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They met 2 1/2 years ago, fell in love and decided to grow old together. Four months ago, they had a baby.

Now Shari Jo Reich, 40, and Sheryl Duquette, 37, are part of an emerging 21st century household in the Buffalo Niagara region -- gay couples.

"I think people are finally looking in the mirror and saying, 'Yep, we're a gay couple,' " said Reich, a Buffalo attorney.

Erie and Niagara counties experienced a dramatic increase in same-sex households, mirroring what appears to be a broader national trend, census estimates released this week show.

Though only about one-half of one percent of all Buffalo Niagara homes, gay households increased more than fivefold -- to 1,626, compared to 294 reported to the Census Bureau 10 years ago.

The figures may be somewhat misleading, demographers caution. The balloning numbers are, in part, because the Census Bureau revised the way it counted same-sex households a decade ago. Furthermore, the region's gay population probably hasn't grown that much, but people are more open about being gay or lesbian, local leaders in the gay community said.

"There's been a lot of change in public attitudes within the past 10 years," said Jeffrey McConnell, 41, a Canisius College professor who has been with his partner for 9 1/2 years.

"There has always been the stereotype that gay relationships don't last," said McConnell, who is chairman of the college's computer science department, "but there's greater recognition of the fact gay and lesbian people do create long-term relationships."

The percentage of gay households reporting to the census here is smaller than the state average, however. Across the state, census data shows there are seven gay households for every 1,000 homes; in Buffalo Niagara, there are three per 1,000.

Gays and lesbians here feel less comfortable identifying their relationships because Buffalo is still a relatively small, blue-collar town with traditional values, local gays and lesbians said.

"I think this is a rather conservative area, generally speaking, and somewhat homophobic," said Mary Hewitt, co-president of the local chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

Moreover, a recent study by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., research group, suggests a link between a thriving gay population and a region's thriving economy.

"In the high-tech industry, they need talented, creative and innovative people to be successful," said Gary J. Gates, the study's co-author.

"Areas that have a broad spectrum of diversity -- not just gays, but artists, immigrants and ethnicities, too -- can serve as an engine for that creativity and innovation."

Profile emerging

While same-sex partners make up just about one-half a percent of the nearly 500,000 Buffalo Niagara households, the new figures provide a snapshot of the growing visibility of gay and lesbian relationships.

Data shows most gay households are located in pockets throughout Buffalo's Allentown, Parkside and University District neighborhoods, as well as along Elmwood Avenue, where Buffalo State College professor Jim Haynes, 67, and his partner, Donald Licht, live.

"We met in 1968 at what was at the time a gay bar, the Western Paradise, on Niagara Street," said Licht, 54, who teaches courses at the Buffalo Museum of Science. "A few months later, we moved in together. We've been together ever since."

Gay couples aren't just settling in the city.

While the number of gay households is much smaller in Buffalo's suburbs, census data shows there are noticeable pockets in Amherst, around the University at Buffalo South Campus, and in Kenmore, where Del Milander and his partner bought a home.

"We were aware of a number of gay households in Kenmore," said Milander, 57, a paralegal. "It gave me a sense of comfort to know there were other gay couples there."

The pattern is the same across the state. Statewide, the number of gay households more than tripled during the past decade. New York City -- home to a well-established gay community and roughly 8 million people -- has 55 percent of the state's same-sex households reported to the census: 25,906.

Making themselves known

The increases came as no surprise in the gay community. Gay and lesbian advocates around the country mounted a vigorous advertising campaign, urging same-sex couples to identify themselves on the Census 2000 questionnaire.

"People I know who are gay and lesbian really wanted to fill out that form and make themselves known," said Reich, who lives in Allentown.

Many see the census numbers as having a positive effect for the gay community.

The data definitely makes a stronger case for gay marriages, McConnell said. Vermont's civil unions law -- the first of its kind in the country granting marriage benefits to same-sex couples -- took effect last July. The unions are not recognized by other states, and partners have no marriage benefits under federal law.

And the census numbers, no matter how small, show Buffalo's gay community is starting families and being recognized. Reich's and Duquette's daughter, Cydele, was delivered four months ago. Duquette was artificially inseminated.

"For gay and lesbian people, it's reaffirming to know other people are not afraid to identify themselves," Reich said. "It's really reaffirming to know that those figures go in front of politicians, community leaders and agencies that make funding decisions."

The Census Bureau doesn't ask about sexual orientation, nor does it tally the nation's total gay population -- singles and couples combined. That number is still unknown and widely debated.

Census sought more details

But since 1990, the government started asking more specifics about household relationships, said Jason Fields, a family demographer with the Census Bureau. The survey, for example, distinguishes between those who are simply same-sex "roommates" and same-sex "unmarried partners," which suggests a gay or lesbian relationship.

The Census Bureau also changed the way it totaled same-sex households since 1990's undercounted estimates. Census officials say they tallied gay households more accurately last year than they did 10 years ago, part of the reason for the jump in numbers across the country, demographers said.

Even so, many -- such as Marvin Henchbarger, acting executive director of the local Gay and Lesbian Youth Services -- believe the number of gay households is much higher.

Advocates have long cited a 1940s study suggesting 10 percent of the population is homosexual. That's why Henchbarger argues there still are many gays afraid to divulge their same-sex relationships because nondiscrimination laws and policies haven't changed to protect gays and lesbians.

"For a lot of people, there's no job security," said McConnell, the Canisius professor. "One of the things a lot of people don't realize is, in 38 states a boss can walk into someone's office and say, 'You're gay, you're fired.' "

The area's conservative nature may speak to some of those concerns among gays in the community, Hewitt said.

Small number of households

Of New York's 62 counties, Erie County has the 10th-smallest percentage of gay households; Niagara County has the second-smallest share.

"When we first moved here, there wasn't even a gay parade," said Milander, who came to the area with his partner from the Midwest in 1990. "Buffalo had a lot of catching up to do."

The Brookings study suggests the size of the metro region's gay population is a good barometer of the area's growth and success in the high-tech industry.

Though one doesn't cause the other, high-tech businesses are drawn to diverse, open-minded communities -- places likely to welcome highly talented gays, immigrants and "bohemians," said Gates, the co-author.

San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; Austin, Texas; Atlanta; and San Diego are the five metropolitan areas with the highest concentration of gay residents, according to the Brookings study. They also rank among the top 15 metro regions with the strongest high-tech economies, the researchers said.

Buffalo Niagara?

The Brookings study, based on 1990 census information, found the region had the smallest concentration of gay couples among 50 metropolitan areas.

"The lack of gay couples could in some sense be a signal of a region that's not as tolerant as other communities," Gates said.

Buffalo making progress

But Buffalo, and how it regards its gay community, is making strides.

"Buffalo now has a gay pride parade. Thirty years ago, that was not possible," said Licht. "We also have resources now for the youth, as well as other gay people to call upon when they have problems."

News researcher Andrew Bailey contributed to this report.

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