Wednesday, May 19, 2010

U.S. Census Recognizes Gay Marriage

As I was driving to work yesterday, there was a piece on NPR about how, for the first time, the U.S. Census will count same-sex couples who identify as married as actually married, regardless of whether their marriage is legally recognized in their state of residence. In the last census in 2000, whenever same-sex couples checked the box for "married," their responses were changed by the census bureau to "unmarried couple." By finally publicly recognizing these non-legal marriages with the validity of a census category, it's one step closer to recognizing people's marriages as true and legal. It takes these realities out of the shadows and gives them voice. It gives us numbers to use in our legal and political push. It makes people pay attention to the realities of these relationships, instead of being able to pretend they don't exist. And, with greater exposure, it makes the concept of same-sex love and marriage less different, more normalized, and more likely to be legalized that much sooner.  

For a moment, I got truly excited. Giddy even (which never happens on a commute). And then, I listened to the rest of the report, which went on to primarily discuss how being able to count gay couples as married will be "gold for advertisers." Yes, you read that right, the NPR piece (via American Public Media) was using this major turning point as the basis for a discussion about targeted advertising:
"He says for marketers like him, it's not only important to know where gay people live, but also the kinds of relationships they have with each other.
"So for example, if I was looking to sell, say luxury cruises, I'd probably be targeting couples," says Paisley.
And the census information will tell marketers which communities have a larger percentage of gays and lesbians in long-term relationships. But marketers won't be able to get their hands on this information until next year when raw census data is released."
I wish I could tell you that the story didn't end with the above excerpt, but it does. I wish I could tell you that the story talked more about how the numbers might under-count the real number of same-sex marriages because it seems counter-intuitive to declare your relationship on a legal document to a government that doesn't legally recognize it, but it didn't. I wish I could tell you that the story talked about the contradictions inherent in this census action, but it's NPR and so they refuse to ever discuss topics that are controversial in a meaningful way. And I wish I could tell you that the story talked about the importance and power of finally being publicly recognized for who you truly are, even via an interview snippet with a major LGBT activist, but NPR didn't bother. I wish I could say that the article discussed how demographics can influence politicians and therefore policy, but it didn't.

There are a lot of ways to make a radio piece boring and tame enough to not offend anyone (which often seems to be NPR's morning news goal) but an insipid story about the benefit of the same-sex marriage census data to marketers isn't what I expected. I wish I had some insightful rant or commentary, but I'm mostly just floored. Marriage isn't a marketing niche, it's a personal commitment and a legal right.  Overlooking the glaring contradictions in the government's actions and injustice-yet-benefit in this small step forward isn't a chance to make a point about selling more luxury cruises to gay couples. The point is that we're at a crossroads in this country. Demographics will ultimately win the fight for marriage equality, because the younger generation is increasingly more tolerant of gay marriage than older generations. And they are more tolerant because of exposure to their neighbors and friends who are (sometimes) more comfortable being out and who are therefore normalizing the normal. And high rates of self-reporting from same-sex married and domestic partners could increase public understanding of that normal. This is a big deal - both in its contradictions and in the potential for change - and I wish we as a society were actually adult enough to talk about the real issues here without shying away from "controversy" on our morning commutes. Because to me, it's controversial that most people don't talk about the civil rights injustices at all.

UPDATE: My discomfort with this NPR article has been nagging at me since I heard it, and I think I finally put my finger on the real reason why in the comments below. Because I don't have a (significant) problem with dollars as a catalyst for (this sort of) social change and I know how NPR and the Marketplace program work. But it was something deeper that didn't feel quite right. And I think I better articulate why in the comments below.


  1. I had the same reaction as you upon reading your post
    General excitement at the beginning and then a let down as I continued reading.
    Everyone's got an angle I suppose. ugh.

  2. In NPR's defense, it looks from the link like it was on the show Marketplace? Which is a show entirely devoted to finance and money, so they had to find the $$ spin to put on it. Me, I'm going to look on the bright side and say that actually counting married gay couples as married is viewed as such an obvious thing to do that they had to find an angle.

  3. @Kim - They may have run it on Marketplace, but it didn't need to. Since it's on Marketplace, I guess they wanted a "spin," but this left a poor taste in my mouth.

    And it's not obvious to many people why this is important. And it's not obvious about the impact of how real demographic numbers can affect political change. And it's not obvious how many couples may not even have known to check the box, since they're not legally recognized anyhow, and what impact that would have assumptions about the viability of the data. I don't think this is the sort of article NPR would ever run but still. I liked this one better:

  4. As much as I would love our culture to function on social justice, money is what really greases the wheels. If this piece gets people thinking, "Hey, we can make money off of marriage equality," we're much more likely to see the current state-enforced discrimination ended quickly. Pointing out marketing opportunities might win over some folks who think the issue doesn't affect them. Any publicity is good publicity, I say.

  5. This sort of reminds me of Prop 8 the Musical. If capitalism is what lets people have the right to marry the person they love, I can deal with it.

  6. I think I just put my finger on what bothers me in particular - it's that using census data to target "married"/married same-sex couples has nothing to do with promoting marriage. It has to do with selling cruises to couples and you don't need to give a damn about the marriage aspect. If you're not in favor of gay marriage, you can hold your nose and do your targeted marketing job and never really interact with the targeted group - in this case, same-sex couples.

    On the other hand, if you're selling invitations or DJ services or venues as a gay-friendly wedding vendor, you have to actually interact with your clients and what their marriage means. Money may have driven your initial interest in the "market" but you're engaging in the marriage aspect.

    Census data, on the other hand, is just data. It can be used to push for change but, in this NPR article, it was about non-wedding related sales. It was about more effectively exploiting couple-related sales at a strategic level. It had nothing to do with the pride or progress in being able to publicly list yourself with the government as "married" or in getting closer to a point when there's no contradiction. It has to do with selling cruises, and the cruise line doesn't necessarily have to give a d*mn about the couple's real marital status. They just want to fill rooms, and may do so while holding their noses.

    That's the underlying issue I had with this spin on such an important topic. I actually want marriage and partnership data to help drive sales and any associated change. I just don't want it to be presented as a "non-controversial" new means of separating a new marketing niche from their money.

  7. I got giddy, too. I knew it was too good to be true. In the back of my mind I knew there would be some kind of ridiculous spin and that the real issue of social injustice would not be confronted. Heavy sigh.

  8. I have nothing against gay who are getting married, but it's not that I'm promoting it. I just want to say that they have the right to be recognized also as married couples. I just hope that counting them is for mere social justice and not for any other interests. It's all about respect.

  9. I just get the feeling that you think "marketing" is dirty and can do nothing to help achieve marriage equality when it really can. Where there's marketing there's advertising and PR and there's money being spent - 3 things that really matter to our society whether you like it or not. If business can see the benefit of marriage equality it will push the rest of society into a more accepting position. I don't like it but that's how I see it happening. And if the end is equality, Ill put up with the means.

  10. @ Brigatta - please see my comment in the post that I referred to in the update. In no way do I think marketing is a bad thing and I strongly believe capitalism can drive change. I love our vendors (yes, people I hired instead of using friends), all of whom are VERY pro-equality and work on gay weddings. It was really important to me. It's an important aspect of social change. But this *particular* article, and it's particular reference to how census data will be used, doesn't reference the sort of sales that drive change nor does it mention the social impacts of the census counting shift. That's what made me uncomfortable about the NPR article.

  11. I agree, this article lacked a lot of things, most importantly a good look at what this census change means for the LBGT community.

    I guess in pointing out the benfits marketing can have for this community, I was trying to say the article was not a total loss.


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