New research suggests that gay marriage has surprising benefits to public health. A study in the current issue of the American Journal of Public Health from Columbia University concludes that legalizing same-sex marriage can have an important, unexpected benefit — making gay men healthier. Here, a brief guide:
What did the study find?
Researchers looked at the health records for 1,211 gay patients at a Massachusetts community health clinic, before and after the state legalized same-sex marriage in 2003. In the 12 months after the law took effect, doctor visits by gay and bisexual men fell by 13 percent, and health-care costs by 14 percent.
Why did patients get sick less frequently?
The patients were less likely to need treatment for ailments such as high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and sexually transmitted diseases. "When you legalize same-sex marriage it kind of changes the social environment around gays and lesbians," says the study's lead author, Mark Hatzenbueler. "And that reduces social stigma and stress that has downstream health consequences."
Were married gay men the only ones to feel the health benefits?
No. The effects were observed in both single and partnered gay men, "indicating that same-sex marriage policies may have a broad public-health effect," says Hatzenbueler.
What about lesbians?
This particular study didn't examine the benefits for gay women, because the clinic did not have many lesbian patients. That's a pretty significant oversight, says Zack Harold at the Charleston, W.V., Daily News. Without addressing whether the effects extend to women, or whether this is a one-time blip or an enduring change, "the holes are too numerous" to make this study the definitive word.
Have other studies found similar things?
Yes. Earlier studies found that laws against same-sex marriage can have a "stressful impact" on gays and lesbians. One recent study found that psychiatric disorders became more common in states that passed explicit bans on gay marriage. This new study is "adding to the growing body of evidence showing social, economic and health benefits of same-sex marriage," says Hatzenbueler. "Those standing in the way of allowing same-sex couples to marry aren't just denying gays and lesbians equal rights," says David Taffet at Dallasvoice.com, "they're killing us."