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Appendix C: Census Information on Binational Same-Sex Couples in the United States

There is currently no available data on the number of lesbian and gay immigrants and non-immigrants inside the United States; the Department of Homeland Security does not track this information.  Because the United States does not recognize same-sex partnerships for immigration benefits, there are no official numbers of potential applicants who, if permitted, would apply for such status.

However, the U.S. Census reveals some relevant figures.

The 2000 census showed 594,391 couples living together who identified themselves as of the same-sex in the United States. Six percent of these, or an estimated 35,820 couples, are in binational relationships—in other words, one or both of the partners in these couples is not a U.S. citizen. This appendix provides a brief demographic portrait of binational same-sex “unmarried partners” from Census 2000.331 In order to determine the validity and significance of these findings, it is important to understand what exactly constitutes a same-sex household.

In 1990, the census provided a way for same-sex cohabitating couples to self-identify for the first time. The census questionnaire does not specifically ask respondents about their sexual orientation, but it allows householders to identify who lives in their home and their relationship to the householder.   The forms provide a range of categories for how individuals in a household are connected. These fall into two broad types: related persons (including husband/wife, son/daughter, brother/sister, etc.) and unrelated persons (including unmarried partner, housemate/roommate, roomer/border, and other non-relative). “Unmarried partner” was added to the census in 1990, partly to account for the millions of American adults—gay, straight, or bisexual—who are living together outside a state-recognized marriage. The forms define an unmarried partner as “an adult who is unrelated to the householder, but shares living quarters and has a close personal relationship with the householder.”   It is reasonable to assume that two people of the same sex who identify as “unmarried partners” in the census are a lesbian or gay couple.

It is impossible to decipher the number of transgender and bisexual people who are found in both same-sex and different-sex relationships as defined by the census. In all likelihood, many couples counted in both categories have transgender- or bisexual-identified partners.  Because of the imprecision of these terms in the census and for convenience, we will refer to the couples in this count as lesbian or gay couples.

This figure is an undercount.  There are several reasons.

  • The census does not allow same-sex couples who do not live together to report their relationship status. 

  • Some couples may feel that the terminology of “unmarried partner” (or “husband/wife”) does not accurately describe their relationship. 

  • Some lesbians and gay men may not feel comfortable declaring their sexual orientation to a government agency and may have indicated a status that would not reveal the true nature of their relationship. 

  • The census offers categories of citizen or non-citizen but does not count lawful permanent residents (LPRs)—some of whom may also face separation if they are partnered with non-immigrants who do not have the same right to stay in the U.S.

  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, concerns about confidentiality—particularly with regard to their immigration status—may have led many foreign-born non-citizens to not report themselves or to identify as naturalized citizens on their census form. 

Nor, of course, do the census figures reflect those couples who have chosen or been forced to live abroad because they cannot legally reside together in the U.S.  For all these reasons, these numbers should be taken as one part of a larger whole.

Demographic Patterns

Numbers should not matter in determining the rights to which one is entitled.  Politically, though, they carry weight.  While not definitive, these figures suggest both the scope of the problem immigration inequality creates, and the likely impact of a legal solution. 

71,640 lesbians and gay men living in the U.S. are in a relationship where one partner is a non-citizen—as stated, six percent of all same-sex couples counted as binational.  By comparison, less than five percent of different-sex partners, both married and unmarried—or approximately 2,790,607 couples—are in binational couples. 

Of the total number of same-sex couples captured by the census, a further 27,546 same-sex couples, or 55,092 individuals, are comprised of two non-citizens.  When combined with the number of binational same-sex couples, there are 63,366 couples—126,732 lesbian and gay men, or nearly eleven percent of the same-sex couples accounted for in Census 2000—who have had to address immigration issues as part of their experience and are potentially injured by the discrimination in immigration law against lesbians and gay men.


Of the 35,820 same-sex unmarried partners identified as binational couples, 20,826 are male-male couples, or approximately 58 percent and 14,994 are female-female, or nearly 42 percent,.  The proportion reflects the larger trend that the majority of foreign-born individuals within the U.S. are men. 


The study shows no significant difference in average age between same-sex binational couples and different-sex binational couples.  In same-sex binational partnerships between two men,

  • The citizen partner averages 40.4 years old;
  • The non-citizen partner averages 38 years old.

Among such partnerships between two women,

  • The citizen partner averages 38.9 years old;
  • The non-citizen partner averages 38.7 years old.

