Newswise — It's a safe bet that most people, wherever they stand morally and politically, have an idea of who lesbian women and gay men are, whether it's based on experience or images in the media. A skewed sample, either way. The true picture of homosexuality in America, urban or cowboy, with children or not, in or out of the closet, is far more elusive.

According to University of Vermont professor Glen Elder, who presented new and surprising research analyzing the lives of same-sex couples at a recent meeting of the Association of American Geographers, academics are equally at fault, basing studies on groups of gays and lesbians who are visible and concentrated. "We have produced a body of literature about homosexual lives," he says, "that tends toward the 'exceptional.'"

Elder and his colleagues have taken a more scientific approach to analyzing the lives of at least one subset of gays and lesbians: those who entered into civil unions in Vermont the first year they were offered, from July 1, 2000 to June 30, 2001.

Vermont was the first state to legalize same-sex relationships in the form of civil unions and at that time no other U.S. state or Canadian province offered anything comparable. Couples traveled to Vermont from all over the United States. Because civil union certificates, like marriage certificates, are public information, the researchers were able to analyze all couples who got civil unions, whether closeted or not.

The ability to include couples without requesting their participation makes this research unique. Previous studies of gay and lesbian lives have relied on either the visibility of the population, their willingness to admit to being part of a stigmatized group, or "convenience" samples — such as surveying members of an organization or clientele of niche bookstores or bars — methodologies that are ripe for bias, both tapping into and reinforcing stereotype.

Elder's approach—using civil union data collected by co-authors Sondra Solomon and Esther Rothblum for a previous study — provided a large, national sample of same-sex couples, albeit one that naturally favors neighboring New England states.

Using a Geographic Information System, they were able to map where the couples reside and overlay the data on a feature class of U.S. Census tracts. With a focus on population density, race/ethnicity, age, household composition, and home ownership, they then compared their results to national averages.

Same sex, same livesWhat's most interesting about this analysis, paradoxically, is the banality of the results. Civil union households simply don't differ that much from those of the general population. They appear to be in somewhat more populated tracts than the national average (5134 versus 4306), but not to the extent, writes Elder, that they are portrayed in the media or even in academic work on the geography of lesbian and gay lives. This suggests that while some couples with civil unions may live in "gay ghettos" such as San Francisco or Provincetown, they are also dispersed in towns and cities of varying sizes.

Broken down by age cohort, there is not much difference between the median age in civil union tracts (37) and national averages (35.9). Civil union households appear to reside in slightly whiter tracts than the national average. However, when broken down by specific race/ethnicity, it appears that civil union tracts are less likely to be African American (8 percent versus 13 percent for national tracts) or Hispanic (7.9 percent versus 11 percent), but more likely to be Asian American (8 percent versus 3 percent).

People living in civil union households live in places with similar numbers of married households (51 percent versus 48.1 percent). They have a slightly greater chance of residing in neighborhoods that have higher ratios of renters to homeowners (35.1:57.2 versus 33.3:60 for national averages).

Elder is quick to acknowledge that there are many variables and possible interpretations of the data. Same-sex couples who enter into civil unions may differ substantially from those same-sex couples who choose not to, whether for practical or political reasons. They may be more traditional and therefore more similar to heterosexual couples. And the study obviously looks exclusively at lesbians and gays in committed relationships, not those who are unpartnered, dating casually, or whose partners have died.

The picture is further complicated by potential differences in couples from Vermont, who were extended the state benefits of marriage, compared to out-of-state couples who based their decision solely on intangible benefits. It is no more possible to use this data to generalize about the lives of all lesbians and gays than it is to make blanket assertions about all heterosexual lives. But the research speaks quite specifically to the controversy surrounding same-sex marriage.

"It's surprising on the one hand, but also reassuring," Elder says of the results. "Gays and lesbians who aspire towards the symbolic and real material benefits of marriage are no different from other people who aspire towards domestic stability and material comfort. They are middle class; they want the stuff of a middle class lifestyle. These are not people who are ripping the fabric of America."

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