This summer, President Barack Obama said he would support a bill repealing the federal government’s ban on same-sex marriage. That followed the vote in New York to legalize same-sex marriage, making it the largest state where gay men and lesbians can wed.
Psychology professor Adam Fingerhut took this issue a step further, looking at the social and psychological impact of policy and debates surrounding same-sex marriage. He was the lead editor on the article “Same-Sex Marriage: The Social and Psychological Implications of Policy and Debate,” in the June 2011 issue of Journal of Social Issues. We spoke to him about the impact that these political debates and policies have on lesbian, gay, bisexual individuals and same-sex couples, as well as their friends, families and communities.
Q. Your research finds that marriage amendments and resulting policies that deny marriage equality to same-sex partners are sources of minority stress, how do these amendments cause this kind of stress?
Minority stress comes in a couple ways. One is external, discrimination. A classic example is someone shouting some an epitaph at you as you’re walking down the street because of your membership in a particular group. Minority stress can also be internal. Within the realm of sexual orientation, we talk about internalized homophobia, internalizing society’s negative evaluation about LGB people. We also talk about perceived stigma. This is when you perceive that others around you might not accept you, or they might discriminate against you if they knew your sexual orientation.
Marriage amendments make minority stress very present in the lives of sexual minorities and, importantly, in the lives of allies. My research only sampled gay men and lesbians but I got calls from heterosexual people saying they wanted to be involved [because] this was affecting them, too. Interestingly, the data also showed the opposite. There were many people who simultaneously reported great stress and anger but also a great sense of community and support.
Q. This summer, Congress held its first-ever hearing on the repeal of the Defense of Marriage act, (signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, it defines marriage as between one man and one woman). What would the psychological and social benefits or consequences be if the law was repealed?
It’s very clear that gay men and lesbians feel marginalized and alienated because they don’t have access to what really is a fundamental right. Having access to marriage as an institution does the opposite, it makes people feel like they’re a part of the fabric of society. And we do know this empirically now, this isn’t just speculation. [One study found] that intimacy related goals of gay men and lesbians are the same as those of heterosexuals. The difference is that gay men and lesbians, in stark contrast to heterosexuals, see huge barriers in their ability to accomplish those goals. And most of these barriers are institutional, but by getting rid of something like D.O.M.A., it makes it so that gay men and lesbians can more easily accomplish these goals.
Q. Marriage between same-sex partners is legal in Vermont, Massachusetts and, most recently, New York, in the United States and in the Netherlands and South Africa, what effect has these changes in legislation had on the LGB communities, and the overall culture?
Although access to marriage at the state level is a wonderful thing, it isn’t the same as access to marriage in its entirety. We do know, for example, in the Netherlands and in Massachusetts, that same-sex couples who got married report that they benefit from it, and they report that their children benefit from it.
However, there is no indication that access to marriage harms the institution of marriage. When you see marriage rights granted to same-sex couples, you actually see the co-habitation rate level out and divorce rates decline. This isn’t a surprise. When you have a huge community out there saying we want access to marriage, marriage means something. It validates for the whole society that marriage means something. It sends a large message that marriage is a valuable institution.
Q. What are some of the social consequences for members of the LGB community following the passage of marriage amendments? How does it affect their personal interactions regarding identity disclosure, social support, and engagement with politics?
It’s a great question I don’t have an answer for empirically. I don’t know anyone who has looked at the long-term consequences. However, several studies [have been done] looking at what happens post-passage of an amendment and there are immediate feeling of anger, of sadness, of stigma, marginalization. I think we saw it here [in California] with all the protests after Prop 8, but people learned to channel that energy in different ways.
One thing we know about LGB mental health is that in general LGB people seem incredibly resilient. The vast majority of LGB people, despite being stigmatized, are doing just fine. They’re mentally healthy and they’re high functioning. So we have to assume in the long run, people find a way to make meaning from these amendments.
Q. What effect do anti-gay ballot initiatives have on majority group members (i.e., heterosexuals) and how do they affect the relationship between LGB and heterosexual individuals?
It’s a mixed bag. I haven’t captured the data perfectly but from the snippets of data it appears to me there is a whole range of reactions. During these campaigns, there was very clear tension between people. [Some] found out that their dearest friend and or their family member didn’t support them. At the same time, they found out that their dearest friend and their family did support them. Then there is this huge gray area where people are walking around saying, “I don’t know how to interact with the people around me, because I don’t know where they stand on me and my family.”
Q. What effect do these initiatives have in relation to other minority groups? For example, in California’s Prop 8 decision, there was perceived tension between the LGB and African-American communities.
That was an unfortunate situation because the data was wrong. Originally, they said it was 7 out of 10 African American voted for Prop 8, and it ended up that only 58 percent, which was still the highest of all ethnic minorities but dramatically different than 7 out of 10. We have to be very cautious about how we approach intergroup relations around these issues because we are distinct minority groups and there are shared experiences but there are also distinct experiences.
Ultimately, gay people make up between three and five percent of the population. The fight for equality cannot happen without allies, and nor do we want it to happen. The point of this is equality for all. I think the tension that came out was sad and I’m not sure it was completely warranted. It is clear that as we move forward as a gay community we have to build bridges with all kinds of people.
Q. What do you hope your research will provide to law and policymakers, and to the general public?
I hope my research can continue shedding light on who LGBT people are and who same-sex couples are. So much of the way people feel about this issue is based on misinformation. It’s based on images of LGBT people as unstable and as uncommitted. We know empirically this is not true, so I hope my data can really inform the public and those in law and policy. I hope that some of this new research can show the harm of not having access to marriage, the harm of debates which marginalize a community and the benefits of access to equality.