California's Central Valley home to more gay families

The number of same-sex couples living together in the Valley jumped by as much as 40% over the past decade, according to census figures being released today. And many of these couples – moreso than in other parts of the state – have children.

The rate of increase outpaced population growth by as much as 2 1/2 times and is due largely to more people feeling comfortable identifying themselves as gay or lesbian, population experts say. But it's also partly due to more people feeling comfortable about settling down with a same-sex partner.

Whatever the case, experts say, the new census numbers better reflect the scope of the gay and lesbian community in the central San Joaquin Valley, where pride parades, gay clubs and gay-friendly businesses have become fixtures. While same-sex couples in the Valley are still less common than in most places – in Fresno County, about 8 of every 1,000 households are headed by a same-sex couple – in many local communities the number is growing more quickly than in other areas.

"You've seen a shift from the hiding and being afraid of what your neighbor might think to who gives a damn about what your neighbor thinks," said Fresno resident Rich Howard, who three years ago helped start a local bowling club for gay residents. "It's not the big deal it used to be."

According to the 2010 Census, Fresno County has 2,226 same-sex couples living together, while Tulare County has 902, Madera County has 320 and Kings County has 249.

Just as the gay community has been assimilated into the Valley, some Valley traditions have shown up in the gay community. Same-sex couples here, like their straight counterparts, have more children than same-sex couples in other parts of California, according to the census. In Tulare County, where same-sex households have the state's second-highest rate of child-rearing, nearly half of same-sex couples have at least one child. Statewide, only about a quarter of same-sex households have children.

Other Valley counties are not far behind Tulare. Experts say the minority and religious conventions of the Valley, which tend to value large households, often carry over to same-sex households.

"Conservative places, ironically, create more gay families," said Gary Gates, a demographer at the Williams Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law.

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