ORLANDO, Fla. -- On vacation, David Baker-Hargrove and his partner, Robert, gravitate toward couples just like them. They are not hard to find. In any large group of gays, there are always a half-dozen or so black-and-white couples.
"Immediately we bond because it is like a club," said Baker-Hargrove, 47, an Orlando psychotherapist.
They even call it a club: the "Swirl Club," like the soft-serve chocolate and vanilla ice cream.
In Florida, unmarried couples -- gay and straight -- are twice as likely as married couples to be interracial. When including couples in which one partner is Hispanic, the percentage nearly doubles. About one in five households in Florida includes an unmarried couple of different races or Hispanic origin -- almost twice the 11 percent of married couples, according to figures recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau.
"With both same-sex and different-sex couples, (unmarried couples) are younger than their married counterparts. Broadly speaking, young people are more open and don't see race as a distinguishing factor as their older counterparts would," said Gary J. Gates, a demographer with the Williams Institute, a think tank associated with the UCLA law school.
That's true for Allie Erickson and her boyfriend, Warren Boykin. Together for almost five years, Erickson is 23 and Boykin 33. Both dated people of different races before they met each other.
"Since we've both been in interracial relationships before and it's more acceptable, we don't really even think of it," said Erickson, who grew up in Sanford, Fla.
The couple met soon after Boykin moved to Orlando, where he was shocked by the numbers of interracial couples he saw.
"Being from Alabama, I thought it was going to be the same way" with few interracial couples, he said. "But when I got here, it was a big surprise.
"Here in Florida, there are all different types of races, and people are used to seeing it (interracial couples)."
The couple said they have never experienced any negative reactions to their relationship from friends, family or strangers.
But it still takes a leap of love to step over the lines of race and sex for interracial couples. Overall, the South has a lower percentage of married and unmarried interracial couples than the nation as a whole. The institutional racism that once made it illegal for blacks and whites to marry has been replaced by a subtle, but distinct disapproval, Robert Baker-Hargrove said.
"Here in Florida, you are always very cautious. As a black male, I know there's a lot of hatred out there," said Robert, a 40-year-old Disney World employee.
While both David and Robert dated outside their races, David said his relationships with black partners were not accepted by his gay white friends while growing up in Houston in the 1980s. Back then, he was teased and ridiculed for having black boyfriends.
Racial separation still exists among gays. Many blacks don't feel comfortable or accepted by the larger, white gay community. But that is changing, the Baker-Hargroves say. The black-and-white couple has become standard in gay advertising and marketing: one gay couple, one lesbian couple, one interracial couple.
"The subliminal message is that it's OK to date someone outside your race," said Robert, who has been with David for 18 years.
There are several reasons gays, even in the South, have a high rate of interracial relationships, Gates said. One is the limited pool of possible mates, which makes it more likely gays will pick partners different than themselves. There is also the common experience of being an "outsider" which may make gays more open to other things outside the mainstream, including interracial relationships, Gates said.
But another reason may be that approval or disapproval by family members often means less to gay couples.
"Many of them may have strained relationships with their families so they aren't so concerned about what the family thinks," Gates said. "Or if the family is supportive of their sexual orientation, having a partner not of the same race or ethnicity might not be a big hurtle."
The high number of unmarried interracial straight couples may be related to short-term trial partnerships -- couples experimenting with dating people different from themselves -- as opposed to married couples who are theoretically choosing mates for life, the Census Bureau reports.
Erickson and Boykin have discussed marriage but are waiting until Allie finishes her program in respiratory therapy.
"We talk about marriage, but we're waiting to make sure we are stable," said Boykin, who works part time moving furniture and part time in pursuit of a modeling career.
Enduring interracial relationships require a strong sense of identity for the individual and the couple. Both interracial couples said they rarely experience ostracism when they are out in public because they are not embarrassed about whom they love.
"How well you navigate the world in which you move means you have to be able to own who you are and have no shame about it. Other people respond to that accordingly," said David Baker-Hargrove. "We don't see a lot of issues that are inherent in race relations because we don't have any shame about who we are."
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