Sex & Relationships

Marriage Equality

The choice to marry is no more frivolous than the dream of equal citizenship; the time has come to support the right of all couples to marry.
The California Supreme Court's decision that strikes down the exclusion of same-sex couples from civil marriage is a watershed event for the human rights and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. No longer in the most populous and progressive state do LGBT people have to answer the question of if they are married by responding, "We want to, but we're not allowed." The California Supreme Court's decision is in keeping with the latest scientific knowledge of marriage and mental health, which underscores why sexual orientation should not be a barrier to couples committed to marry.

While many heterosexual Americans know that somewhere along the way divorce is a possibility and the death of a spouse is inevitable, they still enter marriage to declare their intentions to love and care for their chosen partners. This decision to solemnize love in the eyes of the law, family, and community is a profound expression of values held most dear to individuals and, as such, enriches their lives and enhances their health and happiness. Still, today people know that marriage is not for everyone. It is a choice to be made. And when people have a deep cultural desire to marry, it is wrong to deny anyone this choice. Like their heterosexual counterparts, many lesbians and gay men may sense that marriage will improve their lives; this is the cultural meaning registered behind the question, "Are you married?" Dozens of research studies over decades bear them out by showing that civil marriage generally improves the mental and physical health of heterosexual men and women.

Many gay and lesbian individuals share in a deeply felt cultural desire to marry, have children, and legitimize their relationships in the eyes of family and community. They wish to benefit from protections conferred by civil marriage that help individuals during times of hardship such as sickness, loss of employment, and death, when couples depend upon legal safeguards and recognition of rights.

As an act of discrimination, marriage denial heightens the risk of social isolation and marginalization -- pervasive experiences of a generation of gay men and lesbians, as portrayed in the now classic film Brokeback Mountain. Our analysis of multiple existing studies, published in Sexuality Research and Social Policy: Journal of NSRC lends further credence to these claims. We found that marriage denial provokes psychological harm and stress while the documented psychosocial benefits of marriage, if extended to gays and lesbians, would increase their well-being. The legal recognition of same-sex relationships will surely improve physical and psychological health among gays and lesbians while reducing discrimination and a sense of second-class citizenship.

We commend the California Supreme Court's ruling that will help undo the harm of discrimination, much like the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision set out to do fifty-four years ago. Some critics oppose rights for same-sex couples on the grounds that lesbians and gays are unfit to marry and parent. Their thinking may be motivated by outdated prejudicial attitudes about homosexuality, viewing it as a mental illness or disease, or by the destructive notion that homosexuality can be cured by therapy. Such beliefs have been refuted by decades of scientific research and are rejected by all major professional mental health associations, including the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association.

Adherence to the conventional definition of marriage to one man and one woman recalls discredited policy that once supported the denial of marriage rights to interracial couples as well. The stigma associated with the ineligibility of committed lesbian and gay couples to marry perpetuates a vicious cycle. Excluded from the social benefits and support of marriage, lesbians and gay men have been stereotyped as immoral, promiscuous, and incapable of sustaining marriage-like relationships. These false beliefs reinforce in the minds of critics the ineligibility of lesbians and gay men for marriage and parenthood. The new proliferation of this old prejudice, like all injustice, is harmful to us all.

The Court's decision not long after the fortieth anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination reveals that his teachings remain alive. And they are reflected in the Court's judgment. Dr. King taught that: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.'" The choice to marry is no more frivolous than the dream of equal citizenship, and the time has come to support this cultural aspiration for all couples in love and committed to marry. To be able to answer the question of are you married with "Yes, I am married," holds us to the highest ideals of justice and opportunity for all.
Gilbert Herdt is a professor and the director of Department of Human Sexuality Studies at San Francisco State University and executive director of the National Centers on Sexuality. Robert Kertzner is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco, and an adjunct associate research scientist at Columbia University.
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