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How Many Gay Couples Have Tied The Knot? Nobody Knows

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Couples kiss at the Old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana, California

Couples kiss at the Old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana, Calif., earlier this month. (Amy Taxin/AP)

Since the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act in June, many questions have emerged about what the ruling may mean for same-sex couples.

There's one question, though, that would seem easy to answer: How many legal same-sex marriages are there in the U.S.?

The Limitations Of Self-Reporting

It turns out the answer is actually very complicated — so complicated that even experts such as Bob Witeck, president and founder of Witeck Communications, a marketing firm specializing in gay and lesbian consumers, are stumped.

For two decades, Witeck has advised big companies such as Wal-Mart, Disney and Verizon Wireless on how to market to gay customers. He says knowing basic statistics about the LGBT community is "essential" to his business. "When we speak to corporations, the business case is made up of numbers," Witeck explains.

The exact number of legal same-sex marriages, though, has been elusive for Witeck. And it's not for a lack of trying. His desk is covered with market research reports and printed data tables.

Witeck has also worked with the government agency that's charged with tracking numbers about American lives — the Census Bureau, whose latest estimate for same-sex marriages is about 168,000 couples.

But here's one problem with the census number: Not all of those couples are legally married. The bureau ultimately relies on self-reporting, which, of course, doesn't always match with a couple's legal status.

So if you can't rely on the Census Bureau for exact numbers, why not just count the number of marriage certificates that have been issued to same-sex couples in the U.S.?

The New York Times recently attempted that method and came up with "at least" 82,500 couples, noting: "The quality of record-keeping varies: some states rely on estimates, while others keep more detailed records."

A Hodgepodge Of Record Keeping

In California, where gay couples can legally walk down the aisle again now that courts have lifted the ban that was in effect since 2008, marriage licenses are "gender neutral," according to Anita Gore, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Public Health.

"We don't ask for the gender of participants nor whether the marriage license is for an opposite-sex couple or a same-sex couple," says Gore, whose department does not keep a record of the number of same-sex marriages that have been authorized.

Marriage license applications in Iowa, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2009, do ask for an applicant's gender, but answering is optional.

"So if [gender is] not reported to us, then we have no record that [a marriage] is a same-sex marriage" or a marriage between a man and a woman, explains Jill France, chief of the Iowa Department of Public Health's Bureau of Health Statistics

The range of available data among states can be frustrating for demographers like Gary Gates, a scholar with the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Using data from the Census Bureau and other surveys, Gates has come up with his own estimate: 114,000 couples. It's the most widely cited estimate out there, more so than the Census Bureau's larger number.

Still, marketing expert Witeck believes Gates' number is an undercount. He says the hodgepodge of state laws and the uncertainty before the June Supreme Court rulings meant some gay couples wanted to stay off the radar.

But one thing Witeck is certain of is the trend line for legal same-sex marriages — and it's going up.