In the 1980s, when Jon and Michael Galluccio first lived together in North Jersey, they were unusual even among their gay friends.
By the 2000s, though, they had noticed a dramatic rise in the number of gay couples living in the suburbs, a trend confirmed by new census numbers released last week.
According to those figures, culled from the 2010 census, the number of households in North Jersey headed by same-sex partners grew by 30 percent in the past decade. And a substantial portion of those couples are raising children, like the Galluccios of North Haledon. Nearly one-fourth of North Jersey households headed by male partners and almost a third of female couples have related children living in their homes.
"At the end of the '90s and 2000s, there was a whole big push toward having children and it was very public, so the concept of gay couples having children was a natural progression," said Michael Galluccio, who serves as a member of the school board at Manchester Regional High School. "It was the first time that there was an acknowledgment that we could be not only couples but families with children."
Same-sex partner households still represent a small portion of Bergen and Passaic county residents: just one in 160 households in Bergen County and one in 149 in Passaic County — or a total of 3,216 households in the two counties.
Across New Jersey, one in 133 households is headed by same-sex unmarried partners.
Steven Goldstein, the head of the leading statewide advocacy group for the gay and lesbian community, said that he too has seen a big increase in the number of same-sex couples living in the suburbs of New Jersey.
"As we've gotten more rights, we've become more mainstream and been looking to move to the suburbs," said Goldstein, who serves as chairman of Garden State Equality. "My partner and I did not want to continue to live in an 800-square-foot studio apartment in Manhattan with a bike taking up half the space for $1 million, so we looked to the suburbs. New Jersey is the ultimate suburban state.
"What the census is really saying is that we same-sex couples can be as fabulously boring as everybody else," said Goldstein, of Teaneck. "We complain about the parking in Garden State Plaza, we bitch about taxes and worry about getting a quality education for our kids."
The jump in the number of gay couples is just one piece of a broader change in the makeup of North Jersey families, with more households headed by single parents and an increase in the number of adult children living with their parents. Goldstein thinks the census figures fall short of the actual number of same-sex couples in New Jersey.
"The census is an undercount," he said. "For instance, Garden State Equality's members include more same-sex couples in Asbury Park than the number reported by the 2010 census."
Goldstein said the problem lies in the way the census determines whether people are living as same-sex couples, which is by having the head of a household pick from a list of checkboxes to describe the relationships of each person living there. "Unmarried partner" is one of the choices, along with options like "other relative," ''husband/ wife," ''housemate" and "other non-relative."
"The census still doesn't ask the question right out: Are you a same-sex couple?" he noted.
Goldstein said he wondered whether the growth in New Jersey's same-sex partner households will continue, given the passage of New York's gay marriage act this year; New Jersey has yet to adopt such a law.
"With New York having passed us on marriage equality, it will be interesting to see if the trend still holds true," he said.
The census' data on the number of same-sex partner households with related children represent the first time the bureau has compiled that information. More than 900 same-sex couples in North Jersey reported having children living in their homes.
Michael Patrick and Randy Dixon of Franklin Lakes are among them. The couple have lived in New Jersey for 11 years and have two adopted children: 9-year-old daughter Blake and 5-year-old son Gardner.
"One of the reasons we moved to New Jersey was that at that stage it was one of the few states where you could adopt a child as a same-sex couple," said Dixon.
For that, they can thank the Galluccios. The couple, who lived in Maywood at the time, won a landmark case in 1997 when Bergen County Superior Court Judge Sybil R. Moses ruled that they could jointly adopt their foster son. The couple lived in California for several years, being married there, before they moved back to New Jersey in 2008.
Jon Galluccio said that for the most part living in New Jersey has been a positive experience for the couple and their three children.
"I would say it's been 90 percent a great experience, maybe 95 percent," he said. "That 5 percent is just the general crap that people have to deal with. With another family, it could be because they are Italian on an Irish block. For us, it's because we are a gay couple."
Patrick and Dixon said they worried at first about what sort of reception their daughter would get in school. When Blake was small, they enrolled her in a private Montessori school.
"As she got older, we finally decided that the Franklin Lakes schools have a great reputation, so we decided to put her in public school," Dixon added. "We were pleasantly surprised to find there were no issues. Our daughter and son have play dates with other kids, our daughter's friends come for sleepovers."
Living in an upscale, well-educated community helps, he acknowledged. "A lot of our neighbors work in the city and they know gay people. It's not a big deal to them."
Nevertheless, the couple said they feel some pressure to be the best parents possible.
"One of the things that happens as gay parents is you feel you have to make sure you're doing the best job and your children never are in any trouble," Patrick said. "God forbid something should happen and people say, 'It's the gay parents.' "
Melissa B. Brisman, a Montvale attorney whose firm specializes in helping clients deal with reproductive legal issues, said she handles more than 50 adoptions annually for gay and lesbian couples. Another 75 or so homosexual couples a year hire her firm to help them have children through surrogate mothers.
Brisman estimated that gay and lesbian couples account for about a quarter of her clients.
"I own a surrogacy agency and we get a ton of gay men coming to surrogates to bear children," Brisman said. The number of gay men using surrogate mothers to give birth is on the rise for a number of reasons, she added.
"One is just that surrogacy is more readily available and acceptable," Brisman said. She pointed out that several gay celebrities, including Elton John, Neil Patrick Harris and Ricky Martin, have publicly discussed having their children through surrogate mothers.
"The science is also better," Brisman added. "Where once the odds of success were around 10 percent, now they're around 80 percent."
For many female couples, in-vitro fertilization using donor sperm is the path to having children, noted Dr. Serena H. Chen, director of reproductive medicine at the Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science at Saint Barnabas Health in Livingston.
"I would say maybe 5 percent of our clients are lesbian couples," Chen said. "It's something we see on a regular basis, and it's not something anybody blinks an eye at."