WALNUT CREEK -- When they prepared for marriage a decade ago, Cheryl Dumesnil and Tracie Vickers contemplated living in San Francisco, where other gay and lesbian families would surround them, or venturing back to the suburbs where they grew up.
Their choice of central Contra Costa County made them pioneers, the first two-mom family in their leafy Walnut Creek neighborhood.
"This is Tracie's suburban dream," Dumesnil said inside their ranch house Tuesday, as the couple's 6-year-old son, Brennan, quietly read a book and 4-year-old Kian marched through the kitchen, a singing troubadour strumming a white guitar. Neighbors have welcomed this family with cookies and open arms.
"So after saying I would never move back to the suburbs, here I am," Dumesnil said.
The family of four is among nearly 1 percent of California households -- about 126,000 homes -- headed by same-sex couples, according to statistics from the 2010 census being released Thursday. The numbers, if they are accurate, show nearly a quarter of California's same-sex couples are raising children.
While San Francisco remains a gay hub -- the city has more than 10,000 gay and lesbian couples, compared to fewer than 300 in Walnut Creek -- the census found same-sex couples in every corner of the state, and revealed that those who live in many suburban and rural areas are far more likely to have kids.
"We're not just some special interest group concentrated in major urban centers," Dumesnil said. "We're actually everywhere, and just trying to live a legally protected and fulfilling life."
Fifteen years after the federal Defense of Marriage Act banned gay marriage and seven years after San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom defiantly ordered that licenses be granted to same-sex couples, gay and lesbian families remain in the political cross hairs but also say that society is increasingly adjusting to having them -- and their children -- around. In turn, whether or not they were counted before, more same-sex couples are conscious about identifying themselves on census forms.
Demographers caution that the numbers may overcount same-sex couples because of opposite-sex couples who miscoded themselves on a confusing form. The errors are amplified because there are far more opposite-sex couples than same-sex couples.
Gay and lesbian couples are identified in the census when the head of a household reports living with a "husband/wife" or an "unmarried partner" of the same sex. Changes in the way the Census Bureau counts same-sex couples make it hard to accurately compare to the 2000 census, when the tally found more than 92,000 same-sex couples in California. It is clear, however, that the number of openly same-sex couples statewide has grown substantially in the last decade.
"We do have evidence that over time, increasing numbers of people are willing to report (same-sex partnerships)," said demographer Gary Gates of UCLA's Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law. "We've seen those increases being the largest outside the known gay areas. I'd expect you'd see those increases larger in the Central Valley than in San Francisco."
Same-sex couples in the suburbs and rural areas also are far more likely than their urban counterparts to be raising children. National studies show that about 19 percent of the children of same-sex couples are adopted, Gates said. Many more are children from previous heterosexual relationships.
"That kind of pattern is much more common in conservative areas where people come out later in life," Gates said. "The further you get away from San Francisco, the larger proportion of same-sex couples are raising kids."
For some same-sex couples, living in the outer regions of the Bay Area still seems like being on a cultural frontier.
The census counted 138 gay male couples in Antioch last year, and found that 30 percent of them have kids. However, partners Joe Horacek and Jonathan Lee know just one other family like them living on the other side of town.
The family moved to Antioch from South San Francisco in 2004 because they wanted a bigger, more affordable house to raise their three adopted children. Horacek and Lee were among about 18,000 same-sex couples who married during six months in 2008 when gay marriage was legal in the state before voters passed Proposition 8. Living in Antioch was easier when the kids were young; their oldest children, 14 and 13, are now struggling to fit in to a community where two dads are a rarity.
"My son has encountered some negative reactions from kids on Facebook," said Horacek, a local teacher. "We don't want to be the ones who put the targets on their back. All kids get picked on for something, but usually it has to do with them. We're adding this extra liability for them fitting in."
Hosts who greet the family of five at local restaurants sometimes mistake them for two separate parties. Since their 9-year-old daughter has no mom, a principal recently asked if she could play the role for a Mother's Day tea. Usually, a polite conversation smooths an adult's confusion, but the couple sometimes wonders if life would be easier for their kids on the other side of the East Bay hills.
"For the most part, no one has questioned us or given us any problems, but there are more assumptions out here that the kids have both a mom and a dad," Horacek said. "I know that in places like Berkeley and Alameda County, in particular, conversations about different kinds of families and same-sex relationships are part of the school curriculum. Out here, it's not necessarily the case."
Three percent of San Francisco households and slightly more than 2 percent of Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville households are headed by same-sex couples, making these the Bay Area cities with the highest concentration of gay and lesbian partners. Other East Bay cities run close behind, and most of the neighborhoods outside San Francisco with the highest number of same-sex couples, according to the census, stretch along the foothills of East Oakland.
East Bay same-sex couples also are more likely to have kids than their San Francisco counterparts, though the same is also true for straight couples. A little more than 4 percent of San Francisco's gay male couples and 19 percent of its lesbian couples have kids, compared to 11 percent of gay male couples and 22 percent of lesbian couples in Oakland.
Maya Scott-Chung and her multiracial family also chose the East Bay because she found it more diverse.
"It wasn't just because we could afford to buy a house here, though that was a part of it," said Scott-Chung, who lives with her transgender partner and their daughter in Oakland's San Antonio district. "It matters to us to live in Oakland because it's one of the most culturally, linguistically and economically diverse places in the Bay Area and probably in the world. There's a huge number of lesbian and two-mom families here."
Statewide, lesbian partners are also more likely than gay males to be raising children -- 32 percent of lesbian households have kids, compared to 17.8 percent of gay male couples. Horacek said that being a minority among minorities in a place like Antioch can be exciting and a little frightening.
"Obviously gay people have been in relationships for centuries, but this seems to be the first generation where it's happening in numbers, especially adding kids to the family," he said. "We sometimes feel like we're soldiers on the front line. Change is afoot, but still, it's not mainstream here."
Dumesnil said she and her wife have witnessed perceptions slowly change in Walnut Creek as they interact with straight families at school functions and in their neighborhood.
"Somebody's got to be out here," she said. "In a way, having the kids was the great equalizer."
the highest percentage
of same-sex couples
Guerneville: 7.6 percent of all households headed by same-sex couples (176 same-sex couples)
San Francisco: 3 percent (10,384)
Oakland: 2.2 percent (3,442)
Emeryville: 2.1 percent (119)
Berkeley: 2.1 percent (961)
El Cerrito: 1.9 percent (189)
Pacifica: 1.7 percent (237)
Albany: 1.7 percent (123)
Alameda: 1.5 percent (459)
San Rafael: 1.3 percent (301)
Vallejo: 1.2 percent (497)
Santa Rosa: 1.2 percent (757)
Richmond: 1.2 percent (427)
Concord: 1.2 percent (512)
Pleasant Hill: 1.1 percent (152)
San Leandro: 1.1 percent (326)
statewide figures on households
Households headed by
husband-wife married couples
Households headed by opposite-sex unmarried partners
Households headed by
Resident doesn't live with
a spouse or unmarried partner