10/08/2012 05:57 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Effects of Marriage Referendums, and What to Do About Them

This November four states -- Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington -- have marriage-definition questions on their ballots. Within the LGBT community and society at large, we often think of the effects of these elections in terms of whether or not marriage equality will expand to another state, or whether yet another state will engrain discrimination into its constitution. What we don't consider (but we ought to) is the toll that these referendums can take on LGB people during the election season itself.

To understand the effect, flash back to 2006, when nine states had marriage amendments on the ballot. Some clever researchers, who later published their study in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, sought before-and-after mental-health assessments of LGB people not only in the marriage-amendment states but across the rest of the country, as well. During the election season LGB people were exposed to significantly more negative media messages and negative conversations in the states that banned same-sex marriage (all but one of the nine) than in states with no marriage amendment on the ballot that year. This high exposure to anti-gay messages was associated with a significant increase in stress, negative mood, and symptoms of depression in the marriage-amendment states.

Although 2012 is not the same as 2006 (more on that later), there are many important lessons to keep in mind during the next month. One is to be aware of the well-being of LGB people in this year's marriage referendum states. At a local level this means that LGBT community organizations, high-school and college counselors, and other relevant organizations should be proactive by offering resources and reaching out to LGB citizens. For example, an LGBT community group could offer suggestions on how to cope with anti-gay rhetoric and the feeling of helplessness that can come with handing a minority-rights case to a historically less-than-affirming voting population. Being aware of the effects of negative conversations about marriage referendums can also be a good reason to keep conversations civil -- on both sides -- to prevent a bitter back-and-forth debate.

In addition, research about LGB mental health suggests that social support can help counteract the effects of anti-gay messages. That makes the next four weeks a good time to check in with LGB friends and family members in marriage-referendum states, be supportive of them, and give them a chance to discuss their feelings about the election if they wish. For LGB people in the election states themselves, this can mean spending time with other queer friends and allies, inspired by the bigotry on the ballot to make an extra effort to have fun being oneself.

To be sure, a lot has changed in the past six years. Six states and D.C. now perform same-sex marriages, up from one in 2006, while a majority of the population, including the president, now supports marriage equality. Many of those who are against same-sex marriage are now careful to point out that they're not against gay people (or so they say), as it is less politically acceptable to engage in gay bashing. Perhaps importantly, in three states -- Maine, Maryland, and Washington -- voters will decide whether to allow same-sex marriages, not just whether to keep them banned.

Although the tide is changing, that shift is far from finished. A recent pamphlet from the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) claims that fatherless households, such as those headed by lesbians, increase crime, and that lacking a mother or father figure can lead kids to depression and suicide. Chick-fil-A, as is well known, reported record sales when former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee declared last Aug. 1 "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day" in support of the fast-food chain's stance against marriage equality. Many anti-gay religious leaders are reminding their congregants of their views on marriage and are sharing those views in various television and newspaper stories.

Even a little bit of exposure to this negative rhetoric can be infuriating and disheartening for gay parents whose credentials are challenged, a lesbian couple who hopes to have a wedding as first-class citizens, or a fresh-out-of-the-closet teenager who is facing resistance from family members and classmates. It is wrong to let voters decide a minority-rights issue such as same-sex marriage, but that's not going to change this November or anytime soon. So in addition to making an effort to approve marriage equality (or reject marriage discrimination, in Minnesota), it is important to proactively address the effects of these campaigns. With that extra effort, it may be possible to reduce the stress and symptoms of depression that many LGB people have understandably experienced during past marriage votes. Of course, that would be a good thing, because on this road to equality, it is not only the destination but how we get there that matters.