Expert Commentary

Same-sex marriage: Research roundup

Selection of academic scholarship on the dynamics of the same-sex marriage debate in the public square and within lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities.

Wedding cake (iStock)

On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional and violates the principle of equal protection under the law. The decision opens the door for same-sex couples to receive federal benefits. As the Pew Research Center has documented through various surveys, societal opinion on the issue has begun to swing dramatically in favor of accepting gay couples over the past decade. Indeed, Pew found in a report released June 2013 that “nearly three-quarters of Americans — 72% — say that legal recognition of same-sex marriage is ‘inevitable.’ This includes 85% of gay marriage supporters, as well as 59% of its opponents.”

In the majority opinion in the case, United States v. Windsor, Justice Kennedy wrote:

DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty. It imposes a disability on the class by refusing to acknowledge a status the State finds to be dignified and proper. DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others. The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.

Since the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act defined marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman, the states of Washington, Massachusetts, Maine, Maryland, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York and Iowa, as well as the District of Columbia, have legalized same-sex marriage; many other states are poised to allow it or the less controversial “civil union” designation in the near future. California’s Proposition 8, a ballot question that banned same-sex marriage, passed in 2008 but was subsequently overturned by a U.S. District Court judge and is on hold until the Supreme Court issues its ruling.

Supporters of legalizing same-sex marriage argue that the institution is a civil institution that comes with a host of legal privileges, including shared assets, benefits and citizenship. To deny these rights to American citizens on the basis of their sexual preferences, they assert, is a violation of rights automatically granted to heterosexual couples. Opponents of same-sex marriage view it as sacrilegious, debasing religious beliefs and the laws of nature, and at odds with the primary marriage function of raising children.

Academic scholarship and research have much to say on the dynamics of the same-sex marriage debate in the public square and within lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities. The following are recent scholarly research papers and studies published from 2010 to April 2013.


“The Future Impact of Same-Sex Marriage: More Questions than Answers”
Hunter, Nan D. Georgetown Law Journal, 2012, Vol. 100, 1855-1879.

Abstract: “The author identifies three questions likely to arise in the relatively near future that will flow, directly or indirectly, from same-sex marriage: First, we may see an increasing uptake by different-sex couples of marriage equivalent and marriage alternative statuses (e.g., domestic partnerships) that have grown out of LGBT rights efforts. If present demographic trends continue, the group of different-sex couples most likely to seek access to these new statuses will be persons middle-aged or older. Second, federal recognition of same-sex marriage, which will occur if the Defense of Marriage Act is invalidated or repealed, could significantly increase the number of same-sex couples who marry. The end of DOMA is also likely to further complicate the law of interstate recognition, as more gay couples have their marriages recognized for federal law purposes, such as tax, but not under state laws that regulate divorce, custody and property division… Lastly, the author questions whether the issue of ‘accidental procreation’ that has become a theme in court decisions related to same-sex marriage may migrate to marriage law more generally.”


“Contact with Gays and Lesbians and Same-Sex Marriage Support: The Moderating Role of Social Context”
Merino, Stephen M. Social Science Research, March 2013. doi: 10.1016/j.ssresearch.2013.02.004.

Abstract: “Empirical research on the contact hypothesis has paid inadequate attention to the broader social and normative context in which contact occurs. Using data from the nationally representative Portraits of American Life Study, I test whether individuals’ core networks moderate the effect of personal contact with gays and lesbians on same-sex marriage attitudes. OLS regression results demonstrate that, though contact is strongly associated with greater support for same-sex marriage, the effect is attenuated for individuals with a higher proportion of religious conservatives in their core network. This moderating effect holds even after controlling for respondents’ religiosity and when the sample is limited to self-identified religious liberals and moderates. Future research on intergroup contact should be attentive to other influences within individuals’ social contexts and examine how the outcomes of contact across a variety of social boundaries are moderated by these social influences.”


“Changing Same-Sex Marriage Attitudes in America from 1988 Through 2010”
Baunach, Dawn Michelle. Public Opinion Quarterly, summer 2012, Vol. 76, 364-378. doi: 10.1093/poq/nfs022.

Abstract: “Many of the characteristics commonly thought to increase opposition to same-sex marriage (including being African American, living in the southern United States, being an evangelical Protestant, and being Republican) are associated with attitudes only in the later years. In 1988, opposition was generally much higher for everyone; most respondents expressed at least some to strong disapproval of same-sex marriage in 1988, which was then reduced for the highly educated, urban residents, and those with less conservative or no religious affiliations… But, by 2010, support for same-sex marriage was much more broad-based, and opposition to same-sex marriage became more localized to specific subgroups — older Americans, southerners, African Americans, evangelical Protestants, and Republicans. The decomposition analysis finds that changing same-sex marriage attitudes are not due to demographic changes in the American population. Rather, the liberalization in same-sex marriage attitudes from 1988 to 2010 is due primarily to a general societal change in attitudes, as is evidenced by the large change in the constant. Taken together, the results suggest that changing attitudes toward same-sex marriage reflect a cultural shift.”


