CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- No same-sex couples reported living in either Barbour or Pendleton counties, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, something a local outreach group said may be attributable to fear.
"I think people are afraid to say they are gay, lesbian or transgender in very rural areas," said Dr. Coy Flowers, board president of Fairness WV, a statewide civil rights advocacy organization dedicated to fair treatment and civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender West Virginians.
"In the LGBT community, individuals are looked at in the eyes of the law as second class," Flowers said. "You can be fired or lose a job or be kicked out of your home just because you are gay or lesbian."
It's that fear that Flowers thinks led some people to "inaccurately" report if they were in a same-sex relationship on their Census form.
"The more rural you go, the more people will want to keep that private."
However, David Boyd, program coordinator for substance abuse grants at the Barbour County Family Resource Network, said, "the Census is pretty much accurate."
"People who live an alternative lifestyle are very open about it and are not trying to hide anything, but I don't know of anyone in a committed relationship. People that live that alternative lifestyle are few and far between. We still have a lot of traditional values here."
Boyd said there are people he knows that are gay, "but are they living in the same household? No."
According to the U.S. Census, the number of same sex couples in West Virginia has decreased slightly over the past 10 years. According to the 2010 statistics, there were 2,848 same-sex couples in the state. In 2000, the number of same sex-couples in the state was 2,916.
The 2010 Census was the first time there was an option to indicate if you are in a same-sex relationship.
Flowers said "2000 was our best guess at the time, but we were using data that didn't specifically ask about same-sex relationships."
Even though the number in 2010 is lower than 2000, Flowers said he thinks the number of same-sex couples is actually increasing.
"We can't prove that, of course, with the old data, but I think the numbers we have now are more accurate. Now with 2010 data, we actually know what street they live on and how many kids they have and what counties they are in," Flowers said.
Originally, data from the U.S. Census Bureau showed there were 5,240 same-sex couples within West Virginia. However, the bureau adjusted that number months later to the "preferred estimate" of 2,848 after noticing numerous data errors on the U.S. Census forms.
Tavia Simmons, a social statistician for the U.S. Census Bureau, said that form was later decided to be "error-prone."
Census statisticians realized there was an error when the numbers of same-sex couples on the decennial form were drastically higher than the American Community Survey, an ongoing statistical survey that samples a small percentage of the population every year as opposed to each decade.
Statisticians went back and looked at the Census forms that asked about same-sex marriage and found numerous couples that were named "Scott" and "Ann" that had misidentified themselves as a same-sex couple.
"Scott comes out 950 out of 1,000 times as a male name, while Ann only comes up 50 out of 1,000 times as a male name. When you look at that, it's a mistake to be marked as a same sex-couple household," Simmons said.
Simmons said the U.S. Census Bureau does not normally reassess forms for errors, but "there was a big enough change [almost 46 percent] so there was a lot of time and energy that went into recounting. For a small sub population that depends on gender, it makes a big impact."
Flowers said he's not surprised the number had to be adjusted.
"You are going to have a lot more people who will make a mistake and check same-sex versus someone who is going to say 'OK I am courageous enough to check this box,'" he said.
'Redefining what family means'
Same-sex couples make up every 3.7 couples per 1,000 households within West Virginia, according to Census data. More than 1,500 same-sex couples -- or 53 percent -- are female, while the remaining 1,330 couples are male.
Jefferson County has the largest number of same-sex couples per 1,000 households with 125 couples -- making up 6 percent of the county population.
Charleston residents James Gross and Bobby May are one of those couples and filled out their Census form as a same-sex married couple. The men were married in a small civil ceremony in Vermont in 2010.
"It was a nice feeling. It makes you feel included," May, a local entertainer, said of the Census question.
Although same-sex marriage is not legally recognized in West Virginia, tying the knot was important to the men to help publicly define their love.
"It was important to us to be married because of the benefits that come along with marriage," Gross said, citing hospital visits or who owns property after a person in a relationship dies. "There are all types of benefits to marriage that people don't think about until you're in a situation."
"We're in a place as a culture where we are redefining what the term family means, and we understand that there are many people who are resisting change to that definition," Gross said. "We see family as people we love and care about and who play a positive role in our lives."
Ultimately, the men decided to get married because of the "sanctity of marriage," Gross said.
"When you tell someone you are married, they see you as one. We wanted that respect from our friends and family and we wanted people to recognize us as a couple."
Although their friends and relatives accept their lifestyle, that is not always the case with others.
On a Saturday in mid-June, Gross, 43, and May, 31, were walking in downtown Charleston when a group of six young black men started hurling homophobic slurs at the couple.
"I yelled 'what is wrong is with you, man? You're black. You're a minority, too. Why are we all hating each other?'" Gross said.
The young men just kept yelling, and Gross and May walked away.
"It's really a useless fight because that is not where the fight is," Gross, a sales representative for Frontier, said. "The real fight is not in the streets, it's in the Capitol making political changes."
With the White House embracing same-sex marriage and with "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" being eliminated, the conversation about same-sex marriage, May said, is at the forefront of national discussion.
"We're seeing our metropolitan communities move lightyears ahead from our rural communities," Gross said. "And now the rural communities are seeing these images, they are hearing the President speak and we're starting to really deal with these issues."
"Friends who live in larger cities always say "'are you crazy?' And we think, 'are we crazy to stay?'" Gross said. "But we're from West Virginia, and we stay here because we're comfortable here."
"Bobby likes to [fly-fish], and we enjoy the serene setting that is just a drive away. We like the small town feel of Charleston and we love the East End and have a lot of friends here."
But even though some people in Charleston are accepting, "it doesn't protect us from being called faggots from time to time," Gross said.
Neither man believes that a nationwide acceptance of same-sex marriage will magically change the opinion of some Americans overnight.
"You're not going to change anyone's mind. They are going to change their mind when they are ready to change it," Gross said.
But "nothing changes unless you stand up for your rights," May said.
Making it political, not personal
Flowers said state officials would be working toward including sexual orientation in the state Employment and Housing Nondiscrimination Act. Currently, West Virginia's Human Rights Code does not include protection based on sexual orientation and people can lose a job or be evicted from a home because of it.
Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, hopes that protection is included.
"I don't think of it as a gay right," Kessler said. "It's a human right."
Kessler said no one should be treated like a second-class citizen.
"They get up, go to work, park in the right spot and do their job," he said. "They shouldn't have to be worried about losing their job or home because of who they love and go home to at night. It's just a human rights issue. People have the right to live and work and participate in society without fear."
Kessler believes that "being gay isn't a matter of choice. You can no more change the color of your eyes or skin."
But making that understood by the masses will require more education, Kessler said.
Although there is still opposition to gay rights in the state, Kessler believes there is "significantly more tolerance," now in young people than there was 20 years ago.
"As we grow older and a new generation continues to populate our state, I think you'll see it become more tolerant," he said.
But Kessler said lack of tolerance -- for now -- means West Virginia will not be embracing same-sex marriage with open arms anytime soon.
"I am a realist. We can't even pass a bill that it's unlawful to discriminate against someone in housing. I think it's quite a leap to go to marriage equality when we can't even get basic human rights issues addressed."
But Kessler isn't shying away from the fight.
"Those are the initial hurdles that need to be overcome. Society always advances forward for any group that feels they have been oppressed. We're just looking at giving people equal rights. Not special, just equal."
Reach Kathryn Gregory at kathr...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.