NEW YORK — As much as Americans revere the family, they differ sharply on how to define it.
New research being released today shows steadily increasing recognition of unmarried couples — gay and straight — as families. But there's a solid core resisting this trend who are more willing to include pets in their definition than same-sex partners.
How "family" is defined is a crucial question on many levels. Beyond the debate over same-sex marriage, it affects income tax filings, adoption and foster care practices, employee benefits, inheritance rights and countless other matters.
The new research on the topic is contained in a book-length study, "Counted Out: Same-Sex Relations and Americans' Definition of Family" and in a separate 2010 survey overseen by the book's lead author, Indiana University sociologist Brian Powell.
Between 2003 and 2010, three surveys conducted by Powell's team showed a significant shift toward counting same-sex couples with children as family — from 54 percent of respondents in 2003 to 68 percent in 2010. In all, more than 2,300 people were surveyed.
Powell linked the changing attitudes to a 10 percent rise between 2003 and 2010 in the share of survey respondents who reported having a gay friend or relative.
"This indicates a more open social environment in which individuals now feel more comfortable discussing and acknowledging sexuality," Powell said.
Only about one-third of those surveyed said they considered same-sex couples without children to be a family. And in 2006, when asked if gay couples and pets count as family, 30 percent said pets count but not gay couples.
"The sheer idea that gay couples are given less status than pets should give us pause," Powell said.
In line with several recent national opinion polls, Powell's 2010 survey showed a near-even split on same-sex marriage — with 52 percent supporting it and 48 percent opposed.