Presence of Mind

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Why Marriage Equality Is A Mental Health Issue

Heterosexism and the Supreme Court’s Rulings on Marriage Equality

 

As a psychologist, I feel strongly about LGBT equality because it’s a social justice and civil rights issue, but also because it’s a mental health issue. So I was deliriously joyful on Wednesday when two U.S. Supreme Court decisions came down on the side of marriage equality.

Although things are changing, America is still a heteronormative society. Heterosexuality, and “opposite-sex” marriage are presented by our culture as normal and desirable. Even today, non-heterosexuals often experience various forms of heterosexism (prejudice and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation). According to a recent PEW survey 39% of LGBT people reported being rejected by a family member or close friend because of their sexual orientation; 30% reported physically attacks or threats; 29% said they were unwelcome in a place of worship; 21% said they were treated unfairly by an employer; and 58% reported being the target of slurs or jokes.

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Heterosexism includes heterosexuals’ use of “gay,” “fag,” “homo,” etc. to insult others (psychologists consider this a form of heterosexist microaggression). It also includes institutional heterosexism such as when states deny marriage to non-heterosexuals and permit workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or identity. The bottom line: there are many ways in which our society suggests that non-heterosexual identities are devalued and deviant.

All this contributes to the sexual stigma experienced by many people with non-heterosexual sexual orientations and identities. This stigma is stressful and has negative consequences such as depression, loneliness, substance use disorders, and lowered self-esteem. This is unsurprising when you think about it. Heterosexism often involves shaming and the suggestion that you are perverted and going against God. It may involve rejection by family, church, and community. It may require that you live a lie or keep secrets to avoid becoming a target of prejudice, losing your job, or upsetting the ones you love.

Many LGBT people enjoy good mental health in the face of this social stigma. In what is a sometimes a lengthy process, they reject others’ stigmatization of their sexual orientation/identity and embrace it as a positive part of their identity. They surround themselves with accepting family, friends, and community. They don’t personalize others’ prejudice and instead chalk it up to ignorance. They are often involved with LGBT social and political communities that provide social support and a positive group identity.

Today an overwhelming majority of psychologists believe that same-sex sexual attractions, behavior, and orientations are normal and positive variants of human sexuality. Research and clinical experience indicate that just like heterosexuals, LGBT individuals form stable, committed relationships and families. Their children do just as well as those raised by heterosexual couples. Treatments intended to change or repress sexual orientation are rejected as ineffective and harmful. “Affirmative therapies” that provide acceptance and support are emphasized.

Marriage equality is important for the reduction of sexual stigma. Unfortunately, neither the DOMA case nor the Proposition 8 case made marriage equality the law of the land. But as more LGBT people come out and shatter stereotypes, and LGBT people and their allies speak out on behalf of LGBT equality, sexual stigma is challenged and changed, human suffering is reduced, and we come closer to the American value of justice and equality for all.

 

References

Burn, S.M., Kadlec, K., & Rexer, R. (2005). Effects of subtle heterosexism on gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. Journal of Homosexuality, 49, 23-48. http://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=103...

Hequembourg, A. L., & Brallier, S. A. (2009). An exploration of sexual minority stress across the lines of gender and sexual identity. Journal of Homosexuality, 56, 273-298.

Herek, G. M. (2007). Confronting sexual stigma and prejudice: Theory and practice. Journal of Social Issues, 63, 905-925. http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/rainbow/html/Herek_2007_JSI_preprin...

Meyer, I. H. (2003). Prejudice, social stress, and mental health in lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations: conceptual issues and research evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 674-697. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2072932/

Pachankis, J. E. (2007). The psychological implications of concealing a stigma: A cognitive-affective-behavioral model. Psychological Bulletin, 133, 328-345.

Ramirez-Valles, J., Fergus, S., Reisen, C.A., Poppen, P.J., & Zea, M.C. (2005). Confronting stigma: Community involvement and psychological well-being among HIV-Positive Latino gay men. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 27, 101-119.

Woodford, M. R., Howell, M. L., Silverschanz, P., & Yu, L. (2012). “That's So Gay!”: Examining the Covariates of Hearing This Expression Among Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual College Students. Journal of American College Health, 60, 429-434.

 

Shawn Meghan Burn, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo.

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