The number of gay and lesbian households in Illinois jumped dramatically over the last decade, in part a reflection of societal changes that have made it easier for couples to be open about being in a same-sex relationship.
In Illinois, the number of same-sex households increased more than 40 percent, according to 2010 U.S. census data released Thursday. The numbers were up in Chicago but also in the suburbs: in Aurora there were 463 same-sex households, an 80 percent increase over 2010; in Oak Park, the number of female same-sex households grew by almost 65 percent.
"There has been a very sharp growth in acceptance," said Richard Rykhus, who lives in Evanston with Carlos Briones and their 6-year-old son. "I do think there's a correlation with these numbers when you look at how society now accepts same-sex couples and same-sex parent families. There were a lot of risks before. People now are evidently far more willing to identify that way."
Since the 2000 census, the country's acceptance of gay and lesbian people has grown, as evidenced by laws in more than 10 states allowing same-sex civil unions or marriages and even the broader cultural mainstreaming of gay characters in movies and television.
Data on same-sex households is being released by the U.S. Census Bureau by groups of states. Of the 30 states whose data was released before Illinois, the number of same-sex households was up 49 percent. The size of the increase surprised some demographers.
"I didn't expect it to be quite that large," said Gary Gates, a demographer at UCLA's Law School Williams Institute, which studies sex orientation as it pertains to law and public policy. "It could suggest that there was a much bigger 'closet' in 2000 than I expected, and there now is much more acceptance of gay households."
Gates said that acceptance of gay unions probably accounts for a growing number of gay and lesbian couples establishing households, but that trend has not yet grown enough to account for the big jump of reported households in the census.
In Chicago, there was a 25 percent increase in same-sex households, up to 11,715 from 9,412 in 2000. Suburban Cook County showed even greater growth, up 39 percent to 5,362 same-sex households in 2010.
The surrounding counties have considerably lower numbers of same-sex households, though the growth has been substantial. For example, Will County had a 77 percent rise in male same-sex households and a 108 percent rise in female same-sex households, for a total of 1,198 couples.
Sam Corcione said he and his partner moved to Evanston as their lives shifted from hanging out in bars to going out to dinner with friends.
"I think when you become a couple, you don't go to bars to meet people, so you can live in the suburbs, farther away from all that," Corcione said. "I don't know if it's an age thing or a couple thing or a little bit of both."
The Illinois data also showed a notable difference in the overall increase of male couples compared with female couples. The number of female couples in the state went up 53 percent compared with 32 percent for male couples.
Gates said many researchers believed that previous census data painted an inaccurate picture of the number of same-sex female couples. He said the Census Bureau made a determined effort to improve its gathering techniques for 2010, and that that likely resulted in a higher number of reported same-sex female households.
Anthony Martinez, executive director of The Civil Rights Agenda, a Chicago-based lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group, said that increase might also have something to do with the growing number of same-sex couples who have children.
"Statistically we've seen that lesbian couples tend to have a higher percentage of children in the home, and once you have children that's usually when you tend to start identifying as a same-sex household," Martinez said.
The census data for Illinois show there are 5,346 children under 18 in female same-sex households and 3,030 children under 18 in male same-sex households.
Rykhus and Briones weren't together at the time of the 2000 census — the first time there was an option on the form to identify as a same-sex household — but they were counted as a same-sex household for 2010.
"It's such a positive thing for our community, and it's important that we be recognized," Rykhus said. "In Illinois, we have taken significant steps forward in the legal recognition of our partners and our families. It's an indication of how much progress we've made."
Amy Skalinder, of Skokie, is in the third year of a relationship with her partner, Jennifer Toner. She checked the box on her 2010 census form declaring her same-sex partnership.
"All the numbers are showing an increase in acceptance and support for same-sex relationships," Skalinder said. "I certainly think the more time that passes, the more our society becomes comfortable, and therefore individuals become more comfortable coming out. There's no question."
The census still does not count individuals who identify as LGBT, something advocates have been pushing to include. Martinez, of The Civil Rights Agenda, emphasized the importance of being able to get an accurate reflection of the country's LGBT population.
"It's important for many reasons — federal funding, redistricting," Martinez said. "During the redistricting that just went on in Illinois, we didn't have the data to say this is where we are, these are our numbers."
Longtime LGBT advocate Rick Garcia noted that groups like the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force held campaigns encouraging people to "stand up and be counted."
"Some legislators want to say, 'We don't have any of those folks in my district,'" Garcia said. "So these increased numbers have huge political ramifications. Activists like me have been saying for 100 years: 'We're everywhere. Look around the corner or look down the street and we're there.'"
Mark Duebner, a graphic designer from Naperville, said the census numbers help to reinforce what many in his neighborhood already knew.
"We're just part of the fabric of any community, Duebner said. "The more people who realize that, the more it really breaks down barriers."
Duebner and Keith Cornell, his partner of 28 years, moved to Naperville 12 years ago. Children in the neighborhood have known the couple most of their lives, he said, which makes a difference in how they will grow up thinking about same-sex couples.
"Younger kids are much more exposed to two mommies and two daddies," he said. "It's not a big deal anymore."