Gay and lesbians living in the same household can check husbands or wives on the 2010 census form — a step in the right direction for evolving social change in America.

SOCIAL change usually occurs in incremental steps, and this week — census week — offers encouraging word that gay and lesbian couples who share a home can describe themselves on the forms as husbands or wives.

It is a small step. Individuals do not write down the words gay or lesbian to be counted specifically that way, but years ago, few would have imagined a homosexual couple able to define themselves as husbands or wives. Clearly, such status on the census form does not convey full federal recognition of gay marriage, nor does it give gay and lesbian couples the same rights as heterosexual couples.

But it does mark the first time in the 220-year-history of the decennial count that gay and lesbian couples can use a census form to describe in more honest terms how they view their families.

This editorial page supports gay marriage with all the rights, fairness and equity heterosexual couples enjoy.

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Our state has not gotten that far yet, but it is a matter of time. Younger generations are less exercised about gay marriage than their elders.

Census officials accurately say they can no more tell people how to define relationships than they can tell people what race they are. It is self-identification, so people are encouraged to describe themselves in ways that best portray them.

By allowing same-sex individuals in a household to identify as husbands or wives, the Census Bureau will acquire more accurate data about the number of Americans living in such situations. But this change does not specifically count all gays and lesbians in the country.

In the years ahead, the census should do a better job of reflecting gays and lesbians to provide more information about aging, health care and other matters.

For now, census recognition of these couples is welcome acknowledgment from the government. It is about time.