Same-Sex Marriage Is Good For Gay and Lesbian Health

March 18, 2013 by Justin Lehmiller

Scientists have known for decades that married people are healthier and live longer lives than their single counterparts [1]. However, virtually all of the research conducted to date has focused exclusively on the health benefits associated with heterosexual marriage. Given that more and more countries have extended marriage rights to same-sex couples, has there been any effect on the health of gays and lesbians? Two recent studies have documented some positive health changes among sexual minorities.

First, a 2012 U.S. study found that in the state of Massachusetts, there was a significant decrease in the number of visits made by gay and bisexual men to healthcare providers for both medical and mental health issues in the year after same-sex marriage was legalized [2]. This effect was not specific to men in relationships—rather, there seemed to be an across-the-board health benefit for all sexual minority men, perhaps because legalized same-sex marriage reduced stigma and stress for the entire gay and bisexual community (for more details on this study, see here). However, this study did not look at women and only looked at effects over a one-year period.

A brand new study out of Denmark addressed these limitations by tracking mortality rates of 6.5 million adults in that country between the years 1982 and 2011 [3]. Researchers examined how living arrangements (single, cohabiting, married) and sexuality were associated with death rates over nearly three decades. Denmark is a particularly interesting country for a study of this nature because they have provided at least some legal recognition of same-sex relationships since 1989.

Consistent with previous research, being involved in a heterosexual married or cohabiting relationship was associated with a longer life than being single, widowed, or divorced. Although persons in heterosexual marriages also had longer life expectancies than persons in same-sex marriages, same-sex marriage was linked to some health benefits. First and foremost, as more time has passed since Denmark started recognizing same-sex relationships, death rates for persons in same-sex marriages (both male and female) have dropped. And this was not because death rates were dropping for every group—in fact, death rates increased for certain groups (e.g., single and divorced men).

The researchers also found that among men over age 50, those who were in same-sex marriages lived longer than guys who were single or divorced. So, being in a same-sex marriage seems better for a man’s health than no relationship at all, but the health benefits do not appear to be as strong as they are for men in heterosexual marriages.

What about women? Among women over age 50, those in same-sex marriages actually had shorter lives than women who were single or divorced. This seemed largely attributable to the fact that women in same-sex marriages had elevated rates of breast cancer and suicides. Why was that the case? Unfortunately, we cannot say with any degree of certainty.

The Denmark study tells us that same-sex marriage has been good overall for the health of persons who have taken advantage of it. However, there remains an important health disparity between persons involved in same- and other-sex marriages, and it appears that this disparity is even larger among women. Although more research is needed to understand why this disparity exists, there is now compelling evidence from several sources that same-sex marriage appears to offer a range of health benefits to the gay and lesbian community.

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[1] Ross. C. E., Mirowsky, J., & Goldsteen, K. (1990). The impact of the family on health: The decade in review. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 52, 1059-1078.

[2] Hatzenbuehler, M. L., O’Cleirigh, C., Grasso, C., Mayer, K., Safren, S., & Bradford, J. (2012). Effect of same-sex marriage laws on health care use and expenditures in sexual minority men: A quasi-natural experiment. American Journal of Public Health, 102, 285-291.

[3] Frisch, M., & Simonsen, J. (in press). Marriage, cohabitation and mortality in Denmark: National cohort study of 6.5 million persons followed for up to three decades (1982-2011). International Journal of Epidemiology.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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