November 25, 2008

The Psychological Harm of Anti-Gay Ballot Campaigns

Posted at 2:26 pm (Pacific Time)

Here’s how the New York Times article began:

They sat around a cafe table two days after the election, but nobody felt much like eating. It seemed like they had just been on trial. And the verdict was not pleasant.

“I feel like I’ve been kicked in the stomach,” said Lawrence Pacheco, a 23-year-old gay man. “Do they really hate us that much?”

Noting the state’s reputation for having a live-and-let-live spirit, the story reported claims by backers of the newly passed ballot measure that they didn’t intend it to discriminate against gay people. It described pre-election expectations that the amendment would fail, and discussed post-election calls for boycotts.

And the Times story noted an irony: In the same election that saw passage of the antigay measure, the state’s voters also passed a separate initiative protecting the welfare of animals.

Another story about California in the wake of Prop. 8′s passage?

No, the Times article was about Amendment 2. But not the Amendment 2 that Florida voters passed a few weeks ago, enshrining that state’s antigay relationship law into its constitution.

Rather, the Times story, which appeared in 1992, was about another Amendment 2.

Amendment 2 (version 1.0)

Sixteen years ago, by a margin of roughly 53-47%, Colorado voters passed a constitutional amendment written to overturn gay rights ordinances in Denver and other cities, and to bar the future enactment of such laws by cities or the state legislature.

Amendment 2 was ultimately struck down by the US Supreme Court in 1996.  Writing for the Court majority in its historic Romer v. Evans decision, Justice Kennedy declared:

“We must conclude that Amendment 2 classifies homosexuals not to further a proper legislative end but to make them unequal to everyone else. This Colorado cannot do. A State cannot so deem a class of persons a stranger to its laws.”

Although Amendment 2 was ultimately nullified, Colorado’s gay, lesbian, and bisexual residents nevertheless had to endure the months-long antigay pre-election campaign waged by its Christian Right sponsors. And they had to deal with the knowledge that a majority of their neighbors had voted to strip them of their rights.

In the wake of the 1992 vote, a research team led by psychologist Glenda Russell conducted a statewide study to assess the psychological well-being of Colorado lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals. In her 2000 book, Voted Out: The Psychological Consequences of Anti-Gay Politics, Dr. Russell reports extensive analyses of the data. In particular, she details her group’s examination of the research participants’ accounts of how they experienced the Amendment 2 campaign.

In those accounts, Dr. Russell’s group detected themes that today are all too familiar to many sexual minority residents of California, Florida, Arizona, and Arkansas. Respondents reported feeling overwhelmed or devastated by the vote. Some were shocked that the measure passed. Many experienced anger, fear, sadness, or depression. Some felt a sense of loss, saying they would never again feel the same about living in Colorado. Some expressed regret at not having done more to prevent the measure’s passage.

I can’t do justice to Dr. Russell’s book-length account here, especially her in-depth descriptions of the stories related by research participants. But one of her important findings was that a substantial segment of the sample reported many symptoms that are commonly associated with depression, anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and they perceived that these symptoms were a direct result of having lived through the months of antigay campaigning.

Thus, the data are consistent with the conclusion that antigay campaigns not only take away individuals’ rights, but are also harmful to the mental health of the gay, lesbian, and bisexual people who live through them.

The 2006 Anti-Marriage Campaigns

After the Supreme Court’s Romer decision, antigay activists soon found another focus for their efforts.

Following a Hawaii court ruling that seemed to portend the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples in the Aloha State, religious and political conservatives shifted their focus to the goal of preventing marriage equality from becoming a reality. In 1996, Congress passed and then-President Bill Clinton signed the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and antigay organizations directed their energies to passing state-level DOMAs across the country.

The DOMA campaign proved to be a powerful strategy. Not only did the statewide measures consistently win by large majorities, they also brought out voters who helped to elect Republicans to office. The Christian Right was able to use the campaigns to increase its strength within the Republican party — and in many Republican-controlled quarters of government — while promoting its antigay agenda.

Meanwhile, gay and lesbian and bisexual people living in the targeted states endured rhetorical — and sometimes physical — attacks against themselves and their families.

In 2006, marriage amendments appeared on the November ballot in 8 states. All of them passed except in Arizona. (The Arizona measure’s defeat was widely attributed to ambiguities concerning whether it would adversely affect heterosexual couples; a rewritten version that focused exclusively on banning recognition of same-sex relationships passed on November 4.)

Given the earlier findings of Dr. Russell’s research team in Colorado, it was reasonable to assume that those campaigns in other states would also exact a psychological toll. That hypothesis is supported by data from a new study to be published early in 2009 in the prestigious Journal of Counseling Psychology.

The study, titled Marriage Amendments and Psychological Distress in Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual (LGB) Adults, was conducted by Drs. Sharon Rostosky, Ellen Riggle, Sharon Horne, and Angela Miller.

Through Internet surveys, the researchers used standard mental health measures to assess the current well-being of more than 1500 lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults. For example, respondents were asked whether they had recently experienced various symptoms of depression, such as having difficulty sleeping or concentrating, feeling fearful or hopeless, and not being able to “get going.” They were also asked about the extent to which they were experiencing negative emotions, such as fear, irritability, hostility, and nervousness.

587 participants completed two versions of the questionnaires — one in the spring of 2006 and a second one about 6 months later, shortly after the November elections. Nearly one thousand others completed the post-election questionnaire, but not the pre-election survey.

The researchers sorted participants into two groups — those living in a state with an anti-marriage amendment on the 2006 November ballot and those in other states. Not surprisingly, compared to residents of other states, residents of the amendment-campaign states reported encountering a larger number of antigay messages in the mass media and in day-to-day conversations. Moreover, comparison of the November questionnaires with those administered six months earlier revealed that the number of encounters with negative messages had increased significantly in the amendment states but not in the other states.

When the researchers examined the mental health data, they found that residents of the states where an antigay campaign had just been waged reported higher levels of stress, more negative emotions, and more symptoms of depression than did respondents who lived elsewhere. Comparison of the pre-election and post-election questionnaires revealed that levels of psychological distress had increased significantly among residents of states with a marriage amendment on the ballot, but not among residents of other states.

In sum, the findings of Dr. Rostosky’s group support and extend those of Dr. Russell’s research team. By examining the experiences of sexual minority adults residing in different states, and by comparing scores on mental health measures before and after the statewide antigay campaigns, they provide good evidence that marriage amendment campaigns are harmful to the mental health of lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals.

Strategies for Coping and Healing

As with my summary of Dr. Russell’s research, a brief blog entry can’t do justice to the findings of Dr. Rostosky and her colleagues. But in the wake of the recent antigay votes, even this short synopsis of their work may be helpful to many lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals.

If you were touched by the campaigns in California, Arizona, Florida, or Arkansas, and if you’ve been experiencing post-election psychological distress — whether it takes the form of anger, sadness, irritability, feelings of betrayal, revenge fantasies, sleep difficulties, or something else — the research suggests you’re not alone. What you’re feeling these days is a natural and normal response to the attacks you endured during the months leading up to November 4, and to the trauma of election night.

What can you do about it? Different people have different coping styles so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Moreover, as a nonclinician, I don’t have the expertise to offer mental health advice. But I believe it’s important to understand that the research described above not only documents the damage inflicted by antigay ballot campaigns — it also shows that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are remarkably resilient in dealing with those assaults.

Antigay attacks have a long history, and many participants in the Rostosky team’s study who didn’t reside in a state with a 2006 marriage amendment nevertheless had endured earlier marriage amendment battles. Their relatively low levels of psychological distress indicate they had recovered over the years from those negative campaigns.

In terms of facilitating such recovery, Dr. Rostosky and her coauthors suggest that sexual minority individuals should avoid blaming themselves or accepting antigay stigma and prejudice as valid. Instead, it’s important to remind oneself that the people who foment antigay hostility are the ones who deserve blame.

They also point to the importance of actively focusing on positive events and messages in one’s environment, and increasing one’s exposure to these messages by building stronger relationships and social support networks. This doesn’t mean engaging in self-deception or denying reality. But it’s important to find areas in your life that are positive and affirming, and to give yourself permission to take a break from dealing directly with prejudice and stigma to the extent that you can.

If you’ve been religiously reading every on-line posting about Proposition 8 and the other ballot measures, for example, maybe you should stop for awhile. Or perhaps you should at least consider restricting your reading to news stories while bypassing the blogs and comments that attack same-sex couples and marriage equality.

A strategy that many people use is to actively take control of how they think about their experiences with the ballot measures, and to put those experiences in a broader context. Related to this approach, in a 2003 article coauthored with Jeffrey Richards, Dr. Russell argued for the importance of adopting a “movement perspective — a view that sees LGB experiences as part of a larger social and political movement.”

“In the first place, adopting a movement perspective is helpful to LGB people in the political realm. For example, it supports the creation of coalitions with other oppressed groups and provides a historical framework within which to understand a particular event as but one element of an enduring movement for social change…. Adopting such a perspective allows LGB people to understand the relevance of homonegativity to their own lives, thereby decreasing the likelihood that they will be shocked by the overt presence of antigay political rhetoric and actions. Having a movement perspective also allows LGB people to place some undeniably painful experiences — rejection by family members, for example — into a broader and perhaps less personalized context” (p. 326).

Adopting such a perspective might lead you to engage in more activism — for example, by organizing and participating in rallies and protests, or getting involved with local and statewide political groups that are working for sexual minority rights. Many people who have attended post-election No On Prop. 8 rallies report they’ve felt better as a consequence.

At the same time, activism can lead to more encounters with antigay messages and, consequently, more stress. Indeed, Dr. Rostosky and her colleagues found that survey respondents who reported high levels of political activism during the anti-amendment campaigns were at greater risk than others for psychological distress. So here, too, it’s important to take control over your experiences as much as you can, and to develop a strategy for activism that can sustain you for the long term.

Colorado’s Amendment 2 was eventually overturned by the US Supreme Court. And although the losses on November 4 were devastating, it’s important to recall that the election also brought many positive changes. In 2009, a new Congress and a new Administration will assume leadership in Washington, and they have already indicated their willingness to end many forms of discrimination against sexual minorities at the federal level.

And that is cause for hope.

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You can read more about Dr. Glenda Russell’s research in these sources:

  • Russell, G. M., & Richards, J. A. (2003). Stressor and resilience factors for lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals confronting antigay politics. American Journal of Community Psychology, vol. 31, pp. 313-328.

The article by Dr. Sharon Rostosky and her colleagues will be published early in 2009. Here is the reference, with a link to the pre-publication page proofs:

For more information about Colorado’s Amendment 2, and the Christian Right’s campaigns against the sexual minority community, see:

Copyright © 2008 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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