By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
SAN FRANCISCO – Denying marriage rights to lesbians and gay men is bad for their mental health, and for the mental health of their children, according to a new study by San Francisco State University’s National Sexuality Resource Center. The study is entitled, “I Do, But I Can’t: The Impact of Marriage Denial on the Mental Health and Sexual Citizenship of Lesbians and Gay Men in the United States,” and will appear in the March edition of Sexuality Research and Social Policy: Journal of NSRC.
The study, a “meta-analysis which looks at 150 studies which have examined a whole variety of relationships between mental health, social supports, partner formations, parenting, and citizenship among gays and lesbians in the United States,” according to co-author Dr. Gilbert Herdt, was discussed during a Feb. 28 press conference.
The press conference was attended by Herdt who is also NSRC’s director, two same-sex couples who were impacted by the brief ability to marry granted to them by the city of San Francisco in 2004, and Robert Jay Green, director of the Rockway Institute, an LGBT research and public policy institute at Alliant International University.
All parties present agreed that allowing same-sex couples the same rights and privileges afforded to opposite-sex couples isn’t just a matter of civil rights; it’s a public health issue.
“This is what we have found: there is a consistent, negative impact on the mental health of gay men, lesbians, their families and children by the denial of marriage,” said Herdt, who co-authored the study with Dr. Robert Kushner.
However, despite the claims of the anti-gay right, same-sex orientation in and of itself has no negative impact on mental health.
“There is no association between homosexuality and mental illness in the United States,” said Herdt. “On the other hand, we also know in the mental health research community that gays and lesbians, as a population, have higher rates of stress-related problems, such as anxiety, depression, mood change, and substance abuse related to alcohol and drugs.”
Herdt said that gays and lesbians experience a higher incidence of stress-related issues because of “minority stress.”
“Minority stress is the concept that has emerged from mental health research to explain the impact of simple discrimination in a huge range of areas for people,” Herdt said. “Discrimination in jobs, housing that is denied, health care that is denied, adoption rights that are denied. These losses actually accumulate over the lifetime. They create a legacy of discrimination. And the traumatic reactions provoke people to cope, often without the necessary means of social support.”
Herdt said that the denial of marriage rights also works against the efforts of couples to stay together.
“[Same-sex] couples, and there are numerous studies of these, work very hard at their relationships. They are committed. They are able to love and stick together through all kinds of difficulties but they suffer as a result because they don’t have the societal support necessary to sustain their efforts, their commitments and their love,” he said.
The denial of equal marriage rights makes gays and lesbians “only partial citizens, half citizens. They do all the hard work but they don’t get all the benefits,” he added.
Leah Crask, who married her partner Teresa Weeks in San Francisco in March 2004, said of the experience, “This had a large impact on our lives because it was the first time my family really recognized our relationship as being equal to their relationship.”
Crask and Weeks discussed the difficulties that they have had protecting their relationship with their young son, who was born to Crask last year. During the last trimester of the pregnancy, for example, the couple did not travel. They stayed home to make sure that their child would be born in California, to ensure that both mothers’ names would appear on the birth certificate.
Since their son was born, “It is a difficult process to adopt and to travel. You can’t leave the country until the adoption is final. We don’t have a father to sign off on travel plans for our son,” said Weeks. “The fact is that if I had been a man and had gone to a sperm bank knowingly with my partner and was married, I would be the presumed father of the child.”
“And we had to go through a second parent adoption process, which is lengthy, invasive, and costly. And I had resentment at having to go through extra legal burdens to ensure the safety of my family, the security of my family, to guarantee my child, should anything happen to me, that he would receive Social Security” and other benefits, she added.
Weeks said that the couple was required to provide references from “four married friends” for the adoption.
“That would take out a lot of our gay friends, our friends that were married at City Hall with us two years ago, and many of our domestic partner friends who’ve been married or together and consider themselves really married longer than our friends who are heterosexual in married relationships,” she said.
“It’s very hard on a day to day level to always be reinforcing that your relationship is valid,” Weeks said.
Stuart Gaffney talked about his experience being married to his partner “of almost 19 years now,” John Lewis.
“When we were told that, ‘by the authority invested in me by the State of California, I now pronounce you spouses for life,’ we literally felt years of shame lifting with the realization that now we were being treated as equals,” Gaffney said. “It was a utopian moment for us.”
“When we were told our marriage, which meant the world to us, and like anyone’s wedding day, was one of the happiest days of our lives, was null and void, we felt that sense of shame placed right back upon us,” he added.
Gaffney told reporters of a horrific moment in an emergency room, where he and Lewis had taken Gaffney’s mother when she was experiencing chest pains.
“I guess they were concerned we were asking a lot of questions of the nurse in the ER, who then abruptly turns to us both and says, ‘Well, who are you?’ And then, perhaps recognizing the resemblance between me and my mother and said, ‘OK, you’re family,’ but looking at [Lewis] said, ‘But you, you’re not family. Who are you?'”
“I’m sure you can imagine the cruelty of that moment,” Gaffney told reporters. “But that’s the moment that you’re least prepared to deal with suddenly having to justify your relationship. Justify what you know to be true, that you are family.”
Gaffney likened his experience with his husband to that of his mother and father. Gaffney’s mother is Chinese American and was allowed to marry Gaffney’s father in 1948, when California became the first state in the country to lift the ban on interracial marriage. When his parents moved to Missouri and were purchasing a house, they were told that Missouri’s standing ban against interracial marriage could be used to disqualify them from purchasing the home that they wanted.
“Now, this is something I never wanted to have in common with my parents but, unfortunately, after learning the thousands and thousands of marriages performed at San Francisco City Hall were also legally null and void, it is a shared family legacy,” Gaffney said.
Asked why his study is important, Herdt said, “The basis of scientific research is sometimes to test our hunches and our intuitions in life, and I think many people in the gay and lesbian community have the intuition that if you are coping with being a half citizens, or coping with marriage denial, it may have repercussions in many, many other areas of your lives. But, of course, many heterosexuals in our society do not have those intuitions and they do not have those hunches because they don’t live those lives … we believe that it’s important for all Americans to understand the impact of marriage denial.”
“Most Americans are very good people and whether religiously minded or not, they may not realize the impact of marriage denial on same sex couples,” Gaffney agreed. “This study is really for those who have not been through this ride with us, to actually be able to read about the impact of marriage denial on real people’s lives.”
The study may be used to impact policy makers as well as the public. According to an executive summary of the study, “Courts have previously used data regarding mental health and well-being as a long-term test of the impact of discrimination. For example, negative mental health effects were vital to arguments made against education segregation laws.”
For more information on “I Do, But I Can’t: The Impact of Marriage Denial on the Mental Health and Sexual Citizenship of Lesbians and Gay Men in the United States,” visit NSRC’s web site at http://nsrc.sfsu.edu.