As prejudicial laws such as DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act – the 1996 federal law mandating that a marriage must be between one man and one woman) and Prop 8 (California’s ban on gay marriages, approved by voters in 2008) are now being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court, let’s look at what we know about marriage and health. Over the last several years, the American Psychological Association, American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Counseling Association, and a number of other groups have presented a considerable amount of research demonstrating the health benefits – both psychological and social — of marriage.
On a social level, marriage gives couples a sense of safety and security. Research has shown that marriage provides significant psychological and physical health benefits, often due to basic moral, economic, and social support that is extended to married couples in modern society. Research has also found that experiencing positive emotions (often associated with a stable life partner) can have a positive effect on our health by reducing harmful stress-related hormones and helping the body produce more positive ones. Check out this research brief from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, The Effects of Marriage on Health: A Synthesis of Recent Research Evidence, at aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/07/marriageonhealth/rb.htm
But same-sex couples seeking that kind of security face significant barriers. The Healthcare Equality Index developed by the Human Rights Campaign still demonstrates that the number of U.S. hospitals that do not recognize same-sex couples is higher than the number of those that do. This means that same-sex spouses could have no say in a spouse’s medical care, would not be given information about the medical condition of the patient, and may not even be allowed to visit him or her in the hospital.
Heterosexism, like many social prejudices in the United States, really hits sexual and gender minorities in the pocketbook. Right now, those who are in same-sex relationships carry a larger tax burden than those in heterosexual relationships. This is because federal benefits are not recognized for same-sex married couples. In essence, this results in a tax on those who are gay and married. If a family brings a child into their life, heterosexual couples automatically have full rights as legal parents. Same-sex couples, however, are forced to go through an expensive legal process, which again can be equated to a tax on those who are gay and married.
The same applies to burying our dead. Without the dignity of marriage, gay couples cannot have a say in how their partner is buried. Financially, same-sex couples are denied across the board, from veterans’ benefits to Social Security. They can lose housing, immigration capability, inheritances, insurance, legal privileges in court cases, property rights, retirement benefits, and the list goes on. Let’s face it: Same-sex couples are second-class couples in America.
On a psychological level, recent empirical evidence has illustrated how prejudice and social stigma toward same-sex couples, including legislation like DOMA and Prop 8, can have a harmful impact on the mental health of both the couple and their family. Not only that, but social rejection and a loss of legal protection have been associated with an increase in stress, anxiety, and shame. Shame has the same oppressive effect as racial prejudice, with an even deeper psychological sense of disenfranchisement.
Historically, a great number of U.S. Christian churches have contributed to this stress by rejecting sexual and gender minorities and then excluding them from participating in some of humanity’s most sacred human experiences. (If you have been rejected by your church, then perhaps a new social support group focused on religious wounds could help. Check out the group at lgbtguild.com/groups.html.) This stress and oppression can result in increased rates of depression, anxiety, and globalized shame. As individuals struggle with the stress from society’s prejudice, they may turn to maladaptive coping skills such as drugs, alcohol, or tobacco. Coping with shame can also result in higher rates of attempted suicide, increased risk-taking, decreased safer-sex practices, and a slew of other psychological challenges.
As we await the Supreme Court’s decision, you can learn more about DOMA at www.freedomtomarry.org/states/entry/c/doma.