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A Puzzling Relationship Between Same-Sex Parents and Gay Marriage?

A Puzzling Relationship Between Same-Sex Parents and Gay Marriage?
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Grand Forks, North Dakota, probably isn't the first city that comes to mind when you think of same-sex couples. For one thing, it's Grand Forks, North Dakota. Then of course there's the matter of North Dakota having a state ban on same-sex marriage. But the law hasn't discouraged these couples from starting a family; on the contrary, 65 percent of gay couples in Grand Forks are raising children.

That's according to a new infographic from the Williams Institute at UCLA. The figure shows that many of the highest percentages of same-sex couples raising children are found in states that ban gay marriage.

Among large U.S. metropolitan areas, Salt Lake City (26 percent), Virginia Beach (24), Detroit (22), Memphis (22), and San Antonio (22) have the greatest shares of gay parents. Among metros under a million, the list topped by Grand Forks is followed by Bismark, North Dakota (61 percent); Hinesville, Georgia (46); Laredo, Texas (45), and Visalia, California (44). None of these cities is located in a state that permits gay marriages.

In fact, the Williams Institute data show that states allowing gay marriage often have relatively low shares of same-sex couples with children. Washington, D.C., is at the bottom of the list, at 8.7 percent of gay couples having children, with Maine, Rhode Island, and Washington state also near the low end of the spectrum. Mississippi, meanwhile, has the highest state share of gay parents, at 26 percent, followed by 10 more states with marriage bans until Maryland (20 percent) appears on the list.

How to explain this puzzling geography? Well, the most important point to keep in mind is that the data only shows percentage of gay parents — not total numbers. There are many, many more same-sex couples with kids in places like San Francisco than there are in Grand Forks, if only because the gay population is much larger there in the first place. Case in point: there were about 10,500 gay couples in San Francisco by the 2010 Census, to about 550 in all North Dakota [PDF].

Beyond that, as we pointed out when the Williams Institute released a map of same-sex couples in 2011, a lot of geographic data on gay populations can be misleading. Not everyone feels comfortable reporting their sexuality on a Census, and until the reporting improves, the maps and percentages can't, either.

Finally, there are all sorts of contributing social factors at play here. In places like Salt Lake City, for instance, there's a cultural premium on starting a family whatever your sexuality. And, as Emily Alpert of the the Los Angeles Times reports, gay couples often raise families in traditionally non-gay areas simply because that's where their own families are from:

"When you ask, 'Why are you living here?' they almost always say family," said Abbie Goldberg, an associate professor of psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., who has studied gay and lesbian parents in rural areas. "It shouldn't really be surprising. They value family — and now they're creating families of their own."

Top image: Lucy/Shutterstock.com

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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