Marriage Equality & The Health Of Our Society

It seems like an everyday occurrence when another federal judge overturns the ban on “same sex marriage” in his or her home state. These rulings are not surprising given the decision by the Supreme Court last summer overturning the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  In fact these rulings are simply upholding the law of the land, which no longer limits the right of marriage to heterosexual couples.  I am thrilled every time a new state falls; I am surprised that the ripples of overturning DOMA are so swift and widespread. And I never take even one of these rulings for granted.

On August 24, 2009, when I married my husband Bobby, we had to travel from New York City to Greenwich, Connecticut. At that time, only 3 states recognized the marriage of two men, and in the five years we have been married, that number has rapidly grown to 19 states. Initially, our marriage also was only recognized in a handful of states.  The federal government did not recognize our marriage under DOMA and we were denied thousands of rights. Because of DOMA, my paycheck was taxed for Bobby’s portion of our heath insurance plan since this was considered additional income (while the same exact benefit was not taxed for opposite sex couples). Yes, DOMA indeed was shortsighted and unfair and as the Supreme Court decided, it was indeed unconstitutional.

Of course, our trek to Greenwich was slightly inconvenient and somewhat disturbing given that we could not marry in our home state of New York. More problematic was the denial of our rights as a married couple under DOMA. But these experiences have to be considered in light of to the struggles of gay men and women throughout the last four decades. Slightly over four decades ago, Bobby and I would have been arrested simply for being in a gay bar. The right to marry was an elusive reality for a generation, which was fighting simply for the right to love openly.

The Stonewall Riots of 1969 set us on the path of obtaining our civil rights. (Each June, millions around the world celebrate Gay Pride in recognition of that hot, steamy night in Greenwich Village, when the patrons of the bar resisted arrest by the police.)  Despite the fact that the AIDS epidemic derailed us and provided ample fodder for haters to amplify their beliefs, much has changed in the last 4 decades.  Yet like the Stonewall Generation, which overcame the prejudice of society and fought for their place in the world, those of my generation, the AIDS Generation, fought both the virus and the societal prejudice that emerged alongside the epidemic, with dignity and bravery. I have documented the life experiences of 15 men who lived to tell these stories in my newest book, The AIDS Generation Stories of Survival and Resilience.

So we find ourselves at this historic moment while the fight for our civil right continues. It would be simple to enumerate the multitude of rights that marriage equality provides us, and marriage equality provides gay men and lesbians with benefits that are not immediately obvious.

In 2010, the Institute of Medicine published a seminal report enumerating the health disparities experienced by the LGBT population. The report indicated that social inequalities contribute to these health issues. I, in my own writing, have proposed that discrimination and homophobia continue to fuel the AIDS epidemic in gay men, 33 years after the initial diagnoses. This is all to say that the gay men and women continue to experience negative health consequences because of the discrimination we experience and the rights we are denied. How can that be?

We know from research that in U.S. states with protections and laws for the LGBT population, gay men and lesbians experience better mental health which in turn effects their overall well-being.  Physical health is driven by a complex interplay of biological factors, in combination with psychological and social components. It is more than just the transmission of pathogens that drive illness. In the gay population, discrimination and the denial of rights lead to heightened distress, greater emotional burdens, inability to communicate openly with health providers, and struggles to identity health care providers who are versed in the delivery of care to sexual minorities. All of these conditions diminish health and well-being.  Therefore, marriage equality and other laws that protect our rights ultimately have protective effects on our health.

 As marriage equality becomes the norm of the land, there also are a growing number of protections for sexual minorities in the areas of employment, housing and health care.

The generations to come—the millennials and those to follow—will grow up in a society that recognizes marriage of all types and will have the same rights as the heterosexual community.  The effects will be even more powerful and profound.  And perhaps in a generation’s time, we will find ourselves as a country wondering why there was ever any opposition to denying two people who love each other the right to marry.

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