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With strong backing from the Census Bureau, gay-rights activists are urging maximum participation by their community in the first U.S. census that will tally same-sex couples who say they're married — even those without a marriage license.
The move has drawn fire from conservatives, who complain that it's another step toward redefining marriage.
For the first time, the bureau has deployed a team of professional field workers — about two-dozen strong — to reach out to gays and lesbians.
On Monday, the bureau unveiled its first public-service videos encouraging gay Americans to mail in their census forms.
"What I tell folks in the bureau is that this is a powerful, important part of American society," said Tim Olson, a Census Bureau assistant division chief helping to oversee the campaign.
"We have to reach out and engage this part of the population. Anything less than that is a failure," he said.
Only the District of Columbia and five states — Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont and Iowa — have legalized gay marriages, starting with Massachusetts in 2004. But the Census Bureau says same-sex couples in any state who consider themselves spouses should feel free to check the "husband" or "wife" boxes on the census form, rather than "unmarried partner."
The bureau's willingness to count gay marriages — despite a federal law that denies legal recognition to any of them — has been hailed as a historic milestone by gay-rights leaders.
"It's humongous," said Jaime Grant, director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Policy Institute.
"Our opponents are rightfully concerned, because it does lend an air of legitimacy to our marriages," Grant said. "It's another way of weaving us into the fabric instead of continuing to see as outsiders."
Some conservatives have complained that the eventual count of same-sex unions will be legally inaccurate while serving as ammunition for gay-marriage advocates.
Gary Randall, president of the Bellevue, Wash.-based Faith and Freedom Network, complained in a blog posting last month that the census "is leaving it to responders to characterize their own relationships, regardless of legal status."
"Will homosexual numbers be inflated by this 'you decide what you are' policy? Probably," Randall wrote. "This policy shift is another attempt to confuse the discussion about marriage by creating a problem of sorts, then providing a solution that advances the homosexual agenda of redefining marriage."
Olson said he was aware of the criticisms, but defended the Census Bureau's policy of counting people according to how they identify themselves.
"We're treating the gay community the same as other segments of the population," he said. "There's a respect factor there. ... We've never asked people to show us their marriage licenses. We don't do that for straight people."
Olson also stressed the confidentiality of the census — insisting, for example, that gay members of the military should have no fear about identifying themselves as part of a same-sex union, even though the "don't ask, don't tell" policy forbids gay service members from being open about their sexual orientation.
The census forms do not inquire directly about sexual orientation, and some gay-rights activists have complained that this means single gays — as opposed to those with live-in spouses and partners — have no means of gaining collective representation through the census.
Olson said an act of Congress would be needed to add a sexual orientation question to the form, and some activists are already planning a campaign to achieve that. In a first step, a campaign called "Queering the Census," activists are distributing stickers for gays and lesbians to attach to this year's forms on which they can identify themselves as gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual.
In the previous census, in 2000, the Census Bureau tallied 600,000 same-sex couples who were cohabiting across the country. In initial planning for the 2010 census, federal officials indicated that same-sex married couples would be tallied as unmarried partners who lived together, not as wedded spouses. But those plans were changed in part because of intensive lobbying by gay-rights groups.
"We pushed for that change because we want to be seen and heard and represented as part of our country," Christine Quinn, the openly gay speaker of the New York City Council, told a news conference Monday.
"It sets the stage for our work over the next 10 years — to get sexual orientation added to the form so all of us can be represented, married or not," she said.
Also at the news conference were actor George Takei, a former member of the TV cast of "Star Trek," and his husband, Brad Altman, who married in California in 2008 when same-sex marriage briefly was legal there.
"We pay taxes, we vote, we serve in the military and yet we don't have equality," Takei said. "To get that equality, it's very important for us to be identified. This is what the census is going to do."
The couple were the stars of one of the public-service videos shown at the news conference — in which Takei wore his "Star Trek" uniform, and Altman wore a tinfoil space alien hat.
"It doesn't matter whether you have a legal marriage license or not," Takei said in the ad. "It only matters if you consider yourself married."
One of the new ads featured Glenn Magpantay, a Filipino-American attorney, along with the African-American son, Malcolm, whom he and his partner have adopted.
"I'm papa, my partner is daddy," Magpantay said in the ad. "We're really proud to be counted in this census."
The ads were posted on the Census Bureau Web site, and some were scheduled to be aired Monday evening on Logo, a gay-oriented cable TV channel.
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