Last week, my patient Christopher (not his real name) came in for his regular weekly psychotherapy session.
“Did you hear about the vote?” he asked. I didn’t need to ask for clarification. I knew he was referring to the New York State Senate’s vote, 38-24, against same sex marriage that very day. “I’m really upset,” Christopher said, although it didn’t take a psychiatrist to see he was distraught. Over the next few days, Christopher was not the only gay patient in my practice to bring up the Senate vote as a distressing bit of news.
I had previously seen patients in my practice react as Christopher did. I saw many of my patients who were upset in 2004, after the Presidential election, when eleven states passed constitutional amendments banning marriage equality. Then again in the 2006 election when another nine states passed similar constitutional amendments. Then once more in 2008 when Californians voted in favor of Proposition 8 to overturn court-ordered marriage equality. More recently, this past November, Maine’s citizens voted to repeal their legislature’s recent passage of same sex marriage and the gay patients in my practice were markedly depressed by the news that another state’s majority of voters opposed equal rights.
In recent years, both the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association have gone on record as supporting marriage equality. In their statements of support, the two APAs emphasize the health and mental health benefits of marriage. However an emerging phenomenon of the last decade’s debates about the social status of gay marriage is the adverse psychological impact anti-gay marriage political campaigns have on gay people.
This is borne out by a study published earlier this year in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Counseling Psychology. The study, “Marriage Amendments and Psychological Distress in Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual (LGB) Adults,” was an online survey of more than 1500 lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) adults. The researchers were looking for signs of psychological distress in this population following the 2006 general election.
They found that LGB people living in the nine states that passed an
exclusionary marriage amendment reported higher levels of psychological
distress and depressive symptoms when compared to people living in the
other states. Among the factors that increased the experience of stress
were antigay media messages repeatedly broadcast during the electoral
campaigns. The researchers call this “minority stress,” and define it
as the “chronic social stress that individuals with stigmatized
identities experience as a direct result of prejudice and
discrimination over and above the stresses of daily living.”
is not unusual to hear opponents of gay marriage say they have nothing
against gay people, and that they are only voting to preserve
“traditional marriage.” I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of
their beliefs. However, as this study and my own clinical experience
with patients like Christopher show, the psychological effects of their
actions may contradict their words.