Eight years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, ruling that same-sex couples have the same fundamental right to marriage that opposite-sex couples do.
In the years since, that decision has continued to reverberate through society. It cost a Virginia congressman his seat — Republicans led by Bob Good of Campbell County rebelled against U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman of Nelson County, who officiated a same-sex marriage. Good won his party’s 2020 nomination and now holds the 5th District seat. Perhaps Good would have found other reasons to challenge Riggleman, but the marriage issue was the one that got the most attention.
The United Methodist Church is no longer quite so united. Christianity Today reports that 1,831 congregations out of 30,000 nationwide have left the church, generally to join the more conservative Global Methodist Church, which vows never to ordain LGBTQ+ ministers or marry same-sex couples. That’s 6.1%, and Christianity Today is fairly unimpressed by that figure, saying it represents more of a splinter group than a formal theological schism. However, these “disaffiliations” are mostly in the South, and in some places they represent a majority of the Methodists. In the Northwest Texas Conference — Methodists are organized by regional conferences — 72.6% of the churches have left. In the Texas Conference, which covers the rest of the state, the figure is now up to 48%. In the Holston Conference, which covers Southwest Virginia and part of Tennessee, 264 churches — nearly one-third — have said they’re leaving. (See the story by Cardinal’s Susan Cameron on this.)
Virginia’s state constitution still contains a provision — now rendered ineffective by that U.S. Supreme Court ruling — that bans same-sex marriage. (It’s often called the Marshall-Newman Amendment, after then-Del. Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, and state Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, who sponsored it.) Efforts to remove it from the state constitution have repeatedly failed. Earlier this year, state Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, tried again. His measure passed the Democratic-controlled Senate 25-14 (with four Republicans voting for repeal, the rest against) but failed to get out of a Republican-controlled House committee.
There are those who hold out hope that the U.S. Supreme Court might someday change its mind. The court’s composition has become more conservative since that ruling and, when the court overruled Roe v. Wade and the nationwide right to abortion, Justice Clarence Thomas suggested that the same-sex marriage ruling should also be revisited. That prompted Democrats in Congress to pass legislation to recognize same-sex marriage, but laws can be repealed just as court rulings can be overturned. If that landmark Obergfell v. Hodges case were ever reversed, that Marshall-Newman Amendment in the Virginia constitution would kick in. Federal law, if it still stood, would require Virginia to recognize same-sex marriages from elsewhere but the state constitution would forbid Virginia from issuing same-sex marriage licenses.
There are lots of other cultural and political ways that the Supreme Court ruling has played out in our society — we’re all familiar with the debates over bakers and wedding cakes. However, there’s another way we look at all this: statistically.
The U.S. Census Bureau recently released a new tranche of data from the 2020 census, and that data contains our first official look at how many same-sex couples have taken advantage of the right to marry, and where they are. While we’re eight years out from the ruling, the census data was collected at just under the five-year mark of the Supreme Court ruling so provides a good marker.
Before we look at the numbers, two cautionary notes:
The census data does not count the size of the LGBTQ+ population. The census didn’t ask any questions on sexual orientation. Instead, we merely have the numbers of same-sex married couples and same-sex unmarried couples. That’s hardly the entire LGBTQ+ population, just as couples, married or unmarried, don’t constitute the entirety of the straight population.
Keep in mind that straight couples have had a lifetime to marry while, at the time of the census, LGBTQ+ couples in Virginia had had only had six years to marry (from the time that a court ruling in 2014 invalidated the state’s ban on same-sex marriages, a year before the Supreme Court ruling in 2015 that applied nationwide). To my eye, the numbers involved are small (your eye may differ), but that different time scale matters a lot.
So, onto the numbers:
The census counted 1,587,274 opposite-sex married couples in the state and 15,837 same-same couples. On a percentage basis, less than 1% of all households in the state involve a same-sex married couple — 0.5%, to be precise. That’s very much in line with national figures. The national average is 0.5%. The states with the highest percentage of same-sex married couples are Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Vermont, all at 0.8% of total households. The states with the lowest percentages are South Dakota and North Dakota at 0.2%. Depending on how you feel about statistics, you can say the share of same-sex marriages in those first four states is four times what it is in the Dakotas — or you can say that they’re all under 1%. Both are true.
