Researchers have known for years that marriage seems to give straight men a long-term health boost. For example, just consider that unmarried heterosexual men have a 250% greater mortality risk than their married peers.1 In other words, unmarried guys tend to die much sooner than would be statistically expected relative to married men. But is marriage linked to better health among gay men too? Given that legal recognition for same-sex relationships is a relatively recent development, researchers have only now begun to look into this question. Although it is too soon to say whether there are any long-term health benefits of marriage for gay men, recent research suggests that just the act of extending equal marriage rights to same-sex couples may yield health benefits in and of itself.
For instance, in one recent study, gay and bisexual men’s visits to a local health center in Massachusetts were tracked for the one year period after marriage rights were extended to same-sex couples in that state. Researchers looked at over 1,200 patients and considered the number of visits they made for both medical and mental health needs. Over the course of that year, there was a significant decrease in the number of times gay and bisexual men sought care for medical and mental health issues.
What is especially interesting about these findings is that this decrease in healthcare use occurred for both partnered and unpartnered men; thus, the medical benefits were not necessarily specific to those in relationships. Given the nature of these data, we cannot definitely say why that was the case, but one interpretation is that the legalization of gay marriage was part of a broader movement toward increased acceptance of sexual minorities, which ultimately reduced stress on the entire gay and bisexual community. As a result, it was something that stood to benefit everyone.
Future research is needed to explore the potential long-term implications of marriage for health among sexual minorities and to extend this work to lesbian and bisexual women. For now, however, it appears that just granting the option of legal marriage to the sexual minority community is linked to a measurable improvement in their health outcomes.
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.
2Hatzenbuehler, M. L., O’Cleirigh, C., Grasso, C., Mayer, K., Safren, S., & Bradford, J. (in press). 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. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2011.300382
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