New research out of the School of Public Health breathes urgency to the polarizing issue of gay marriage, by highlighting the depressive and psychosocial impact of such restrictive legislation on young gay men, especially in regard to their fatherhood aspirations.
While a recent Gallup poll indicated that 52 percent of Americans support the legalization of gay marriage — up from one in four in 1996 — same-sex marriage remains illegal in 34 states.
The study was conducted by Assistant Public Health Prof. José Bauermeister and was published in this month’s issue of the Journal of Youth and Adolescence. The report builds upon a growing body of research on the psychological effects of government policy.
Bauermeister analyzed the survey results against state-specific LGB policies, including bans on marriage equality, same-sex joint parenting and second parent adoption. He stressed the importance of including policies not just limited to marriage equality saying less frequently discussed policies are also restrictive.
“You stick another layer into it and you start seeing a lot of parenting laws and bans in place that prohibit either a single gay or lesbian man or woman to adopt or to have a child and then have a second same-sex parent added as a guardian of that child, or to adopt jointly,” Bauermeister said.
The results confirmed Bauermeister’s hypothesis that men who plan on raising children had higher levels of depression and lower levels of self-esteem in states with LGB restrictive policies than men with the same aspirations in states without the bans.
Furthermore, in policy-restrictive states, the more a participant valued his fatherhood aspirations, the more symptoms of psychological distress he reported.
Bauermeister said the implications of such findings might help cast light on the often-myopic view of legislation.
“We usually think about how policies affect our current behavior, but this is basically telling us that policy can affect future intention of behavior,” he said. “You don’t have to be a parent right now to start feeling the psychological consequences of distress. You can actually already start seeing some of that even if you start thinking about having a kid 20 years down the line.”
Public Health Prof. Gary Harper said politicians that propose such restrictive policies are often more concerned with getting reelected than with the consequences the policies produce.
“(Politicians) need to realize that those restrictions do have real-world influences on individuals, especially adolescents who are developing their sense of self and sense of who they are,” Harper said. “That’s a really critical time and these restrictive and oppressive laws can have an extremely damaging impact on the adolescent.”
Harper’s emphasis on adolescents comes from 20 years of experience as a clinical child psychologist with a focus on young gay men. He said Bauermeister’s research underscores worrisome implications for the younger demographic.
“If from very early on you were told that you are not as good as everybody else, then you are not going to develop a healthy sense of self-esteem because at every turn you are told you’re not as good as other people,” Harper said. “When we have marriage restriction laws, we are basically saying to a young gay person, ‘Your love for another person is not recognized by the state, so that means it’s not as good as heterosexual love.’ ”
For the study, male participants completed a 30- to 45-minute online questionnaire that focused on relationship and partner characteristics, sexual behaviors, psychological well-being, and sexing behaviors.
The 1,683 eligible 18- to 24-year olds were predominantly recruited through Facebook and peer referral. Targeted advertising and monetary incentives were used to produce the large sample size, of which 65 percent was White/Caucasian — considered racially and ethnically diverse for research standards.
Harper is one of 25 researchers in the Center for Sexuality & Health Disparities, referred to as the SexLab, which Bauermeister founded in 2009 and currently directs.
Bauermeister said he hopes to build upon his research by exploring motherhood aspirations of lesbians and bisexual women and by lengthening the study timeframe to examine longstanding effects of individual policy on psychological wellbeing.
Hawaii and Illinois recently became the most recent states to pass legislation legalizing gay marriage. Harper is happy with the progress, but said that there is a fundamental problem.
“If we live in a country where we say that all people are created equal and we have protection on almost every other identity characteristic under the sun,” Harper said. “Why is it this one factor is the only factor that we federally, legally discriminate?”