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Same-sex marriage: a mental health issue

April 19, 2006

Photo of Professor Gilbert HerdtLaws that prevent same-sex couples from marrying cause the couples to devalue their relationships, feel discriminated against, and experience high levels of stress, human sexuality studies Professor Gilbert Herdt has found.

Herdt's recent report, titled "I Do, But I Can't" (PDF requires Adobe Reader), is the first peer-reviewed study to combine all related research on "marriage denial" and analyze its impact on the mental health of gay and lesbian couples.

The authors analyzed 150 heterosexual relationship studies conducted in the past 30 years. The report also presents findings from previous reports on sexual identity, citizenship, psychological well being, relationship ambiguity and human rights, among other topics. It was published in the March issue of Sexuality Research and Social Policy, a journal of SFSU's National Sexuality Resource Center.

"I hope this study helps the public understand the role marriage denial plays in the lives of gay and lesbian couples," said Herdt, who is director of the Human Sexuality Studies Program and National Sexuality Resource Center. Herdt wrote the article with Robert Kertzner, a practicing psychiatrist and adjunct associate research scientist at Columbia University.

Herdt and Kertzner spent nine months conducting a social science and psychological analysis of the 150 relationship studies. They concluded that there appears to be a high rate of stress-related disorders in the gay and lesbian community due to the absence of marriage. Many suffer from what experts call "minority stress," the psychological effects of constant discrimination against a minority or marginalized group. When people are discriminated against for years and years, Herdt said, they experience trauma and develop exaggerated stress reactions to that trauma.

A "huge avalanche of research" shows that married heterosexuals are healthier physically and mentally, and it's only logical to assume that gays and lesbians who are married would experience the same, Herdt said.

"There is a call now for equality in marriage and social rights," Herdt said. "This study can help."

The authors conclude that policy makers should acknowledge that same-sex couples experience psychological and social harm when they are denied the right to marry, and change laws that prohibit same-sex couples from marrying.

The study was supported by the San Francisco-based Walter & Evelyn Haas Jr. Fund.

-- Student Writer Gary Moskowitz with Matt Itelson


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Last modified April 19, 2006 by University Communications