JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Being gay in this Southern city was once a lonely existence. Most people kept their sexuality to themselves, and they were reminded of the dangers of being openly gay when a gay church was bombed in the 1980s. These days, there are eight churches that openly welcome gay worshipers.
The changes may seem surprising for a city where churches that have long condemned homosexuality remain a powerful force. But as demographers sift through data releases from the Census Bureau, they have found that Jacksonville is home to one of the biggest populations of gay parents in the country.
In addition, the data show, child rearing among same-sex couples is more common in the South than in any other region, according to Gary Gates, a demographer at the University of California, Los Angeles. Gay couples in Southern states are more likely to be raising children than their counterparts on the West Coast, in New York and in New England.
The pattern, identified by Gates, is also notable because the families in this region defy the stereotype of a mainstream gay America that is white, affluent, urban and living in the Northeast or on the West Coast.
“We’re starting to see that the gay community is very diverse,” said Bob Witeck, chief executive of Witeck-Combs Communications, which helped market the census to gay people.
Black or Latino gay couples are twice as likely as whites to be raising children, according to Gates, who used data from a Census Bureau sampling known as the American Community Survey. They are also more likely than their white counterparts to be struggling economically.
Experts offer theories for the pattern. A large number of gay couples, possibly a majority, entered into their current relationship after first having children with partners in heterosexual relationships, Gates said.
“People grew up in church, so a lot of us lived in shame,” said Darlene Maffett, 43, a Jacksonville resident, who had two children in eight years of marriage before coming out in 2002. “What did we do? We wandered around lost. We married men, and then couldn’t understand why every night we had a headache.”
Jacksonville was a magnet for Maffett even before she moved here. While its gay residents remained largely hidden, it had a gay-friendly church. In 2003, she spent her Sundays driving 90 minutes each way to attend.
Maffett appreciated the safety of the church in Jacksonville. Even so, she felt little connection to the gay congregation in Jacksonville — mostly white, male and childless. Then she met Valerie Williams, 33, who had been part of the city’s gay community for years, and when the first black, gay-friendly church opened in 2007, she thought it needed to go one step further.
So last summer, Williams became pastor of St. Luke’s Community Church and immediately set up a youth program.