These figures suggest a population largely of working age, actively participating in the U.S. economy through their purchasing power or tax payments or both.  They also portray people concerned about aging, not only for themselves, but also for their loved ones.  At forty, many American partners have built lives around extended family, friends, and often children.  The choice or necessity of moving abroad will affect those lives and their communities—including people they may care for, such as aging parents.

Children in the Home

According to the Census 2000, nearly 16,000 binational same-sex couples—46 percent of the whole—are raising children, biological and non-biological, in the home. Male couples are less likely than female couples to have children, though nearly 7,300 gay male binational couples, or more than a third, report a child under eighteen living in their home.  When compared with the broader population of male same-sex couples, approximately one in five of whom have children, the proportion of binational partners caring for children is substantially higher. 

Same-sex female binational couples are more likely to be raising children than their different-sex unmarried counterparts, 58 percent versus 51 percent respectively. 

Children under eighteen being raised by same-sex binational couples are less likely to be citizens than children being raised by different-sex binational couples.  Among children of same-sex male binational partners, 83 percent are citizens, compared to 87 percent of the children of same-sex female binational partners.  The comparable figures for different-sex couples are 94 percent for children being raised by unmarried couples and 90 percent for children in married couple households.  A significant number of children are likely to be affected by the lack of legal recognition for the parents’ relationship.

Income and Education

U.S. citizen men who are partners in same-sex binational relationships showed higher education levels than their married male equivalents—34 percent report earned a college degree as opposed to 28 percent among married male citizens. By comparison, twenty-nine percent of non-citizen men in same-sex relationships hold college degrees, a rate less than U.S. citizen men in same-sex relationships but almost equal to that of married male citizens.  Education differences between citizen women in binational relationships and marriages are not as pronounced: twenty-four percent of women citizens in same-sex binational couples hold a college degree, which is almost equal to the twenty-three percent rate of college degrees among married women. There is a slightly more pronounced difference in comparison with compared with non-citizen women in same-sex binational relationships, only 20 percent of whom hold college degrees. 

Male citizens in same-sex binational couples show an average income of $40,359.  This is not significantly different from the figure of married male citizens, whose average income is $40,831.  By comparison, there is a significant income difference between both kinds of citizen men and non-citizen men in same-sex relationships, who earn $31,781 or nearly $9,000 less.

Despite the similarities in educational background and age, men in same-sex binational couples claim substantially higher incomes than women in such couples.  On average, both the citizen and non-citizen partner in female same-sex binational couples report comparable earnings slightly above $28,000 ($28,488 and $28,978 respectively).  Among non-citizens, women in same-sex binational couples have average earnings nearly $8,000 higher than unmarried women partnered with men and $9,000 greater than married women.  In general, citizen partners of binational couples tend to have higher incomes than their non-citizen partner/spouse.  However, same-sex female couples are the exception to this pattern as non-citizen partners report a slightly greater income. 

Non-citizen men who are in same-sex relationships report a low level of participation in the labor force—74 percent, compared to 81 percent of non-citizen men in different-sex unmarried couples and 80 percent of married men. Non-citizen women in binational same-sex relationships, or in different-sex unmarried partnerships, have substantially higher labor force participation rates—68 percent and 69 percent respectively—than married women, at 51 percent.

Similarly, non-citizen males in same-sex binational couples have low levels of full-time employment—only 66 percent, as opposed to more than 80 percent of non-citizen men in other binational couple types.  In contrast, foreign-born women in same-sex binational couples have high levels of full-time employment at 61 percent, the same rate as non-citizen women in different-sex unmarried couples and significantly higher than their married counterparts with 41 percent employed full-time.

Military Service

Despite the strong disincentives in the current “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, many lesbian and gay people continue to serve in the U.S. military.  This holds true for both citizens and non-citizens. Among all same-sex binational couples, 7 percent of citizen partners report being veterans—and more than 3 percent of non-citizen partners. 

Length of Residence and Relationship

The proportion of couples who report living together in the same home five years before provides some indication of relationships’ stability.  Same-sex binational couples are more likely (28 percent of male couples and 30 percent of female couples) than their different-sex unmarried counterparts (17 percent) to have been together at least five years. But, they less likely than their heterosexual married counterparts (41 percent) to be in the same home five years before.

[331] Data from Census 2000 are drawn from the 5% Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS), a random sample of responses from households that received a census long-form with sample sizes equivalent to 5% of all U.S. households.  The PUMS provide detailed demographic and economic information for each household sampled and analyses can be generalized to the U.S. population.

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