I do, but i can’t: The impact of ...
1 Published as I Do, but I Can���t: The Impact of Marriage Denial on the Mental Health and Sexual Citizenship of Lesbians and Gay Men in the United States Sexuality Research and Social Policy: Journal of NSRC, Vol. 3, Issue 1, pp. 33-49, online ISSN 1553-6610. Copyright �� 2006 by the National Sexuality Resource Center, San Francisco State University. Copying and permissions notice: Authorization to copy this content beyond fair use (as specified in Sections 107 and 108 of the U. S. Copyright Law) for internal or personal use, or the internal or personal use of specific clients, is granted by University of California Press on behalf of the Center for libraries and other users, provided that they are registered with and pay the specified fee via Rightslink�� on Caliber ( http://caliber.ucpress.net/loi/srsp) or directly with the Copyright Clearance Center, http://www.copyright.com." I Do, but I Can���t: The Impact of Marriage Denial on the Mental Health and Sexual Citizenship of Lesbians and Gay Men in the United States Gilbert Herdt, Robert Kertzner1 Abstract: Marriage is a fundamental institution in American culture that provides a social structure of advantages for wedded couples. Unlike heterosexual citizens in the United States, lesbians and gay men are denied the tangible and intangible benefits of marriage, a deprivation that restricts their citizenship and hinders their mental health and well-being. While research findings confirm the psychosocial capacity of gay men and lesbians to form committed relationships and to parent successfully, marriage denial continues to perpetuate an opportunity structure that disenfranchises gay men and lesbians in the sociocultural, legal, economic, and political aspects of their lives. This article reviews the particular impact of marriage denial on the mental health and well-being of gay men and lesbians and provides an analysis of the historical and cultural factors present in the United States that serve to maintain denial of marriage as an act of discrimination against gay men and lesbians. Key words: same-sex marriage discrimination heterosexism LGBT rights2 The question of marriage rights for lesbians and gay men has intensified debate on the social advantages and cultural meanings of marriage in modern-day society. Some gay men and lesbians view marriage as central to the legitimization of their relationships. It is, therefore, relevant to ask: Is marriage denial injurious to the well-being of gay men and lesbians? Does it cause distress and social disadvantage? Conversely, would marital enfranchisement improve their social and psychological well-being? Despite almost daily media coverage of same-sex couples aspiring to marry, of advocates who claim that the denial of marriage is harmful, and of conservative opponents who resist the extension of marriage, there has been little systematic review of the adverse consequences on individuals of limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples. What does that denial mean for the mental health and well-being of lesbians and gay men? This article explores these issues with respect to lesbians, gay men, and their families in the United States from the dual perspectives of the social sciences and psychiatry and psychology. No significant research has directly investigated the effects of marriage equality on the well- being of lesbians and gay men in the United States, and marriage equality itself is a relatively new concept (Wolfson, 2004). While only one state, Massachusetts, has granted lesbians and gay men 1 Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Gilbert Herdt, National Sexuality Resource Center, 2017 Mission Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, CA 94110. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Robert Kertzner, 2154 Broderick Street, San Francisco, CA 94115. E-mail: email@example.com 2 Sexuality Research and Social Policy: Journal of NSRC, Vol. 3, Issue 1, pp. 33-49, online ISSN 1553-6610. �� 2006 by the National Sexuality Research Center. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permissions to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press���s Rights and Permissions website, http://www.ucpress.edu/journals/rights.htm
2 the legal right to marry, several countries, including The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, and, more recently, the Republic of South Africa, have passed laws to affirm marriage and parental rights for same-sex couples. We have restricted our review of same-sex marriage to lesbians and gay men, largely because the research that does exist in this area has been conducted primarily with gay men and lesbians, not with bisexual, transgender, or other queer-identified people. Three additional considerations have guided this study. First, other researchers (Laumann, Ellingson, Mahay, & Paik, 2004) have affirmed that marriage is a highly heterogeneous institution with a complex profile in the United States, characterized by distinctive cultural and chronological developments derived from ethnic, social class, and regional differences. Second, even among heterosexuals there has always been significant ambivalence toward marriage (Horowitz, 2002). The women���s movement in particular has long critiqued marriage as a patriarchal institution that has perpetuated the social oppression of women, as well as some men (Cott, 2002 D���Emilio & Freedman, 1988 Gay, 1998 Rich 1980). Third, over the generations, lesbians and gay men have created alternative family formations, which Weston (1991) described in her groundbreaking anthropological study. While lesbians and gay men have celebrated this history (Lewin, 1998), the general public knows much less about it. Considering the complex heritage of the intellectual, social, legal, and political efforts to reform marriage, it is not surprising that a significant degree of ambivalence surrounds the extension of marriage rights to gay men and lesbians even within LGBT communities. The advantages and benefits of marriage must be weighed against the conformity and normalization associated with heterosexual marriage, including notions of patriarchal domination of one partner over the other and the possible abandonment of LGBT communities��� alternative definitions of identity, intimacy, and relationships, which critics such as Michael Warner (1999) described. Interestingly, as David Halperin noted (see Howe, 2004), some of these critics have failed to acknowledge that the marriage equality movement has generated a vast and unexpected mobilization of LGBT communities. This campaign is not just a fight for marriage rights in the view of some advocates, it is a crusade for equal rights in the long history of reforming American society (Wolfson, 2004 see Chauncey, 2004). In 1963 Michel Foucault forewarned, ���There will be no civilization as long as marriage between men is not accepted��� (Eribon, 1991, quoted in Howe, 2004, p. 35). On the other hand, conservative opposition has struck back