A new study suggests the number of same-sex couples in the U.S. has quadrupled since 1990. According to its author, increases have been the most dramatic in the Midwest, Mountain and Southern states.

The Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the UCLA School of Law released the report documenting what they refer to as a “demographic explosion” in parts of the country’s most politically and socially conservative regions. They used data collected from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

“The fact that same-sex couples are becoming more visible in areas where legal recognitions are scarce shows that campaigns against gay rights might have a limited shelf life,” said Gary Gates, senior research fellow at the Williams Institute and author of the study.

Gates recognizes this development as more an unlikely matter of greater numbers of gay people forming partnerships since 1990 than a growing number of gay couples who find themselves comfortable enough in today’s social landscape to identify their relationship status.

“Clearly,” he said, “more same-sex couples are willing to openly identify themselves as such on government surveys. A combination of growing social acceptance and migration to the South and West means that same-sex couples are becoming increasingly visible in the most politically and socially conservative parts of the country.”

Of note to Tennesseans, the number of “same-sex unmarried partner couples” increased by more than 10 times in the past 16 years, from 1340 couples in 1990 to 15,105 couples in 2006.

In Nashville, the number of same-sex couples jumped from 504 in 1990 to 1370 in 2006. The number of same-sex couples in Memphis increased from 229 in 1990 to 2141 in 2006.

Nashville resident Robyn Kelvin and her partner of 22 years, Terry, have seen it all. For them, being out wasn’t a choice. They just were.

“We met in 1981 when we both worked for the now-defunct Washington Manufacturing Company downtown,” said Robyn. “We were introduced by a woman I had gone to high school with, who also worked there, because we were the ‘two gay people in the company.’”

“Terry and I have been on TV and in the newspaper once or twice over the years,” she said, “because we were already out, and didn’t fear reprisals of any kind. For a long time, there was us and one other woman who were always available for a news article, because we were secure about being out.”

Looking back over the past twenty years, Kevlin wondered if being women helped their level of comfort during a time when only ten percent of gay couples around here chose to identify as such.

“I do think it’s easier for women to ‘fly under the radar,’” she said, “because people expect two women to live together (for safety and monetary reasons). We are also allowed by society to shop together and eat together and sleep together in the same hotel room. Society may be more accepting of two men under those conditions, but it still seems to occasion more comment.”

Amid the growth of the visible gay community, Kevlin says she never felt her perspective ever changed.

“I have been pleasantly surprised a couple times,” she said, “when offered a new job, I’ll say something like ‘my partner, she’ or some other identifier, and the potential boss will say ‘Oh? How long have you two been together?’”

It’s been my experience that if you present yourself without shame or excuse, people will accept you that way,” she said. “Or they won’t, and they’ll go away. We haven’t had any serious negative responses that I can recall. Oh, we did get called 'faggots' once by a couple of teenagers as we were crossing the street toward a gay bar.”

“Shows how much they know, huh?” she added. “We’re dykes!”

This article has been republished from Out & About Nashville, and was part of a series of first-person pieces written by the late Bobbi Williams.

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