be visible will continue to aid the gays in both small towns and big cities. Now gay couples, at least, have an opportunity to be visible and for the federal government to recognize them…at least every 10 years.