A landmark Supreme Court ruling may have granted new legal benefits to same-sex couples this week, but researchers say the gay-rights marriage decision could be a big boon to their health as well.
Like heterosexuals in happy marriages who enjoy less stress, less disease and longer lives, gays and lesbians whose unions must now be recognized by federal officials in 12 states and the District of Columbia could see the mental and physical perks of legally tying the knot, said Richard Wight, a University of California, Los Angeles public health researcher.
“I think it has the potential to improve the health of thousands and thousands of individuals in California and around the nation,” said Wight. “By offering sexual minority people access to marriage, it gives them options. They have the option of being in a legally recognized marriage and getting all the benefits that go along with that.”
More than 605,000 same-sex couples live together in the U.S., according to Census figures.
That makes sense to Jeffrey Correa and J-P Correa, who married in California in 2008, two days before the passing of Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage.
“We recognize that we have a variety of health benefits because of our marriage,” said Jeffrey Correa, 39, development director for Freedom to Marry, an advocacy group. “I would expand it beyond physical health to include mental health. Being in a healthy relationship, particularly one that is not stigmatized, is good for one’s emotional health.”
The justices on Wednesday ruled that the nation’s Defense of Marriage Act – known as DOMA – was unconstitutional because it barred same-sex spouses from access to more than 1,100 federal programs and privileges. They also ruled that the plaintiffs in the case of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California, did not have the legal standing to bring that suit. That is expected to pave the way for resumption of gay and lesbian marriages in the Golden State in July.
Research long has shown that spouses in happy traditional marriages enjoy better health, including less stress, lower rates of ailments such as cancer and heart disease, and even longer lives than their single counterparts.
Late last year, Wight published a study in the American Journal of Public Health that showed that legal marriage among same-sex couples may confer the same benefits as well. An analysis of mental health among nearly 37,000 gay, lesbian, bisexual and heterosexual respondents to the California Health Interview Survey was quite clear.
“We found that people who were in any type of legal relationship were better off in terms of their mental health than those who were not,” Wight said.
Having a legally recognized marriage appears to boost health in several ways, Wight said. It gives spouses a sense of purpose in life, it offers the social and community support that comes with an approved relationship and it provides legal and financial benefits such as increased income and access to health insurance and medical care.
“It’s as simple as being able to go to the doctor when we’re sick,” said Jeffrey Correa. He and J-P Correa, 49, a director of merchandising, e-commerce and travel for Giorgio Armani, moved to New York two years ago.
Under the new Supreme Court ruling, the benefits will increase in unexpected ways. For instance, same-sex couples who are married and have a spouse on their employer-sponsored health insurance plans will no longer have to pay federal income tax on those benefits, Jeffrey Correa noted.
Mostly, though, legal recognition of marriage provides something intangible but vitally important, said Corrie Sharp, 37, of San Diego, Calif., who married Jennifer Tom, 34, last September.
“It has always been in the back of our minds, we’re riding this marriage roller coaster," Sharp said.
Now, with federal mandates in place and same-sex marriage poised to resume in California, the pair are free to enjoy all the benefits of marriage, including good health.
“Everything is now validated,” she said. “There are no more questions for us to live happily ever after.”