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Beyond Homophobia » 2006 » October » 22

October 22, 2006

Why Marriage Equality Is A Public Health Issue (Part 1)

Posted at 3:51 pm (Pacific Time)

When a federal employee dies, the government denies pension benefits to his or her legal spouse under only two circumstances: (1) if the spouse has been convicted of murdering the employee, or (2) if the spouse is of the same sex as the employee.

Consistent with that second criterion, the US government has denied pension benefits to Dean Hara, the husband of former Rep. Gerry Studds (D-MA).

Studds, who died October 14 at the age of 69, married Hara in 2004 after their home state legalized marriages between same-sex partners.

Hara’s experience highlights how Americans in committed same-sex relationships — even relationships that are recognized at the state level — are denied equal access to the rights and benefits enjoyed by married heterosexual couples. The US General Accounting Office has identified 1,138 statutory provisions in which marital status is a factor in determining or receiving federal benefits, rights, and privileges ranging from Social Security survivors’ benefits to affordable housing programs. State governments grant still more benefits.

The denial of these benefits isn’t only a matter of fairness and justice. It’s also a matter of health.

The health advantages of marriage have been documented in dozens of studies. Happily married men and women are generally more healthy — both physically and psychologically — than their unmarried counterparts. This difference doesn’t result simply from being in a long-term intimate relationship. All other things being equal, heterosexuals in cohabiting couples don’t have the same levels of health and well-being as their married counterparts.

Why are happily married couples generally better off?

One reason is the tangible resources and protections accorded to spouses by society. The federal pension benefit for surviving spouses is a good example. Like other benefits deriving from tax laws, employee benefits, and entitlement programs, it gives married couples greater economic and financial security than the unmarried. Such security contributes to mental and physical health.

Another factor that affects the well-being of married individuals is the greater emotional and social support they receive from their family and friends, compared to the unmarried. Marital relationships differ from nonmarital intimate relationships, in part, by requiring a lifelong commitment that is publicly affirmed, typically in the presence of family members, friends, and civil or religious authorities. Social support and integration are central to the institution of marriage, and the various rituals associated with marriage can be understood as cementing the couple’s ties to the larger community. This public aspect of marriage increases each partner’s sense of security that the relationship will endure, and fosters help from others during hard times.

In addition to their greater financial stability and social support, spouses have special rights and privileges not accorded to other adult, nonbiological relationships. In this way, marriage provides buffers against the psychological stress associated with extremely traumatic life events. For example, a spouse can make health decisions for an incapacitated partner, including decisions about whether to take heroic measures to prolong the partner’s life. Such capabilities can contribute to a sense of mastery or personal control, which is associated with better health among spousal caregivers.

Similarly, a surviving spouse typically receives social support and sympathy from others, can make decisions about funeral and burial arrangements, and has automatic rights to inheritance, death benefits, and bereavement leave. These factors can somewhat mitigate the considerable stress of losing a partner and reduce its negative health consequences.

Married couples’ legal status also enables them to exercise control over other types of stressful situations, or to avoid them entirely. For example:

  • A married person facing legal action can nonetheless communicate freely with her or his spouse because the law creates marital privileges against being compelled to testify against one’s wife or husband.
  • Under normal circumstances, a noncitizen spouse will not be deported or forced to leave the country, and special considerations given to some noncitizens (e.g., employment status, asylum) may extend to their spouse.
  • Because marriage is recognized across state and national borders, husbands and wives know that their relationship and, when applicable, their parental status, will be considered valid outside their home state.

Finally, although they haven’t been well documented in scientific research, marriage offers intangible benefits that extend beyond the material necessities of life. Sociologists have characterized marriage as “a social arrangement that creates for the individual the sort of order in which he can experience his life as making sense” and have suggested that “in our society the role that most frequently provides a strong positive sense of identity, self-worth, and mastery is marriage.”

In summary, marriage bestows many benefits and protectections that have important implications for physical and mental health.

What are the health consequences for same-sex couples of being denied the right to marry? I’ll address this question in a later post.

By the way, in contrast to Dean Hara’s experience, former members of Congress who are serving jail terms for felony convictions remain eligible for federal pension benefits.

For a more detailed discussion, see my 2006 paper, Legal Recognition of Same-Sex Relationships in the United States: A Social Science Perspective, published in the American Psychologist, vol. 61, pp. 607-621.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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