Editors' note: Robert-Jay Green is distinguished professor in the PhD clinical psychology program at the California School of Professional Psychology and executive director of the Rockway Institute, a national center for LGBT psychology research, education & public policy.
The California Supreme Court ruled that Proposition 8, which eliminated the right of same-sex couples to marry in California, is constitutional. While the decision and its political ramifications will be debated endlessly, there is another effect of the ruling that has not received attention - the harsh mental health impact on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) single individuals, couples, and their families and friends. As we adjust to the political reality that a slim majority can eliminate marriage rights for a small minority, let's not kid ourselves about the human costs of this outcome.
We've all heard in the media about the extensive research showing that heterosexual marriage is associated with better physical and mental health, greater relationship stability and financial security. The obvious question is why marriage would not benefit same-sex couples just as much. But there is another research story the public doesn't seem to know about--the mental health consequences of granting versus denying marriage to LGBT people. For LGBT citizens who seek nothing more than equal opportunity to benefit from marriage, campaigns of marriage exclusion exact a heavy toll on their well-being.
Research in Massachusetts after legalization of same-sex marriage in 2004 found that lesbians and gay men viewed their choice of partners and relationships very differently when marriage was possible. When a long-term marital commitment was involved, potential partners were judged on very different criteria than when couple commitments lacked legal definition and a sense of permanence. Same-sex partners who married in Massachusetts felt their commitment was more visible, more valid, and more solid. They also felt more accepted and less marginalized by their society. One told researchers "my relationship counts, and I count, too."
In Vermont, where civil unions were approved in 2000, researchers found that same-sex partners in legally recognized couples were more open and had better relationships with their families. Same-sex couples with Vermont civil unions were more likely to stay together over time than same-sex couples without civil unions.
But perhaps the biggest untold story is about the effects that the denial of marriage rights--especially through voter initiatives--is having on LGBT citizens. Researchers in Tennessee found that a 2006 anti-same-sex marriage initiative there caused LGBT residents to feel more psychological distress. The campaign for the initiative provided "constant reminders that (LGBT people) were seen as less than human by their government and the public." LGBT people reported their lives had been "frequently and publicly misrepresented to advance hostile political campaigns."
The increased stress was reflected in greater fears of rejection and hyper-vigilance to protect oneself against random acts of prejudice. Some chose to isolate themselves. Others chose to become activists in an attempt to gain some sense of control under the circumstances.
In a broader survey conducted in many states, social scientists at the University of Kentucky found "increased minority stress and concurrent psychological distress... following passage of a marriage amendment in (participants') state of residence." A study at the University of Memphis also found that anti-LGBT movements and policies negatively affected "participants' personal relationships, mental and physical health, perceptions about their country and government, and hopes for the future."
At the end of the whipsaw of events surrounding Proposition 8, these are the terrible questions that nag at night: Are those who supported Proposition 8 so smug or out-of-touch that they are not even aware of the harmful effects on LGBT people of hearing constant anti-gay public statements over the last 12 months? Do they view LGBT citizens as real people or merely as pawns in a rhetorical quest for moral superiority? Do they care what happens to that young woman and young man who hope to meet and marry the love of their lives one day and become full-fledged equal citizens of the United States?