Census: Utah is the marriage state — for straight and LGBTQ couples alike

Utah long has basked in its national reputation as a marriage-friendly state. New Census Bureau estimates reinforce that yet again, but in a new and perhaps unexpected way.

Utah ranks No. 3 in the nation for the proportion of same-sex couples who choose to marry: 69.6%. The only states ranking higher are North Dakota (72.5%) and Montana (71.8%).

“I’m not surprised by that,” said state Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, the only openly gay member of the Utah Legislature and a lead plaintiff in the Kitchen v. Herbert lawsuit that legalized gay marriage here seven years ago.

Although he was recently divorced himself, Kitchen said, Utah has a deep culture of finding stability and support and committed relationships” — which extends to gay marriage here, too.

Utah is No. 1 in the country for opposite-sex marriage, with 92.7% of couples that live together being married. (Alabama is No. 2 at 91.2%, followed by Mississippi at 90.8%.)

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

Agreeing with Kitchen about Utah’s culture of marriage is Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, a group that champions LGBTQ rights.

“Family is a value that’s instilled in all Utahns. And LGBTQ Utahns share those same values,” he said. “I mean, it’s part of our cultural upbringing, so that doesn’t surprise me at all.”

He added that he hopes the new estimates will ease fears that people have had about gay marriage as they “start to see and realize that we’re just Utahns like everybody else, trying to build a family and a happy life.”

Before court rulings that opened the door to gay marriage in Utah and eventually nationwide, the state had a strict ban on same-sex marriage, or any laws authorizing marriagelike benefits, rights or legal status such as hospital visiting privileges, adoption or joint tax filing. The prohibition remains in the Utah Constitution and state code— lawmakers have resisted attempts to delete it — but is unenforceable.

The U.S. Census Bureau recently changed how it asks questions about families for the 2019 American Community Survey that it released Thursday. So, for the first time, its estimates provide more information about how many gay couples marry or live together in Utah.

The Census Bureau reported that 8,451 of the 1.02 million households in the state are headed by gay couples, whether they are married or live together, about 0.8%. While that is tiny, the percentage still ranks No. 17 nationally, or in the top half of states.

And 5,878 of those gay households are headed by married couples, or 69.6%.

Utah women in same-sex marriages outnumber men by a 3-to-2 margin, 3,148 to 2,460. The exact opposite is true among gay couples who are cohabiting without marriage. Men in those relationships outnumber women by a 3-to-2 margin, or 1,555 to 1,018.

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) Michael Ferguson kisses his husband Seth Anderson after they became the first gay couple in Utah to be married on Dec. 20, 2013, after a court decision allowed it.

Again, the new data about the high percentage of gay couples in Utah who choose to marry does not surprise gay rights activists or demographers.

Pam Perlich, senior demographer at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, said, “Utah is a marrying culture for sure. And the Mormon culture region [in the Mountain West] is definitely a marrying culture,” and gays raised or living here have become part of that.

She added that the importance of marriage to gays here comes not just because of the culture, but also because they were legally excluded from it for decades — making it a prized legal right.

On top of that, she noted many churchgoing people in the region who highly value traditional opposite-sex marriage felt that “translated into the rejection of the relationship between same-sex people.”

Between that hostility and yearning for marriage that had been banned for them, Perlich said that once the courts wiped away that barrier, a high percentage of those couples ran to it. “There was a greater incentive to get access to marriage because of the implicit or overt threats to the ability to take care of hearth and home, children, health and everything else.”

Kitchen and Williams say Utah has become a relatively welcoming place for gays and gay couples, especially in Salt Lake City.

“As a gay person in Salt Lake City, I feel treated respectfully, equally. I don’t ever feel like I have to hide myself for any reason,” Kitchen said. “I couldn’t imagine being a gay man anywhere else.”

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Sen. Derek Kitchen, left, talks with Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill before a vote on a hate crimes bill.

Williams said much has changed in recent years.

“You think back six years ago, we were in this heated battle over Herbert v. Kitchen over marriage equality,” he said. “Now we passed nondiscrimination protections for the LGBT community in 2015. We passed an inclusive hate crimes law last year. And this year, we banned conversion therapy for minors. Utah has made tremendous strides to welcome and include LGBTQ Utahns into the fold.”

Last year, the Public Religion Research Institute said Utah ranked No. 2 nationally for residents who support laws that protect LGBTQ residents from discrimination. Another study by the Williams Institute also shows Utah ranks No. 2 (behind only Idaho) for the percentage of gay couples with children (40%).

The new American Community Survey also includes some other interesting demographic data about Utah, including:

• Utah is getting older. The median age rose from 31 years old to 31.2 between 2018 and 2019. “We’ve seen declines in births since 2008,” Perlich said. “We continue to see the share of population under 18 declining.”

And that was before the pandemic hit. She expects economic problems resulting from it will lead to further declines in the birthrate.

• More foreign immigrants. Utah’s foreign-born population increased by 3,353 people in 2019, while it declined in most states. “That’s a big indication of the strength of the economy, educational opportunity and quality of life here” that continue to serve as a magnet to immigrants, Perlich said.

• Poverty rose before COVID-19. The new estimates for 2019, before the pandemic, shows that the percentage of all people living in poverty in Utah rose from 8.8% to 9%. The jump was greater among families with children, increasing from 4% to 4.9%.

• Income equality. Utah continues to be a place of greater income equality than is seen nationally, as measured by the GINI index. A score of zero would be perfect equality. Utah’s score is 0.4268, lower than the national score of 0.4811.