Same-sex households soar in south Florida

Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, FL
Copyright © 2011 Sun-Sentinel

The number of gay and lesbian households reported in South Florida increased sharply over the past 10 years, not only in such well-known communities as Wilton Manors but also in the family-oriented suburbs of western Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Broward County led the state with 9,125 same-sex households or 1.3 percent of its households, according to statistics released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau. Palm Beach County ranked fourth, behind Miami-Dade and Orange counties, with 4,706 households, or .9 percent.

”Florida has become a more accepting place for LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] families over the last 10 years,” said Brian Winfield, spokesman for Equality Florida, a gay civil rights organization. “There are 12 or 13 Florida cities or counties that offer domestic partner protection, and that means 6.7 million people – or about one in three Floridians – live in communities that recognize domestic partners. Clearly Florida has become a more welcoming place.”

Statewide the number rose 60 percent, an increase that may be less dramatic than it appears, since experts say it likely reflects a greater willingness to report sexual orientation, rather than a vast influx. This interpretation is borne out by statistics from other states, which also show double-digit increases from the 2000 Census.

While Wilton Manors, Oakland Park and Fort Lauderdale remain at the top in Broward, the data shows that gay and lesbian households are not concentrated in a few cities. For example, the 944 reported in the suburban communities of Pembroke Pines, Plantation and Sunrise far exceed the 758 same-sex households in Wilton Manors, a smaller city considered the gay capital of Florida.

Of Florida’s same-sex households, 52 percent consist of male couples, and 48 percent female couples.

Josh Winston, 33, moved to Fort Lauderdale from Washington, D.C., with his partner Mike in 2003 after vacationing here.

”There’s an established community for us, and that was a big draw,” he said. “We’ve seen the greater Fort Lauderdale area grow in the number of establishments that cater to the gay community and you also see a lot of crossover between the straight community and the gay community. We’re very happy here.”

In Palm Beach County, the numbers increased across the board, with some of the largest increases reported in Palm Beach Gardens, Jupiter and Royal Palm Beach. Lake Worth reported the highest percentage, with 250 households or 1.9 percent (not counting the tiny town of Manalapan, where five same-sex couples represent 2.6 percent of all households).

”I knew it!” about Lake Worth, said Penny Johnson, co-owner of a lesbian bar on Dixie Highway called The Bar. Although she and her partner Julie live in nearby, more affordable West Palm Beach, they enjoy the welcoming atmosphere of Lake Worth.

”We can walk down the street hand in hand,” said Johnson. “In the College Park neighborhood, if you walk down the street, eight of 10 people are same-sex couples.”

The increased number of same-sex couples in such suburban communities ties in with the large percentage of these households that have children. In Broward County, 28 percent of female same-sex households and 9 percent of male ones reported children in the house. In Palm Beach County, it was 23 percent of female households and 15 percent of male ones.

The Census Bureau issued a statement cautioning the statistics may contain a small number of errors due to a data processing decision to reclassify the category of same-sex spouse to unmarried partner. The bureau plans to issue a clarification later this year.

At the state level, Florida does not have a particularly gay-friendly reputation, especially compared with New York, Vermont and other states that have legalized gay marriage. But individual cities, counties and school districts have provided benefits for domestic partners, added sexual orientation to anti-discrimination ordinances and taken other steps to be more welcoming.

”We’ve been doing what we can in South Florida to distinguish ourselves from what’s been going on in Tallahassee,” said Tony Plakas, chief executive officer of Compass Inc., a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group in Lake Worth.

Nationwide, conservative states like Florida have had the highest increases in same-sex couples, said researcher Gary J. Gates with the Williams Institute, a think tank associated with the UCLA Law School. In Florida, that reflects both an increase in gays moving from more liberal states and an increased willingness among gays to step out of the closet and be counted.

”The magnitude of the increase suggests there has been a shift in social acceptance among same-sex couples in Florida,” Gates said.

Jeff Kunerth contributed to this report.