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Sexual Orientation

When Public Policy Meets LGBTQ+ Relationships

State policy predicts relationship status for sexual minority men in the U.S.

Key points

  • State policies that discriminate against LGBTQ+ people can damage their ability to be in relationships.
  • The Human Rights Campaign monitors state policy and annually issues state equality index scores.
  • Sexual minority men in states with supportive policies are more likely to be in a relationship.

Media coverage of legislation like Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill or Texas's ban on gender-affirming care for trans youth have brought national attention to state policy. On the surface, very few of these recent high-profile issues are directly about relationships.

The case of Masterpiece Cake Shop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission did not question whether the male couple could get married. It only declared that a local baker could refuse to bake them a custom cake based on the owner's religious beliefs.

State Policy and Relationships

Inequalities in state-level protections for fundamental rights and freedoms (e.g., housing protection, employment security) complicate the lives of LGBTQ+ people, generating sources of stress that heterosexual and cisgender people do not share. It is one form of what psychologists would call minority stress (Brooks, 1981), and decades of research document its adverse effects on sexual and gender minority people (Flentje et al., 2020; Hoy-Ellis, 2023).

In just the past 15 years (Hatzenbuehler, 2009), psychologists have proposed that this happens for three reasons.

  1. Stigma and discrimination make it harder to manage emotions in adaptive ways (emotion dysregulation);
  2. they change our thoughts and perceptions about ourselves and others;
  3. and they complicate social interactions and disrupt interpersonal relationships.

In their recent paper, Starks, Hillesheim, Stephenson, and Robles (Starks et al., 2023) examined the association between policy and relationship status in a large dataset of 7,705 cisgender sexual minority men recruited across the U.S. from dating and social networking applications.

I break down the first of their key findings: State-level policy is correlated with whether or not sexual minority men are in a relationship.

Terminology check. "Sexual minority men" (in this study) refers to cisgender men who identify as gay or bisexual and those who have sex with other men (regardless of their sexual identity). "Relationship" refers to primary partner relationships. Terms vary, but people in these relationships might be considered boyfriends, partners, lovers, spouses, or significant others.

The first thing we need to understand is how state policy is assessed. The Human Rights Campaign monitors state policies related to the rights of LGBTQ+ people. Every year, they issue State Equality Index scores for each state.

The researchers used these in their analysis. In states with a score of 1, achieving basic equality is a high priority; 2 indicates the state is building equality; 3 designates the state as solidifying equality; and four indicates the state is working toward innovative equality.

Most states are at the extremes. In the most recent (2023) ratings, two states (Arizona and Utah) receive a score of 2, and 5 states (Michigan, Alaska, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Pennsylvania) receive a score of 3.

In contrast, 23 states receive the lowest rating (1) and 20 receive the highest (4). Results were similar in 2022 when this study was conducted. Because only a small number of states had scores of 2 or 3, Starks and colleagues classified states as supportive (state equality index scores of 3 or 4) or unsupportive (state equality index scores of 1 or 2).

Sexual minority men who live in supportive states were more likely to be in a relationship compared to those who live in unsupportive states. Among those in supportive states, 75.5% were partnered; 66.6% were partnered in unsupportive states. This correlation between relationship status and state-level policy was evident even after controlling for demographic factors.

Among those in relationships, state-level policy was not associated with relationship quality. Sexual minority men in unsupportive states were just as satisfied, emotionally connected, and committed to their relationships (on average) as those in supportive states.

Why Might This Happen?

Starks and colleagues use a cross-sectional survey design. So, they cannot say much about what causes these associations. There are at least two possibilities.

1. Maybe people gravitate towards supportive states when they get into a relationship. When people shift from being single to being in a relationship, they may reevaluate the risk of living in an unsupportive state.

Suddenly, losing your job, having a landlord evict you, or being unable to adopt a child because of your sexual identity impacts not only you but your partner as well. This might provide an extra layer of motivation for partnered people to move to (or stay in) states with supportive policies.

2. Maybe living in an unsupportive state makes finding a partner and making a relationship work harder. Relationships are challenging enough as it is. Finding someone you click with, getting to know them, and establishing yourselves as a couple takes time and emotional energy (regardless of gender or sexual identity).

When state policies fail to protect you and your partner—or allow people to discriminate against you based on your sexual identity—it only makes those processes harder. That added stress may be enough for some couples to decide they cannot make it work.

Why Does This Matter?

While Starks and colleagues may be unable to tell us why this association between state policy and relationship status exists, their findings illustrate the real-life consequences of policy decisions. For more on that, click here to find out what they learned about the links between relationships and mental health.


Brooks, V. R. (1981). Minority stress and lesbian women. Lexington Books.

Flentje, A., Heck, N. C., Brennan, J. M., & Meyer, I. H. (2020). The relationship between minority stress and biological outcomes: A systematic review. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 43, 673-694.

Hatzenbuehler, M. L. (2009). How does sexual minority stigma “get under the skin”? A psychological mediation framework. Psychological Bulletin, 135(5), 707-730.

Hoy-Ellis, C. P. (2023). Minority stress and mental ehalth: A review of the literature. Journal of Homosexuality, 70(5), 806-830.

Starks, T. J., Hillesheim, J. R., Stephenson, R., & Robles, G. (2023). Policy, relationships, and well-being: Associations between mental health and main partner relationships among cisgender sexual minority men in the context of U.S. state-level policies. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity.

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