The Impact of Same-Sex Marriage Decision on LGBT Mental Health

Mental health professionals should observe how lesbians and gay men experience the psychosocial benefits of same-sex marriage.

The recent US Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell vs Hodges recognizing the constitutional right of same-sex couples to marry is a profound mental health intervention for lesbians, gay men, and their families. By underscoring the sanctity of liberty in matters of personal expression and intimacy, and asserting that lesbians and gay men must be accorded a protection of dignity that is fundamental to the US Constitution, the High Court took aim at a systemic source of discrimination and stigmatization based on sexual orientation.

Mental health clinicians and researchers are now in a unique position to observe how this watershed ruling will affect the mental health of lesbians and gay men; they may find themselves engaged in new conversations about what it means to get married, remain unmarried, or be single in a post-Obergefell world.

For same-sex couples who wed, it is likely that the mental health dividend recognized in the general population will extend to lesbians and gay men. A multitude of tangible and intangible benefits of marriage, ranging from material advantages to social validation of relationships — benefits linked to enhanced psychological and physical health in heterosexuals — will now be available to many more lesbians and gay men.

At least one study examining this proposition, which assessed predictors of mental health in midlife and older gay men, found that civil marriage protects against stress associated with being a sexual minority person and more generic age-related stressors related to concerns about finances and maintaining independence. We can expect additional research and clinical observations to bear this out.

But this expectation aside, not all same-sex couples will rush to the altar (of course, not all heterosexual couples rush to the altar, and marriage rates among heterosexuals have been falling in recent decades). Some marriage considerations, however, have particular nuances in the lives of lesbians and gay men. For instance, partners in long-term relationships, excluded from marriage but having cultivated a deeply personal sense of what their love means to each other, may question the need for social recognition that marriage provides.