Census: More Utahns cohabiting, living with same-sex partners

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Thousands more Utahns this decade are shacking up, living with same-sex partners or just waiting longer to get married, according to newly released census estimates.

Try a 42 percent jump in households headed by unmarried partners or a 23 percent leap in lesbian partners living together or a 21.5 percent increase in gay men cohabiting.

It's a move that follows national trends toward unconventional families, though at a slower pace. In rankings of young newlyweds and big families, the Beehive State remains America's old-fashioned-standards bearer.

"All of those social characteristics of Mormon culture remain," University of Utah demographer Pam Perlich said of the latest statistics. "You see Utah becoming more diverse, but still maintaining its old Utah hallmarks."

Among them is the fact that most Utah households continue to be headed by married couples when that hasn't been the case nationally for three years. Utah still has the youngest median marriage age - 25.2 for men and 22.8 for women - and nearly 60 percent of adults are married.

The state's high marriage rate helps to limit poverty here, Perlich said, because studies show that children born into single-family homes on average have a rougher economic start.

Utah's average household size, including singles, is the nation's highest: 3.11.

"The trend [nationally] is more unmarried, and Utah just stands out and says, 'Not us,' " said Thomas Coleman, executive director of the Unmarried America singles-advocacy network. Twenty-three states now have majorities of households headed by unmarried people, he said, compared with 38 percent in Utah.

Those who don't follow the Utah standard are standing out less and less, though.

The Census Bureau's American Community Survey results for 2007 show 33,061 Utah households with unmarried partners. That's a spurt of nearly 10,000 from the 2000 census. Of last year's totals, 4,549 of the unmarried couples were same-sex.

Unmarried partners are concentrated more in the state's most populous county than elsewhere. Salt Lake County had 18,358 unmarried household partnerships in 2007, of which 1,644 were same-sex couples. Utah County, the state's second-largest, had 2,284 unmarried partnerships, 687 of which were same-sex pairs.

Couples who look different from Utah's norm struggle with state policy but see signs of change.

Kim and Ruth Hackford-Peer met as college students in Colorado 12 years ago and moved in 2004 to Salt Lake City, where Kim is pursuing a doctorate at the University of Utah.

The Rose Park couple have two kids, Riley, 6, and Casey, 2. Ruth gave birth to both.

Despite Utah's ban on gay marriage and adoption - Kim has been unable to adopt Casey but is named as a "co-parent" on Riley's Massachusetts birth certificate - Kim is encouraged by Salt Lake City's creation of a mutual-commitment registry earlier this year. After registering, Kim and Ruth showed their new license to Riley.

"That made him really happy. . . . He sees his moms as married, and he doesn't understand why other people don't recognize that," Kim said. "We feel good [about living in Utah], but it takes work to create that space where we do have a lot of support."

Perlich said the number of unmarried partners may be trending up partly because of residents' increased willingness to self-report on surveys.

"Part of that is a more diverse population, but part is also self-identification," she said. "It's how they see themselves."

By far the larger portion of cohabiting adults aren't same-sex couples, reflecting the widening practice of a trial run at sharing space before marriage.

"They've been dating a long time," interfaith-wedding minister Lydia Trettis said of many Salt Lake City brides and grooms. "I did a wedding this summer where she had known him since high school, and she was in her 40s."

On Monday, though, she was performing the ceremony of two inactive Mormons in their early 20s, a good 10 years younger than most couples she married when she worked in New York.

Still, Utah's marriage age is inching upward. The latest stats show the median age at first marriage for Utah men averaged 23.9 from 2000 to 2004, a little more than a year younger than today's number (25.2). The difference is also about a year older at first marriage for Utah women, 21.9 then compared with 22.8 now.