Napa resident Paul Boisvert married his husband in 2008, during a six-month window when same-sex marriage was legal in California.
But as far as Boisvert is concerned, he had married his husband nearly 10 years earlier, when the pair exchanged vows during a commitment ceremony.
Feeling set apart by society “has a very negative affect on you emotionally,” but those feelings “can be offset by a strong relationship,” Boisvert said.
Before meeting his husband, Boisvert said he felt “marginalized” as a gay man and struggled with substance abuse issues. He turned to drugs and alcohol as a way to “self-medicate” and “fill a void” in his life, he said.
“A loving relationship is key to human mental health,” Boisvert said. “Within a year or two of getting together, I was drug- and alcohol-free.”
Research has shown that psychological distress is significantly higher among lesbians, gays, and bisexuals who are not in legally recognized relationships. New research, published in the American Journal of Public Health, suggests that marriage and all of its privileges may level the mental health “playing field” between homosexuals and heterosexuals.
The study used data from the 2009 California Health Interview Survey to show that psychological distress is lower among lesbians, gays, and bisexuals who are legally married to a person of the same sex.
The 2009 California Health Interview Survey included responses from more than 47,600 adults, and asked questions about psychological distress, relationship status, and how people perceived their own health.
Lesbians, gays, and bisexuals seem to take a mental health “hit” for being sexual minorities as well as for being in relationships that aren’t legally recognized, said the study’s lead author, Richard Wight, an associate researcher in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.
“This disparity can largely be attributed to what is termed ‘sexual minority stress,’ which stems from things like being part of a stigmatized group, experiencing sexual orientation-related discrimination or bullying, and needing to hide one's sexual identity from others,” Wight wrote in an email.
Wight said it was not surprising that same-sex marriage would carry similar mental health benefits as a heterosexual marriage.
“Broadly speaking, these benefits seem to arise from the availability of more economic resources among the married, a sense of financial security, higher perceptions of social integration or social support, and the feeling that one matters or has a purpose in life because they have a marital partner,” Wight said.
Napa resident Michael Alger has been in a domestic partnership for more than four years. Alger recalls growing up with a “picturesque notion” of family and wanting that fulfillment as an adult. But as he came to terms with being gay, Alger worried he never would have the family life he dreamed of.
“It was incredibly depressing,” Alger said.
Being in a domestic partnership has given him the family life he wanted, and Alger said it has had a “very positive impact” on his emotional well-being.
Ian Stanley, the Napa LGBTQ Project program director, said it made “perfect sense” to him that marriage equality would improve the mental health of same-sex couples.
“Marriage isn't just a beautiful ceremony or a word — it brings with it a large number of legal protections, benefits and a societal significance that heterosexual couples don't even think to worry about accessing,” Stanley said.
For Wight, the reports of lower psychological distress among married homosexuals was somewhat surprising, since same-sex legal relationships are not afforded the same federal benefits as heterosexual marriages, and because “same-sex relationships are still highly stigmatized in the U.S.”
When California voters passed Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, Alger said one of his biggest concerns was that it seemed to make discrimination against gays acceptable.
“Creating laws to strip us of our rights — it definitely hurts,” Alger said.
This March, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on the legality of Proposition 8, as well as the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which deprives legally married gay couples of the federal benefits afforded to heterosexual couples.
The Supreme Court’s decisions are expected by late June, and Boisvert hopes the justices will rule in favor of same-sex marriages. One of the changes he looks forward to most is having less paperwork during tax season by being able to file federal tax forms jointly.
“Instead of doing two forms (federal and state) like most married couples, we have to do four,” Boisvert said. “Fortunately, my husband is very good at that type of thing.”