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Marriage equality promotes psychological well-being, study finds

LOS ANGELES – As more states prepare to debate marriage equality, a new study shows that psychological distress is lower among lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals who are legally married to a person of the same sex, compared with those not in legally recognized unions.

The study, led by Richard G. Wight from the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and the UCLA Williams Institute, was published in the American Journal of Public Health.

The research also has implications for understanding mental health disparities based on sexual orientation: There were no statistically significant differences in psychological distress between heterosexuals, and lesbian, gay and bisexual persons in any type of legally recognized same-sex relationship.

A large body of research has shown that lesbian, gay and bisexual people generally experience higher distress levels than heterosexuals due to social exclusion, stigma and other stressors. Research also shows that, on average, married heterosexuals experience better mental health outcomes than their unmarried counterparts.

Since most lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are denied the opportunity to legally marry a same-sex partner, they are potentially denied the positive emotional benefits of the institution of marriage and they appear to be dually disadvantaged in terms of their psychological well-being.

“Same-sex or different-sex, there appear to be positive mental health benefits associated with legal recognition of one’s relationship,” Wight said. “Mental health benefits of extending marriage to same-sex couples might be derived from a heightened sense of social inclusion concomitant with the social institution of marriage.”

The study was based on data from the 2009 California Health Interview Survey, the nation’s largest population-based state health survey. Respondents between the ages of 18 and 70 were asked about their sexual orientation and same-sex relationship status. The study also included measures of psychological distress and multiple socio-demographic controls.

“Proposition 8, a 2008 statewide referendum, legally bars Californians in same-sex couples from marrying their partner, at least until the Supreme Court issues an opinion next summer. The continuing legal exclusion and the contentious arguments surrounding Proposition 8 may put their mental health at risk,” Wight said.

The authors recommend that researchers continue to examine the potential health consequences of extending marriage to same-sex couples. Further study could highlight the extent to which marriage for same-sex couples is at least in part a public health concern.

The study titled “Same-Sex Legal Marriage and Psychological Well-Being: Findings from the California Health Interview Survey” was conducted by Richard G. Wight, MPH, PhD (Department of Community Health Sciences, School of Public Health, and the Williams Institute, School of Law, UCLA), Allen J. LeBlanc, PhD (Department of Sociology and the Health Equity Institute, San Francisco State University), and M.V. Lee Badgett, PhD (Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law and the Department of Economics and Center for Public Policy and Administration, University of Massachusetts, Amherst).

Photo captions

In the photos published at the left and on the front cover, Corrie Sharp and Jennifer Tom of San Diego fly to Massachusetts to get married. California's Proposition 8, which took away the rights of gay and lesbian couples to marry, is still tied up in court after a federal court judge and appeals court ruled that the law was unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case in 2013. But many California couples are tired of waiting and are getting married in states where marriage equality is legal.