In the wake of the Supreme Court's gay marriage decisions, media stories have focused on gay and lesbian couples that can now (again) get married in California and the potential benefits to married gay and lesbian couples in the United States after the fall of DOMA. But the deepest impact of the Supreme Court's decisions may be less tangible or immediate. As they chip at stigma against lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals, these decisions will also affect generations of youth who will come of age, and come out as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, in a society that affirms their equality and dignity.
Stigma and law have a symbiotic relationship. One important function of stigma is that it legitimizes the unequal treatment, including by law, of some groups in society. In turn, laws are perhaps the strongest of social structures that uphold and enforce stigma. As California District Court Judge Vaughn R. Walker, who decided that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional, noted, "the [trial] evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite sex couples are superior to same-sex couples."
A central aspect of the stigmatization of lesbians and gay men has, for generations, concerned family relations and intimacy. Lesbians and gay men have been portrayed as incapable of -- and even uninterested in -- sustained intimate relationships. Such portrayals contribute to stigma that erroneously describes gay people as individuals who cannot attain intimate partners, families, and children and therefore live isolated lives.
It is not an accident that the fight for marriage equality has galvanized so many lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals. Some critics within LGBT communities suggested that gay people should not follow heterosexual norms of marriage and therefore should not pursue inclusion in the marriage institution. But many gay people were interested in marriage equality not because they simply wanted to get married and emulate heterosexual couples but because they were interested in equality. Marriage equality means something much bigger than marriage itself: It is about the status and dignity of gay people (whether married or not).
Both gay and heterosexual people, as members of society, internalize -- and in turn, sometimes unwittingly, propagate -- cultural conceptions about, and the stigmatization of, gay people. Lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals, who as children and youth are typically raised by heterosexual families in heterosexual communities, rely on false, stigmatized depictions to learn about what their lives may be like. In her testimony, Kristin Perry, one of the plaintiffs in the Proposition 8 trial, explained to the court, "I have never really let myself want [marriage] until now. Growing up as a lesbian, you don't let yourself want it, because everyone tells you that you are never going to have it. So in some ways it's hard for me to grasp what it would even mean, but I do see other people who are married and I -- and I think what it looks like is that you are honored and respected by your family."
Because of stigma, for generations, gay people themselves have believed that their relationships cannot be accepted and cannot be equal to those of heterosexuals. Research, including my own, has shown that even out, healthy LGB people can continue to suffer from internalized homophobia that affects their health and relationships. DOMA and Proposition 8 were laws that upheld and propped up stigma that demeans same-sex intimate relationship. (The laws of many states continue to do that.) As the Supreme Court found, DOMA expressed "both moral disapproval of homosexuality, and a moral conviction that heterosexuality better comports with traditional (especially Judeo-Christian) morality."
But laws can also eradicate and dismantle stigma, and this is where the Supreme Court's decisions can have a deep impact. As Justice Kennedy noted, "a State's decision to give this class of persons the right to marry conferred upon them a dignity and status of immense import." Marriage equality "enhanced the recognition, dignity, and protection of the class [of gay people] in their own community." Lee Badget's research in the Netherlands, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2001, has shown that dignity and status afforded by marriage equality affected lesbians and gay men whether they were married or not.
Marriage equality would allow new generations of youth, as they recognize that they are lesbian, gay, or bisexual, to envision a life where intimate relationships and acceptance are the norm. To the extent that these courts' decisions reverberate in court decisions throughout the country, as they inevitably will, and as the views expressed in these decisions take foot beyond the courts, gay and heterosexual people will internalize a new notion about the place of gay people and gay relationships in society: They will learn that gay people and their relationships are valued and honored.
Of course, as recent challenges to unequal marriage laws around the country show, the task of eradicating stigma in law has just begun. And as the American experience with racism teaches, we have a long way to go past the law to eradicate stigma in society. But with Judge Walker's and Justice Kennedy's strong decisions, the playing field has changed forever.