President Obama made history May 9 with statements in support of lesbian and gay couples being able to legally marry. It didn't take long for media and policy experts to weigh in with all kinds of political intrigue. Would this help or hurt the president's reelection campaign? Was this a calculated announcement or simply a reaction to Vice President Biden's unrehearsed words of support just a few days earlier? How would the Republicans respond?
I am a psychiatrist, not a policy person. I really have no idea how to answer any of the above questions. However, I do know that by publicly declaring his support for marriage equality, President Obama has given a tremendous boost to the mental health of families and young people all across the United States.
Research showing that marriage has mental health benefits prompted the American Psychiatric Association to issue its 2005 statement supporting civil marriage for same-sex couples. The other side of this coin is also true: A lack of legal and social recognition for gay and lesbian couples and their families has costs. These costs can sometimes be severe or even devastating, as in cases of families being torn apart when the legal parent dies, or when one partner develops a serious illness but does not have health insurance.
Less visible but still wearisome to same-sex couples and their families are the everyday insults, like repeatedly having to cross off the "mother" or "father" blanks on school forms. Or the special occasions marred, such as the couple returning from their 20th-anniversary trip to Paris and being told to fill out two forms for reentry to the U.S., "one per family." Or when the children of gay couples hear "that's so gay" used as an insult in the school hallways. These small digs can leave gay and lesbian couples and their children feeling less valued, less accepted, simply "less than" their heterosexual peers.
In making his bold statement, President Obama has provided an antidote to all this hurtful rejection and invisibility by saying he supports same-sex couples and their families as equal citizens. He has said to the many children in this country with two moms or two dads: You are valued members of our nation and deserve the same legal protections now given to children with one dad and one mom. Given that the last U.S. Census reported that of the 646,464 cohabiting same-sex couples in the U.S., one quarter are raising children, the president's statement will touch a lot of children.
As for young people who are beginning to realize that they are gay or lesbian, the president's statement carries a hopeful message for the future: You can expect to be able to share a life with someone, to marry and raise a family, if you so choose. Our country will stand with you in supporting your life's goals.
Researcher Caitlyn Ryan has demonstrated the power of such support through the Family Acceptance Project. This research showed that lesbian, gay, and bisexual adolescents growing up in families that did not accept them as gay were 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide, 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression, and 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs than kids whose families were more accepting. These findings are not surprising, given what we all know from hearing the horrible tragedies of the past two years, in which young people have chosen suicide over the pain of being rejected by peers or family.
What was surprising and powerful in Ryan's data was that families did not have to completely embrace their gay child in order for the child to have better mental health outcomes. Simply taking a small step toward accepting their gay son or daughter had a big positive effect on their mental health. In other words, parents "evolving" toward a more tolerant position could be really helpful for a young person, even if it was just a little bit.
As our country's father-in-chief, President Obama's words will have profound effects on the mental health of gay and lesbian Americans everywhere.