Expert Commentary

Same-sex marriage and big research questions behind the debate: Useful studies

2015 review of studies and surveys on issues related to same-sex couples, including legalization, health care, taxation impacts, child-raising and policy adoption.

After years of growing support for gay marriage at the state level, on June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guarantees the right to same-sex marriage throughout the United States. Prior to the ruling, 36 states and the District of Columbia authorized gay marriage. The favorable ruling from the Court compels all 50 states to do so.

According to a UCLA School of Law analysis of preliminary 2014 data, there are an estimate 350,000 married same-sex couples in the United States, a figure that may have doubled since 2013. The world of academic research provides some additional ideas for ways of approaching questions relating to same-sex marriage — and fresh ways of looking at these issues.

While more than 600 studies relating to LGBT issues have been funded by the National Institutes of Health over the past 25 years, better data and more research continue to be needed, experts say, to derive stronger conclusions on a variety of questions. Research can also provide insights on the deeper structural forces that are shaping the political debate.

Below is a sampling of research questions and links to associated papers, with both human-interest and political angles, that can help analysts and reporters go beyond the headlines:

  • Same-sex couples and their families. A 2013 literature review by UCLA’s Mignon R. Moore and Michael Stambolis-Ruhstorfer, “LGBT Sexuality and Families at the Start of the Twenty-First Century,” takes a sweeping look at the state of research, which they say has largely focused on four themes: “who counts as family and how/whether changing definitions of family incorporate households formed by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people; the biological, social, and legal obstacles that influence family formation for this population; the outcomes for youth raised with lesbian or gay parents; and family dynamics, relationship quality, and relationship dissolution in same-sex couple and transgender partner households.”
  • Health benefits. The University of Minnesota’s Gilbert Gonzales and Lynn A. Blewett published a 2014 analysis in the American Journal of Public Health that examines the relationship between state-level policies and employer-sponsored insurance for same-sex partners. Also see the authors’ related study on the implications for children of same-sex parents. (Overall issues of health status were comprehensively reviewed by the U.S. Institute of Medicine in 2011.)
  • What are the tax effects? A 2014 study published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, “Revisiting the Income Tax Effects of Legalizing Same-Sex Marriages,” provides the first comprehensive look at this issue. New data sources allow the authors — James Alm of Tulane, Sebastian Leguizamon of Vanderbilt, and Susane Leguizamon of the University of Kentucky — to use household level information including income, number of children and mortgage payments, to construct their estimates.
  • Children of same-sex parents. A significant volume of social science and psychological research continues to be published examining the question of how a child’s general well-being is affected by same-sex caregivers versus those growing up in a more traditional family. (The American Sociological Association recently reviewed the related research toward an amicus brief for a U.S. Supreme Court case.)
  • Same-sex parents and differences in childcare. How do gay or lesbian parents differ in their approaches, versus heterosexual parents? There are many ways to examine the question. In a 2015 study published in Demography, Kate C. Prickett and Robert Crosnoe at the University of Texas at Austion and Alexa Martin-Storey look at differences in time spent with children. They find “few differences between same- and different-sex couples in child-focused time use.”
  • What do survey data hide? Polls show a remarkable historical trend of growing support for same-sex couples. But how much do we really know? A 2013 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, “The Size of the LGBT Population and the Magnitude of Anti-Gay Sentiment are Substantially Underestimated,” looks at the possibility that discrimination may be more pervasive than previously understood — and that the extent of the U.S. gay population remains under-counted. Researchers Katherine B. Coffman and Lucas C. Coffman of Ohio State University and Keith M. Marzilli Ericson of Boston University provide insights using a “veiled report” survey method.
  • Public opinion data and anti-gay marriage arguments. Those who oppose same-sex marriage frequently cite societal opinion and underlying values as the basis for their views. Brian Powell and Natasha Yurk Quadlin of Indiana University and Oren Pizmony-Levy of Columbia University argue that survey data frequently do support certain kinds of legal arguments advanced by opponents.
  • Why states legalize gay marriage. It’s not just one overriding cause or factor, says Rebekah Herrick of the Oklahoma State University. She draws on a wealth of new scholarship to examine geographical “policy diffusion,” the presence of gay state legislators, local attitudes and even the way judges are appointed or elected.


 Keywords: gay issues, civil rights, same-sex unions, LGBT

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