As states from New York to Iowa allow same-sex marriage, and the Pentagon lifts the ban on gays in its ranks, Florida gay-rights advocates see hope in new census figures for domestic partner benefits here – and maybe even marriage.
The number of same-sex couples living in the Tampa Bay area grew by 60 percent over the last decade, according to figures released Thursday by the Census Bureau.
Nearly a fifth of those couples were raising children, the census reported.
In all, the 2010 census counted 10,261 same-sex couples in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, up from just under 6,500 in 2000.
Despite the dramatic growth, same-sex households paralleled overall growth and remain about 1 percent of the total households in both the region and the state.
Among the exceptions is Wilton Manors in Broward County, where 12 percent of 6,200 households were same-sex, the highest proportion in the state.
"These numbers provide the recognition that in every county, in every city in Florida, there are same-sex households," said Brian Winfield, Pinellas County-based communications director for Equality Florida.
Winfield, 46, and his partner are among Pinellas' 4,637 same-sex couples.
"No kids," he said. "But we started young and made it work."
While the numbers of same-sex households is on the rise, the census probably isn't counting everyone, said Carrie West, who owns MC Films, a gay-themed store in Ybor City, with his partner of 34 years.
"There's so many guys I know that won't put down that they're same sex couples," West said.
Statewide, the census reported 65,601 same-sex couples spread from gay-friendly urban centers in South Florida to conservative rural counties in the Panhandle. A slight majority of those households – 53 percent – are female.
North Florida and Panhandle communities reported the highest percentage of same-sex households raising children, according an analysis by Gary Gates, a demographer at the University of California-Los Angeles.
Winfield said the study undercuts the notion that gay people are strictly city dwellers.
"That myth is totally busted by this data, as least as far as couples are concerned," he said.
Gates' research shows a strong gender difference between where the couples live: Male couples tend to live in urban areas, female couples in rural areas.
Gates' study found that Monroe County, which takes in the Florida Keys, had the highest concentration of same-sex households at 21.75 per 1,000. Pinellas County, with 11.15 per 1,000, ranked fourth of Florida's 67 counties.
Pinellas County and St. Petersburg, home to the state's largest Gay Pride event each June, have passed anti-discrimination measures to protect their gay residents – steps that show they're more accepting of gay people than Hillsborough County, Winfield said.
While Tampa has its own protections for gay residents, Hillsborough commissioners have a more mixed history. In 2005, they banned support of gay pride events.
The in 2008, voters elected Kevin Beckner, the county's first openly gay commissioner, who is pressing the commission to extend benefits to county workers' domestic partners.