By Jonathan Adler, Ph.D.
When the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately issues a ruling on gay marriage, it will clearly have huge legal and historic implications. As Emily Bazelon at Slate put it, “This is it: The civil rights issue of our generation, in the hands of nine justices.”
But on a more intimate level, the ruling could also have a major effect on the mental health of gay and lesbian couples across the nation.
History rarely crafts natural experiments for studying topics as broad as the relationship between the law and mental health, but the mid-term elections in 2006 provided just that opportunity. With that election, eight states passed constitutional amendments banning the recognition of same-sex marriage, and psychological scientists were watching.
In one study, a national sample of over 1,500 lesbian, gay, and bisexual people completed measures of their mental health six months prior to the election and then again in the month following the election. With this large sample, the researchers were able to compare the mental health of people living in states where constitutional amendments passed (Alabama, Colorado, Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin) with those living in states that have no such amendment, or had one prior to 2006.
In states that passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, lesbians, gays and bisexuals suffered. They reported increased psychological distress in the month after the election, compared to six months before the election, and worse distress compared to gays, lesbians and bisexuals living in states where there were no such amendments on the ballot. “I mean, if that is not dehumanizing, then I don’t know what is…It does make [gay, lesbians, bisexual] people feel like second-class citizens or less than human,” said one participant.
The researchers showed that these differences were not due to any systematic pre-existing differences between participants.
In a follow-up study, the researchers found that the passage of these constitutional amendments also impacted the family members of gay and bisexual individuals in similar ways, suggesting that the psychological effects of such legal decisions ripple far beyond those immediately impacted. “When anti-gay marriage amendments are passed, it robs our son of that view of normalcy in relationships. I grieve for him,” said a 54-year old mother of a gay son.
I spoke with Sharon Horne, the Director of Training in Counseling Psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and one of the authors on these studies. She explained just how psychologically devastating these policy decisions can be for real people. “What research has shown is that when these types of decisions are being debated at the state and federal level, LGB [lesbian, gay, bisexual] individuals and their family members are exposed to more negative messages than usual and they are at greater risk for depression and other negative mental health consequences in the face of the legal and policy decisions,” she said. “The Supreme Court cases will be putting out more discussion, which can be very positive for LGB communities, but can also increase exposure to harmful effects—it may put many LGB individuals on alert for the next few months.” As Dr. Horne noted, these studies suggest that the impact of such decisions extends well beyond their short-term effects.
A study that looked broadly at the connections between legal recognition of same-sex relationships and mental health takes the findings one step further. Psychologist Gregory Herek, an expert on LGB mental health, summarized this field of research by writing, “marriage bestows many psychosocial benefits and protections. As a consequence of being denied the right to marry, same-sex couples are more likely than different-sex couples to experience a variety of stressors and thus are at a greater risk for psychological and physical illness.”
Indeed, there is a long history of research documenting the mental health benefits of marriage and those effects may be magnified for same-sex couples whose relationships may provide a shelter against prejudice. Dr. Herek’s review goes on to note that alternatives to marriage, like civil unions and domestic partnerships, don’t go far enough. Despite their legal equivalence, this kind of recognition simply does not confer the same mental health benefits as marriage. While being able to visit one’s partner in the hospital or inherit their property without being taxed as strangers are extremely important, they do not fully succeed in de-stigmatizing same-sex relationships.
In recent polls, roughly half of Americans believe same-sex marriage should be legal, and among people between 18 and 29 years old, nearly three-quarters endorse this position. The vast majority of scientific research has failed to show that there are any differences between same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples that could provide a rational basis against their right to legally marry. Same-sex couples have more equal division of household tasks than opposite-sex couples, they have similar patterns of resolving conflict and child rearing practices, and their children are no more likely to grow up to be gay or lesbian than children raised by opposite-sex parents.
Since the Supreme Court announced it would hear these two cases there has been a great deal of discussion about the legal questions and on enumerating the 1000+ rights that are currently denied to same-sex couples as a result of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and state-level laws and constitutional amendments. (Check out some of the great legal scholars on this topic, like William Eskridge and Kenji Yoshino.) Whatever the Court decides next June, the period of waiting between now and then and the aftermath of the verdicts will not only shape the legal landscape for same-sex couples, it will also shape their emotional and mental health landscape as well.
Jonathan Adler, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass.