October 23, 2006

Marriage Equality & Health (Part 2)

Posted at 5:27 pm (Pacific Time)

In my previous post, I summarized research findings on the health benefits of marriage. The data show that marriage bestows many benefits and protections with important implications for physical and mental health.

What are the health consequences for same-sex couples of being denied the right to marry?

Empirical data aren’t yet available to directly assess how governmental nonrecognition affects same-sex couples. But it is reasonable to conclude that their differential treatment, vis-a-vis married heterosexuals, creates special challenges and obstacles with ultimately negative consequences for their well-being. Without legal recognition, partners in same-sex couples lack both the practical benefits of marriage and the buffers marriage provides against the psychological and social consequences of traumatic events.

For example, their financial situation is likely to be less stable than that of married couples because they don’t enjoy the many economic protections of marriage in areas such as taxation and property rights. Even when gay and lesbian employees don’t fear dismissal or harassment because of their sexual orientation, they nevertheless receive fewer job-related benefits than their married coworkers. Family leave policies, health insurance, and pension plans, for example, typically include an employee’s spouse but not a same-sex partner. And when benefits such as health insurance coverage are extended to a same-sex partner, they are taxed as income; this is typically not the case for benefits to heterosexual spouses.

Because same-sex couples lack the protections that marriage provides when a spouse dies, they must incur the considerable expense of creating legal protections for the surviving partner through wills, trusts, and contracts for joint ownership of property. And these measures don’t always protect the partner. A will can be contested by the decedent’s biological relatives, for example and, unlike a spouse, the surviving partner is likely to incur a substantial tax burden when taking sole legal possession of a home that the couple jointly owned.

The consequences of having one’s intimate relationship unacknowledged by the law are not only financial. For example, a member of a same-sex couple may be excluded from her or his partner’s medical care. She or he may be denied as basic a right as access to the partner in a hospital setting restricted to “immediate family” members, such as an emergency room or intensive care unit. When a member of a same-sex couple dies, her or his surviving partner may experience a similar negation of their relationship. She or he may not even be able to make funeral arrangements.

Such experiences of what is sometimes called disenfranchised grief may compound the considerable psychological distress experienced by the surviving partner, with potentially long-term mental health consequences.

Examples of other areas in which same-sex couples are disadvantaged relative to married couples include immigration (foreign nationals cannot secure residence or citizenship through their relationship with a US citizen of the same sex) and private communication (members of same-sex couples can be called to testify against their partner in legal proceedings).

As a consequence of these and the many other forms of differential treatment to which they are subjected, same-sex couples are exposed to more stress than married couples, especially when they encounter life’s inevitable difficulties and challenges. Because experiencing stress increases one’s likelihood of mental and physical illness, their lack of legal protection places members of same-sex couples at greater risk for health problems compared to married couples.

But is complete marriage equality necessary to alleviate these disparities? Can’t the problems and inequities experienced by same-sex couples be adequately addressed through arrangements such as civil unions and second-parent adoptions?

I’ll address that question in the final post to this series.

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.

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

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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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October 12, 2006

New Census Data: More Same-Sex Couples in the US

Posted at 12:33 pm (Pacific Time)

The 2000 US Census had special importance for sexual minorities because it yielded data on the number of households headed by someone in a cohabiting same-sex couple.

Now a newly released analysis of data from the Census Bureau has found that the number of such couples increased dramatically between 2000 and 2005.

The analysis was conducted by Dr. Gary Gates, a senior research fellow at the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation, Law, and Public Policy at UCLA. Gates examined data on same-sex couples from the 2005 American Community Survey (ACS).

Unlike the decennial Census, which attempts to count every person living in the United States, the ACS is an ongoing survey conducted every year with a sample of households representing roughly 2.5% of the US population. By 2010, it will replace the Census long form. The 2005 ACS, the first to be conducted on a national basis, sampled 1.4 million households.

Here are some key findings from Dr. Gates’ analysis:

  • The number of cohabiting same-sex couples in the U.S. grew from nearly 600,000 in 2000 to almost 777,000 in 2005. This is an increase of more than 30%.
  • Based on the 2005 data, 53% of same-sex couples consist of two men while 47% consist of two women.
  • The rate of growth isn’t uniform across the country. Of the ten states with the largest percentage increases, 8 are in the Midwest (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, Nebraska, Kansas, Ohio, Iowa, Missouri, and Indiana). Their rates of increase ranged from 54% to 81%. These states had fairly small percentages of same-sex couples in 2000.
  • Also on the top ten list are New Hampshire (106% increase) and Colorado (58% increase).
  • Six states with a 2006 ballot initiative that would ban same-sex marriage — Arizona, Colorado, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin — experienced more than a 30% increase in the number of same-sex couples in their population, even more than the national rate.

How to explain these huge increases between 2000 and 2005? Although some of the change may result from more gay, lesbian, and bisexual people cohabiting in committed relationships, Gates suggests that this factor is unlikely to account for the magnitude of growth documented by the ACS. Rather, it is probably the case that more same-sex couples are reporting their relationships to Census Bureau researchers.

This greater visibility could result from several factors, including more widespread awareness of the Census data about same-sex couples and a greater willingness to be out of the closet. That increased willingness to disclose may reflect a sense that sexual stigma has declined and it is now safer to be openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Coming out may also represent a decision to take a stand against antigay groups and ballot campaigns.

The Census only counts same-sex couples, and only those who are living together and in which one partner is the household head. Because it doesn’t ask directly about sexual orientation, the Census doesn’t tell us how many Americans are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or heterosexual.

Using data from another large-scale survey, however, Gates estimated that 4.1% of US adults identify as a sexual minority. This translates into an estimated 8.8 million gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons.

Applying this estimate to the ACS data, Gates came to some additional interesting conclusions:

  • In terms of absolute numbers, California, Florida, New York, Texas, and Illinois have the largest sexual minority populations, along with the District of Columbia.
  • New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston have the largest sexual minority populations among metropolitan areas.
  • Ranking states by the percentage of the adult population who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual, the District of Columbia, New Hampshire, Washington, Massachusetts and Maine come out on top.
  • Among large metropolitan areas, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Portland (OR), and Tampa have the highest percentages of sexual minority residents.
  • Same-sex couples are found in all Congressional districts in the U.S.

The full report, Same-sex Couples and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Population: New Estimates from the American Community Survey, and other analyses of Census data are available at the Williams Institute Web site.

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

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September 23, 2006

The Kids Are Alright

Posted at 3:17 pm (Pacific Time)

Debates about parenting by sexual minorities often include disputes about whether the children of gay, lesbian, and bisexual parents differ from the children of heterosexual parents in their psychological or social adjustment. To date, empirical research has overwelmingly failed to detect such differences.

A newly published study contributes to scientific knowledge in this area by comparing the functioning of adolescents raised by same-sex female couples to that of adolescents raised by heterosexual couples. The study is especially noteworthy because it reports data from a large, nationally representative sample recruited for the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

Drs. Jennifer Wainright and Charlotte Patterson, developmental psychologists at the University of Virginia, compared two groups: (a) 23 adolescent girls and 21 adolescent boys who were living with two female parents, and (b) 44 adolescents living with a male and female parent. The two groups were matched on relevant demographic characteristics, including sex, age, ethnicity, family income, and adoption status.

In their paper, which was just published in the Journal of Family Psychology, the researchers highlighted three main findings.

  1. All of the adolescents were generally functioning well.
  2. Whether an adolescent’s parents were a same-sex couple or a heterosexual couple didn’t affect her or his functioning. The researchers found no significant differences between the two groups in a diverse array of assessments, including measures of delinquent behavior, alcohol and drug use, and qualities of family relationships.
  3. Although the parents’ gender didn’t matter, the quality of the adolescent-parent relationship did. Regardless of whether they were being raised by a same-sex or heterosexual couple, adolescents whose parents described closer relationships with them reported less delinquent behavior and substance use.

These findings add to the growing body of research demonstrating that sexual orientation doesn’t affect parenting ability. What children need is a warm, close, supportive relationship with their parents, regardless of whether the latter are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or straight.

For the full report, see: Wainright & Patterson. (2006). Delinquency, Victimization, and Substance Use Among Adolescents With Female Same-Sex Parents. Journal of Family Studies, v. 20, pp. 526-530.

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

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