Gay and lesbian activists have urged same-sex couples living together to declare their relationship in next month’s census, as a way of increasing community visibility and smoothing law reform.

The call came as a Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) inquiry heard how federal and state laws continue to disadvantage people in same-sex relationships.

Census night, held every five years, is on 8 August. As in 2001, this year’s census will allow same-sex partners who live together to declare they are in a de facto relationship.

Partners who do not live together cannot record their relationship as de facto. A question about sexuality -“ proposed by The Greens earlier in the year -“ will also not appear.

NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby co-convenor David Scamell told Sydney Star Observer census night was a crucial opportunity to improve visibility and speed up reform efforts.

It is vitally important that all members of the NSW gay and lesbian community come out on census night and tick the box where they do live in a same-sex de facto household, Scamell said.

But also whereabouts they live as well.

That information’s quite important in terms of lobbying politicians in different electorates -¦ so we can engage various politicians and say -˜you have a certain amount of same-sex couples living in your electorate’.

ACON president Adrian Lovney said while the census wouldn’t cover all same-sex partners, it was still an important opportunity.

We recognise that relationships take a range of forms, and some of them don’t involve people necessarily living together, so they won’t get captured by the census, Lovney told the Star.

The form doesn’t represent an accurate assessment of the number of gay and lesbian relationships, but obviously the higher the number, the better, because it reinforces to the government that we’re out there living in relationships.

Rather than just counting those relationships, perhaps the federal government could do something about recognising them.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) advertisements are also appealing to people to count yourself in on census night. In the past, activists have expressed concerns about under-reporting of same-sex relationships on census night. But about twice as many cohabiting same-sex couples identified their relationship in the 2001 census compared with 1996.

The ABS said this suggested more same-sex partners were willing to declare their relationships. David Scamell said he expected the trend to continue on census night this year.

We’re cautiously anticipating that there will be a lot more people ticking that box and being open.

Between 1996 and 2001 the amount of same-sex couples who ticked that box doubled.

We believe that is largely to do with the fact that people became more comfortable in filling out a government survey and being open about their sexuality.

Some same-sex partners who wed overseas have pledged to list themselves as married on the census form. At a relationship equality rally in Sydney last August, high-profile doctor Kerryn Phelps -“ who married her partner Jackie Stricker in New York -“ told the audience to fill in the part of the [census] form that says -˜spouse’ or -˜married’ if you believe you are spiritually married.

Let their computer go into meltdown trying to cope with same-sex spouses.

A representative from the ABS information service said such people would be listed as married in census statistics.

If they put themselves down as something that’s not completely honest it just obscures the figures, she said.

We do rely on the good faith of people to give an honest answer.

Census collectors will begin distributing forms to households this week. They will collect the forms after census night. Forms can also be completed online.

The census preparations came as HREOC held a public hearing in Sydney as part of an investigation into financial discrimination against same-sex couples.

The hearing yesterday heard from community groups and individuals affected by legal inequality.

Among the speakers was Sydney gay man Michael Burge, who told the hearing of his difficulties gaining financial entitlements after his partner died in 2004.

I think anywhere where that can be spoken about and acknowledged and changed, at any level -¦ is important, Burge told the Star yesterday.

If today has only changed one person’s knowledge of that situation or any of the situations talked about then it could have huge ramifications in the community.

The HREOC inquiry has received about 300 submissions from around Australia. It will hold other public hearings around the country and expects to hand a final report to the federal government early next year.

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