Marriage Inequality As A Public Health Issue

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Research shows that getting married comes with health benefits. Many doctors believe that legalizing same-sex marriage would be a good step for public health.

A map shows laws regarding same-sex marriage in every state.

Photo: Jonathan Warus, M.D.

This map, illustrating same-sex marriage laws in every state, is likely to change even more over the next few years.

Few issues have spurred national debate like the legislation of same-sex marriage, and attitudes are just as conflicting in Indiana. While 45 percent of Americans completely agree with banning same-sex marriage, the statistic climbs to 57 percent among Hoosiers. In 2011, the Indiana legislature passed HJR-6, a bill prohibiting same-sex marriage. If it passes again in 2013, Indiana residents will vote on a constitutional marriage ban in the general election.

So, it may come as a surprise that in 2010, the Indiana State Medical Association made the Hoosier State the first in the nation to adopt the American Medical Associations’ resolution on public health risks to marriage inequality.

Medical professionals, among them Dr. William Buffie of Indianapolis, have amassed and publicized research demonstrating two important things:

  1. Being married comes with significant health benefits.
  2. A climate hostile to same-sex marriage is a risk to public and private health.

At Kinsey Confidential, we wanted to take a closer look at Buffie’s findings and tell you the big ideas behind understanding marriage inequality as a public health issue.

Marriage: It’s Good For You

To say that being married comes with significant health benefits definitely does not mean that all married people are healthier, or that getting married is a healthy decision for all couples. Instead, it means that married people have access to specific economic, social and medical benefits that reflect the value of marriage in American society.

A great example of this is health insurance. Mortality is 40 percent more likely for uninsured individuals, which is part of the reason that most employers’ insurance plans allow workers to share insurance with their spouses and children.

But even for people in long-term same-sex relationships, sharing insurance with an unmarried partner is much more difficult. Partnered gay men are only 42 percent as likely as straight peers to have employer-sponsored dependent coverage, and partnered gay women are only 28 percent as likely as their straight female counterparts. This means that unmarried gay couples and their families are less protected from the major health risks associated with lacking insurance.

Marriage can also benefit the emotional health of gay people. A 2009 study of married gay people in Massachusetts found that getting married significantly reduced rates of anxiety and depression. Plus, a whopping 93 percent of all parents surveyed agreed that their kids are happier and better-off as a result of their same-sex marriage.

The Risks of Banning Same-Sex Marriage

The past decade has been a tumultuous time for same-sex marriage legislation. While six states opted to legalize same-sex marriage, many more states have issued laws prohibiting it. Gay people in states with constitutional marriage bans were polled before and after the amendments were issued, and the second survey showed much higher rates of psychiatric disorders including anxiety and alcoholism.

The high rates of anxiety and depression associated with same-sex identities are related to social prejudice framing gay people as abnormal or inferior- this is called “minority stress.” Since 63 percent of Massachusetts gay couples say they’ve felt more accepted by their communities since getting married, it makes sense that legal marriage equality can help ease the burden of minority stress.

One important factor of the research compiled by Buffie is that the health benefits of legalizing same-sex marriage do not detract from the current health benefits of heterosexual marriage. In 2007, in fact, the Center for Disease Control found divorce rates for all couples were 20 percent lower in states with legal marriage equality.

The history of same-sex marriage debates in the United States has always relied on a complicated blend of political, economic, religious and social factors. As new research shows, future conversations are incomplete without a careful consideration of public health.

Rosalyn Sternberg

is an intern at the Kinsey Institute and a contributor to Kinsey Confidential. She is a senior at the University of California, Berkeley with a major in Gender and Women's Studies.
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