with equal force. Cultural anger, antigay campaigns, and legislative measures, such as the Defense of Marriage Act (Adam, 2003 see Duggan, 2003), have complicated matters (Frank, 2004), making ambivalence toward marriage among progressive heterosexual allies and LGBT people quite understandable. A momentous debate now surrounds the question of extending marriage rights to lesbians and gay men: Does scientific evidence from psychological and mental health studies or a human rights framework better support such social policy advocacy? Here, we were influenced by Kitzinger and Wilkinson (2004), who advocated for the latter. They stated that ���equal access to marriage is a fundamental human right��� (p. 186) that is not, and should not be, contingent upon the effects of discrimination on the psychological functioning of lesbians and gay men. While compelling and well reasoned, their position differs from ours in its primary appeal to a fundamental concern for human rights by contrast, the evidence compels us to also base our argument on the psychological and social harm done to gay men and lesbians through the denial of access to marriage. Marriage and Citizenship As an institution, marriage was central to the definition of personhood in premodern societies, and it is fundamental to participation in social life and to citizenship in the modern state. Researchers have found that matrimony in some form or another is an integral part of all human societies, past and present (Ford & Beach, 1951, p. 106). Typically, marriage leads a couple toward greater social engagement in the community and, concomitantly, to greater rights and duties. In this way, modern marriage, particularly in the United States, grants couples the full privileges of citizenship. Parallel to the West, marriage in non-Western societies has been viewed as a vehicle for the expansion of family and kinship that connected individuals to the larger community. Social maturity in these societies was recognized by having children or adopting them and then engaging in social exchange with in-laws, thereby creating a social network of extended kinship with significant others
3 (Malinowski, 1922). So important were the resources provided through marriage and kinship that traditionally anthropologists classified groups as kinship-based and familial. With few exceptions (Herdt, 1991), the institutions of marriage, family, religion, kinship, and economics also regulated gender development and sexuality (Greenberg, 1988 Herdt, 1997 Mead, 1935). In virtually all cultures, marriage informed the transition to adulthood (Mead, 1950). For example, in the Pacific Islands, the passage from childhood to adolescence and on to adult roles required marriage (with sexual and reproductive correlates) in order to attain full adult personhood (Herdt & Leavitt, 1998 Mead, 1961). Marriage and parenting were also the prerequisites for achieving power, knowledge, and most social privileges, including economic support and socioreligious status (Mead, 1935). It is this bundle of rights and duties that surrounds marriage in the great majority of societies today. Historically, marriage has also created or reproduced social inequalities. Men traditionally have controlled the reproductive activities of women and they have governed arranged marriages, which are based on sociopolitical contracts and coercion rather than on love, romance, and personal choice (Collier & Yanagisako, 1987 Friedl, 1984 Horowitz, 2002). Indeed, many societies continue to permit men to have multiple wives (i.e., polygyny).3 Until recently, female subordination remained the norm in marriage (Johnson, 2002, p. 319). Associated with this subordination was the absence of women���s social entitlements (D���Emilio & Freedman, 1988 Foucault, 1980). As the twentieth century proceeded, women became increasingly dissatisfied with this form of social control and marriage (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985 Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994). And yet, many Americans today relate their well-being to marriage and household security (Duggan & Kim, 2005). Marriage is still widely perceived to bestow a variety of resources and benefits (Waite & Gallagher, 2000). Marriage, Well-Being, and Mental Health What is well-being and how is it related to marriage? We reviewed the large research literature on well-being and its relationship to marriage (House, Landis, & Umberson, 1988 Ross, Mirowsky, & Goldsteen, 1990 Umberson & Williams, 1999 Waite & Gallagher, 2000), the culture of expectations surrounding marriage, and the meanings commonly associated with the sense of wellbeing of spouses in marriage. We found that well-being��� an aspect of mental health���has been systematically studied in a variety of social arenas that intersect with marriage (Brim, Ryff, & Kessler, 2004). We defined well-being from both social and psychological perspectives, as it was described in the pioneering work of Erikson (1959). Erikson suggested that social institutions such as marriage provide a critical context for the realization of individual potential via the social opportunities afforded through them to adults to fully develop capacities for love, care, and self- transcendence. Americans still enter marriage in order to express themselves as authentic selves and, thus, enhance their well-being, even though they know that somewhere along the way divorce is a possibility and that the death of a spouse is inevitable. As Bellah and colleagues (1985) wrote in a classic synopsis, ���For most Americans, the only real social bonds are those based on the free choices of authentic selves��� (p. 107).4 This psychosocial dimension of well-being extends the conceptualization of mental health to include positive factors (Diener, Lucas, & Oishi, 2002 Keyes, 1998 Ryff, 1989) such as personal growth, sense of purpose in life, and engagement in life challenges, all relevant to an understanding of the mental health effects of marriage. Conversely, these constructs are useful in the analysis of the meaning of marriage denial in the lives of lesbians and gay men. For example, perceived discrimination, both a major cause and effect of marriage denial, is linked to a decreased sense of personal growth, diminished environmental mastery, and lowered self-acceptance in women in studies of the general population (Ryff, Keyes, & Hughes, 2003). Among lesbians and gay men, sexual orientation stigma and discrimination are associated with decreased quality of life and increased rates of psychological distress and mood and anxiety disorders (Mays & Cochran, 2001 Meyer, 2003). Although the specific psychological effects of marriage denial on lesbian and gay 3 In Ford and Beach���s study (1951), in 84 percent of 185 societies compared, ���men were permitted to have more than one mate at a time��� (p. 1070). 4 It should be noted that many believe that authentic selves can be experienced in intimate relationships that are not marriages. We do not take a position on this issue.