For those who like political irony, the percentage of same-sex married couples in Florida — home of Gov. Ron DeSantis of “don’t say gay” fame — is the same as California. Both are 0.7%.
- The census counted same-sex married couples in every county and city in the state except one — Highland County, the state’s least populated county. However, in 18 localities — mostly rural communities in Southwest Virginia, Southside and near the Chesapeake Bay — those numbers of same-sex married couples are in single digits. Those 18 localities: Bath County, Bland County, Buchanan County, Buena Vista, Charles City County, Charlotte County, Craig County, Cumberland County, Emporia, Galax, Greensville County, King and Queen County, Mathews County, Norton, Nottoway County, Poquoson, Richmond County and Sussex County. The highest of those is Mathews County with nine same-sex married couples; the lowest are Bland County and Buchanan County with three apiece. Given those low numbers, it’s likely that many people in those localities have never met a same-sex married couple.
More political irony, which reflects back on how same-sex marriage roiled that 5th District Republican nomination between Good and Riggleman: Campbell County, Good’s home county, has more same-sex married couples (47) than does Nelson County, Riggleman’s home county (43). In Appomattox County, where the board of supervisors has pledged to remove all LGBTQ+ books from the shelves, there are 13 same-sex married couples.
- Not surprisingly, the localities with the biggest numbers of same-sex married couples tend to be our most populous localities:
Fairfax County 2,177
Virginia Beach 904
Prince William County 770
Henrico County 700
Chesterfield County 629
Loudoun County 504
That’s why it’s often best to look at percentages, which let us make better comparisons. Fun fact: Fairfax County has more same-sex married couples than Highland County has households of any type. The difficulty here is that the percentages, as we’ve seen, are so small that we have to run the math out to a lot of decimal points to see any real differences. In Fairfax County, which has more same-sex married couples than any other locality, they account for 0.5% of the county’s total households. By contrast, the percentage in Roanoke is 0.6%, so on a percentage basis, Roanoke has a better claim to being the same-sex marriage capital of Virginia. (Roanoke also has three gay members on a seven-member city council). Alexandria and Norfolk have a better claim yet — their figure is 0.9%. By contrast, in Buchanan County, with just three same-sex married couples, the figure is 0.03%. If someone sees anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric coming out of a rural area, it’s natural to attribute that to the region’s conservatism but perhaps some of that might be due to simply not knowing anyone who is LGBTQ+.
Another irony: The Methodist churches in Southwest Virginia who are pulling out of the United Methodist Church over LGBTQ+ issues are in the part of the state least likely to see same-sex marriages anyway. In Galax, Giles County, Grayson County, Norton, Smyth County, Tazewell County and Washington County, same-same married couples account for just 0.2% of the households. In Bland County, Carroll County, Dickenson County, Lee County, Russell County and Wythe County, the figure is 0.1%. And then there’s Buchanan County at the aforementioned 0.03%. Of course, those churches that are leaving presumably want the number to be zero.
The just-released Census Bureau statistics also include another set of numbers: the number of households with opposite-sex unmarried partners and the number of households with same-sex unmarried partners. In common parlance, how many people are living together in a relationship? Statewide, out of 3,321,201 households, there are 189,810 households where an opposite-sex couple is living together and 11,177 households where a same-sex couple is living together. While the number of opposite-sex married couples is 12 times the number of opposite-sex unmarried couples, the numbers for same-sex couples are much closer: 15,837 same-sex married couples to 11,177 same-sex unmarried couples. We might be able to attribute that to the relative newness of same-sex marriage; others more qualified than me can explore that. I’m just here to do numbers. These numbers increase the number of LGBTQ+ households but don’t change any of the trendlines. I do notice, though, that in many rural localities the number of unmarried same-sex couples is higher than the number of married same-sex couples. Since the numbers are typically small, I don’t know if they’re statistically significant or not. If they are, I suspect this may be part of the reason: Some same-sex couples may be reluctant to walk into a rural courthouse to get a marriage license or publicly acknowledge their relationship.
Even when we add these numbers together — same-sex married couples and same-sex unmarried couples — the numbers in some counties are still in single digits. We can, though, say that every county in the state has same-sex couples. Highland County, where the census counted no same-sex married couples, does record a number other than zero here. For same-sex unmarried couples, it has one.