“Legislating Unequal Treatment: An Exploration of Public Policy on Same-Sex Marriage”
Chonody, Jill M.; Smith, Kenneth Scott; Litle; Melanie A. GLBT Family Studies, 2012, Vol. 8, Issue 3, 270-286. doi: 10.1080/1550428X.2012.677238.

Abstract: “Social policy surrounding same-sex marriage has resulted in subsequent changes to public policy. Over the past 15 years, increased discussion surrounding the issue has emerged, inciting the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA). It is particularly salient for social workers to keep abreast of legislation that is impacting vulnerable and disenfranchised populations. Since the social work profession espouses social justice values for those who are oppressed, inclusion of gays and lesbians in this mission must take a higher priority, especially in light of the social capriciousness that has recently emerged. This article provides a history of the policies that have framed the current national debate about same-sex marriage as well as recent judicial and legislative changes. A summary of the social and economic consequences to same-sex marriage bans will be provided along with social work implications.”


“Will Marriage Matter? Effects of Marriage Anticipated by Same-Sex Couples”
Shulman, Julie L.; Gotta, Gabrielle; Green, Robert-Jay. Journal of Family Issues, 2011, Vol. 33, No. 2, 158-181. doi: 10.1177/0192513X11406228.

Abstract: “The current study used an online survey to explore the anticipated impact of legalized marriage on partners in same-sex couples living in California. These data were gathered prior to the California Supreme Court decision in May 2008 legalizing same-sex marriage, which held sway for 5 months before California Proposition 8 eliminating same-sex marriage was passed by a voter referendum. In addition to administering three quantitative measures (Gay and Lesbian Acceptance and Social Support Index, Anticipated Impact of Marriage Scale, and The Couple Satisfaction Index), a qualitative approach to inquiry was used to derive themes in the reported experiences of the study participants. The principal theme emerging from participants’ responses involved a ubiquitous sense of security in all areas of their life, including increased permanence in their couple relationship as well as feeling protected as a unit by the larger society.”


“The Impact of Institutional Discrimination on Psychiatric Disorders in Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Populations: A Prospective Study”
Hatzenbuehler, Mark L.; et al. American Journal of Public Health, March 2010, Vol. 100, Issue 3. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2009.168815.

Findings: “Living in states with discriminatory policies may have pernicious consequences for the mental health of LGB populations.”


“Morality or Equality? Ideological Framing in News Coverage of Gay Marriage Legitimization”
Pan, Po-Lin; Meng, Juan; Zhou, Shuhua. Social Science Journal, September 2010, Vol. 47, Issue 3. doi: 10.1016/j.soscij.2010.02.002.

Findings: “The study used the Massachusetts legitimization of gay marriage as a dividing point to look at what kinds of specific political or social topics related to gay marriage were highlighted in the news media…The results indicated that The New York Times was inclined to emphasize the topic of human equality related to the legitimization of gay marriage. After the legitimization, The New York Times became an activist for gay marriage. Alternatively, the Chicago Tribune highlighted the importance of human morality associated with the gay marriage debate. The perspective of the Chicago Tribune was not dramatically influenced by the legitimization.”


“California’s Ban on Same-Sex Marriage: The Campaign and its Effects on Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Individuals”
Maisel, Natalya; Fingerhut, Adam W. Journal of Social Issues, June 2011, Vol. 67, Issue 2, 242-263. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-4560.2011.01696.x.

Findings: “Participants reported experiencing both negative and positive emotions (e.g., anger, pride) and were particularly ambivalent regarding the effect of Proposition 8 on relationships with friends, family, coworkers, and their intimate partner. The campaign created opportunities for support but also opportunities for stigmatization and conflict.”


“Impact of Marriage Restriction Amendments on Family Members of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Individuals”
, Sharon G.; Rostosky, Sharon Scales; Riggle, Ellen D.B. Journal of Social Issues, June 2011, Vol. 67, Issue 2, 358-375. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-4560.2011.01702.x.

Findings: “Analysis of responses to an open-ended question about feelings about marriage amendments revealed six themes, including concern for the safety and well-being of LGB family members and negative impact on family. Overall, findings suggest that family members may experience increased concern for LGB family members during policy initiatives aimed at LGB individuals.”


“Psychological Distress, Well-being, and Legal Recognition in Same-sex Couple Relationships”
Riggle, Ellen D.B.; Rostosky, Sharon S.; Horne, Sharon G. Journal of Family Psychology, February 2010, Vol. 24, 82-86. doi: 10.1037/a0017942.

Findings: “Participants in a legally recognized relationship reported less internalized homophobia, fewer depressive symptoms, lower levels of stress, and more meaning in their lives than those in committed relationships, even after controlling for other factors.”


Tags: research roundup, gay issues, law

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