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How Same-Sex Marriage Laws Shape Couples’ Mental Health

By Jonathan Adler, Ph.D.
Guest Contributor

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.”

A couple marries in Seattle earlier this month. (dbvictoria36/flickr)

A couple marries in Seattle earlier this month. (dbvictoria36/flickr)

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.

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.

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. Continue reading