WASHINGTON (AP) -- Same-sex couples are treated less favorably than heterosexual couples when seeking information about rental housing advertised over the Internet, according to a first-of-its-kind national study from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The study, released Tuesday, found that gay and lesbian couples were less likely to receive a response to e-mail inquiries about rental properties than straight couples. It also found that gay couples experienced discrimination slightly more often than lesbian couples.
HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said the findings show a need "to continue our efforts to ensure that everyone is treated the same when it comes to finding a home to call their own, regardless of their sexual orientation."
Federal housing laws do not bar discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But 20 states and Washington, D.C., have passed laws that prohibit discrimination against people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
The agency recently issued new guidance that treats discrimination based on "sex stereotyping" or "gender nonconformity" as sex discrimination under the Fair Housing Act.
The HUD study is based on nearly 7,000 email tests in 50 major metropolitan markets between June and October 2011. In each test, two emails were sent to a landlord seeking information about a unit that was advertised online — one from a same-sex couple, and another from a heterosexual couple.
Heterosexual couples were favored over gay male couples 11.6 percent of the time and over lesbian couples 11.2 in percent of tests.
Samantha Friedman, a sociology professor at the University of Albany and lead author of the study, said that in some instances, it's possible the lack of response could have been for reasons other than discrimination. But she called the overall numbers alarming.
"Given how easy it is for providers to respond to emails, this finding is disturbing that they're not getting a response," Friedman said. "This discrimination is found at the initial stage of the housing search process, which would mean that same-sex couples are being shut out of the housing process right away."
The study found slightly more adverse treatment for same-sex couples in states with more protective discrimination laws than in states without.
HUD officials called the study a first step toward future research on same-sex housing discrimination. The agency said it plans to conduct in-person testing and conduct a closer examination of same-sex protections that have been approved in cities, towns and counties.
"This study's results are disturbing and confirm something we've all suspected but didn't have the firm data to prove — lesbian and gay couples are discriminated against when they look for places to live," said Ian Thompson, legislative representative for the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU is urging Congress to amend the Fair Housing Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Follow Sam Hananel on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SamHananelAP