Yesterday, hundreds of gay and lesbian couples across New York state wedded, marking a milestone for advocates for same-sex marriage. New York becomes the sixth and largest state to legalize gay marriage.
Same-sex marriage remains a controversial issue, often eliciting strong emotions for those on both sides of the issue. Several years ago, the American Psychological Association (APA) joined the debate and issued a public statement endorsing same-sex marriage. In presenting their position, the American Psychological Association cited a large and ever growing body of empirical research illustrating the harmful psychological effects of policies restricting marriage rights to same-sex couples.
Last year I spent some time reading and carefully examining the empirical research cited by APA. What the research says is that same-sex relationships closely resemble that of heterosexual partnerships. Like straight couples, gay and lesbian couples form deep emotional attachments and commitments. Furthermore, such couples do not fundamentally differ from heterosexual couples in their satisfaction with their relationships. The research suggests that there is no scientific reason to discriminate against lesbian and gay couples.
Psychologists and other social scientists have long understood that marriage is an institution that profoundly effects the lives of those individuals who are allowed to participate in it. In addition to the significant financial advantages that come with marriage, the institution has important implications for the psychological and physical health of those who partake. Denying gay men and lesbians the opportunity to marry because of their sexual orientation is essentially denying such individuals a basic human right, including the psychological, physical, and financial opportunities that derive from that right.
Critics of same-sex marriage have often emphasized the importance of "family values," and they are right to do so, as such values do exist and have significant consequences for society. For this reason (as well as others), the government has a responsibility to ensure that that such values are protected. The strength of marriages is not just a function of physical attraction and procreation but also of external forces that serve as barriers, or perhaps constraints on dissolving the relationship. I think the critics are misguided in their fears that allowing gays and lesbians to marry will somehow erode the fabric of society and throw us into social chaos. In fact, the research suggests quite the opposite. Granting same-sex couples the right to marry is likely to lead to stronger and more psychologically and physically healthier families, something we should all be invested in protecting.
Tyger Latham, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Washington, DC. He counsels individuals and couples and has a particular interest in sexual trauma, gender development, and LGBT concerns. His blog, Therapy Matters, explores the art and science of psychotherapy.