October 24, 2006

Marriage Equality & Health (Conclusion)

Posted at 8:01 pm (Pacific Time)

To summarize my posts of October 22 and October 23, legal recognition of same-sex couples will benefit the partners in a variety of ways. It is likely to increase their financial security and reduce the stress they experience when facing life’s traumatic events. As a consequence, the members of the couple are likely to be physically and psychologically healthier. To the extent that legal recognition enhances the well-being of parents, it will also benefit their children.

But can’t the problems and inequities experienced by same-sex couples be adequately addressed through arrangements other than marriage? Civil unions and second-parent adoptions, it might be argued, could conceivably grant all the rights and privileges now conferred by marriage without actually designating the couple as “married.”

This argument is problematic for at least three reasons.

First, marriage is recognized across borders. By contrast, same-sex couples in civil unions can’t be certain they will be treated as a couple or family outside their home state. If they face a medical emergency when they’re away from home, for example, the consequences can be nightmarish. Their mobility is thus restricted or, if they leave their home state, they are subjected to heightened uncertainty, anxiety, and stress, compared to heterosexual married couples.

It’s true that within the US, this concern about mobility currently affects married same-sex couples from Massachusetts as much as domestic partners from other states. Interstate recognition, however, is likely to come sooner for marriage than for civil unions. This is because the states already have laws on the books dealing with marriage. Thus, they’ll be able to assimilate same-sex spouses to their existing legal structures more easily than domestic partners.

Second, while marriage has profound effects on the lives of spouses, the extent to which civil unions and domestic partnerships have a comparable impact isn’t certain. Many studies have shown that heterosexual cohabiting couples don’t enjoy the same health advantages as their married counterparts. Similarly, although forming a domestic partnership or civil union probably increases a couple’s feelings of love and commitment, those institutions may not confer the same social and psychological benefits as marriage.

We don’t yet have research data to directly address this question. However, the unique status of marriage in US society is evidenced by the very fact that so much controversy surrounds the question of granting marriage rights to same-sex couples, as well as by the desire of so many lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals to marry a same-sex partner. (In a 2001 Kaiser Family Foundation poll of sexual minority adults, 74% said they would someday like to legally marry someone of the same sex.)

A third reason why civil unions and domestic partnerships aren’t equivalent to marriage is that these separate-but-ostensibly-equal institutions perpetuate and may even compound the stigma historically associated with homosexuality.

Social science research has shown that same-sex committed relationships don’t differ from heterosexual committed relationships in their essential psychological qualities, their capacity for long-term commitment, and the context they provide for rearing healthy and well-adjusted children. Once these facts are acknowledged, the rationale for according same-sex partners a different legal status from heterosexual spouses must ultimately focus on the former’s sexual orientation.

Indeed, sexual orientation is inherently about relationships, whether they are enduring, transient, or merely desired. The intimate personal connections that people form to meet their deeply felt needs for love, family, and intimacy lie at its heart.

Denying same-sex couples the label of marriage — even if they receive all other rights and privileges conferred on spouses — arguably devalues and delegitimizes those relationships. It conveys a judgment by society that committed intimate relationships with people of the same sex are inferior to heterosexual relationships, and that same-sex partners are less deserving of society’s recognition than heterosexual couples. It perpetuates power differentials whereby heterosexuals have greater access than sexual minorities to the many resources and benefits bestowed by the institution of marriage.

These elements — discrediting, denigration, powerlessness — are the crux of stigma.

Sexual stigma has many negative consequences for sexual minorities, including social ostracism, discrimination, and violence. Because of it, lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals often feel compelled to conceal their sexual orientation, which can have negative effects on their psychological and physical health. This concealment also reinforces sexual prejudice among heterosexuals. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, antigay attitudes are significantly less common among heterosexuals with a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian.

Thus, by denying same-sex couples the right to marry legally, the State compounds and perpetuates the stigma attached to homosexuality. This stigma has negative consequences for all gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, regardless of their relationship status or desire to marry.

I don’t intend to malign civil unions and domestic partnerships, nor do I dispute their value. They represent an important step toward eliminating social inequalities based on sexual orientation and are vastly superior to nonrecognition of same-sex committed relationships. At a purely pragmatic level, more states are likely to enact laws recognizing domestic partnerships or civil unions than to permit marriages between same-sex couples, at least for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, civil unions and domestic partnerships can’t be equated with marriage.

To summarize these three posts on marriage equality and health, marriage bestows many social and psychological benefits and protections on spouses and their children. As a consequence of being denied the right to marry, same-sex couples are more likely than different-sex couples to experience stress and thus are at greater risk for psychological and physical illness. Although data aren’t yet available to directly measure how the government’s nonrecognition affects same-sex couples, it is reasonable to conclude that being denied the right to marry has negative consequences for their well-being and ultimately creates challenges and obstacles to the success of their relationships that are not faced by heterosexual couples.

Thus, marriage equality isn’t simply a moral issue or a justice issue. It’s also a health issue.

For a more detailed discussion of these and related issues, 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.

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