How Marriage Equality Can Save Lives

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Obviously, there shouldn't be any sort of "discussion" around marriage equality — everyone should have the right to marry. But this very commonsense point hasn't stopped people from assuming that the issue of marriage equality is still up for debate, both culturally and legally. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court decided Obergefell v. Hodges in June 2015, local governments still regularly challenge the ruling, and cultural commentators still often weigh in on the issue.

What's often overlooked when people seek to defend or decry marriage equality, however, is that it can have a positive impact not just on adults looking to marry, but on the next generation. And a new study released in the Journal of the American Medical Association of Pediatrics appears to show that marriage equality laws can seriously help fight distress and increase future happiness for LGBTQ adolescents.

If you want to understand the distress experienced by LGBTQ adolescents in the US, look at the high risk of suicidal behavior among LGBTQ teens — one study by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center reported that lesbian, gay, and bisexual teens were "nearly one and a half to three times more likely to have reported suicidal ideation" that teens who identified as heterosexual, and "nearly one and a half to seven times more likely than non-LGB youth to have reported attempting suicide." This makes what the researchers behind this new study have to say about what marriage equality laws symbolize to LGBTQ teens vital. It turns out, marriage equality laws don't just help adults protect themselves, their families, and their finances — they can help young people protect their lives.

Why LGBTQ Teens Are At High Risk

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The pressures of adolescence are high, no matter your sexuality: dating, hormones, fitting in socially, and handling academic obligations can take a serious toll on their own. Being LGBTQ in the US, however, ramps up the stakes significantly. LGBTQ youth face obstacles directly related to discrimination, from social isolation and violence to family rejection; the True Colors Fund estimates that across the US, 1.6 million LGBTQ youth are homeless every year.

The result is a significant increase in psychological distress, which translates directly into higher rates of suicide. The Trevor Project notes that lesbian, gay and queer teens are four times more likely than heterosexual ones to attempt suicide, and that a nationwide survey found that 92 percent of transgender people said they'd made at least one suicide attempt before the age of 25. More than 30 percent of LGBTQ adolescents reported a suicide attempt in the last year.

It's important to note what suicide attempts actually mean: they can be a sign that the attempting person is focused on actually ending their life, a sign of depression so severe that the attempting person feels it can only be alleviated by death, or a sign of such acute psychological distress that there seems to be no other way of showing the seriousness of their distress. (No, despite the insensitive myth, there is not category of suicide attempt that is just about "getting attention.") Whether or not an attempt is successful, it reveals a personal crisis, and the fact that such crises happen more commonly in LGBTQ youth isn't a coincidence.

How Marriage Equality Laws Impact LGBTQ Youth

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The data used by the scientists in the new study was extremely significant for several reasons. One was that it covered a huge variety of adolescents: 762, 678 teens across 47 states, surveyed between 1999 and 2015. Some of those teens noted their sexual orientation and some didn't, but all were asked whether or not they'd attempted suicide in the past. The study itself was also incredibly rigorous, with a long study period and various adjustments for other health factors that could influence suicide attempt numbers.

Before same-sex marriage policies were introduced across various states, the suicide rates were pretty flat: "a weighted 8.6 percent of all high school students and 28.5 percent of students who were sexual minorities reported 1 or more suicide attempts within the past year." (Just drink that in for a second. Over a quarter of all the surveyed teens who were sexual minorities reported attempting suicide at least once in the past 12 months.)

After same-sex marriage laws were created, however, the scientists saw a statistically significant decline in the amount of teen suicide attempts among sexual minorities: a 14 percent drop, to be exact, as well as a 7 percent drop in teens overall. And the drop continued after the laws were introduced, indicating that the effects lasted and that the cultural backlash to these laws in some places didn't "worsen mental health outcomes." The researchers estimated that every year, same-sex marriage laws reduced the amount of teen suicide attempts by 134 000. Yes, that's annually.

The scientists noted that they didn't look at factors like socioeconomic status, so there could be other factors at work; cause and effect is rarely as simple as it initially seems.

But there seems to be a link, and if you're interested in the health of queer adolescents, that's an incredibly important thing to know.

It's a study that highlights something that's often left out of considerations of same-sex marriages: how they'll affect young people — and no, not "the children" who need to be "protected from the gay lifestyle" (please). A state that allows gay partners to be married, with the recognitions and legal protections that endows, sends the message that queer youth can expect to have the same rights as their heterosexual peers when they grow up — and that LGBTQ love is joyous and celebratory, not illegitimate. This is a message often keenly needed by teens, as the high suicide attempt rate indicates; the It Gets Better campaign, spearheaded by Dan Savage a few years ago, was expressly targeted towards assuring LGBTQ youth that beyond adolescence was a world of potential fulfillment and acceptance. So while marriage equality is far from the end of the struggle for LGBTQ rights, it's more than just a victory that allows adults to secure legal rights; it's also one that helps keep LGBTQ adolescents alive and hopeful.

Why This Still Doesn't Fix Everything

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When they first set out to analyze the data, the researchers themselves wondered if the consequences of legalizing same-sex marriage — particularly for teens in families or peer environments where there was a lot of opposition and bigotry — could actually be quite dangerous or counterproductive:

"Increased visibility of sexual minorities accompanying same-sex marriage could lead to rejection in hostile family environments and brings the potential for political and social backlash. The increased resources devoted to the efforts to legalize same-sex marriage may also detract from the resources devoted to serving youth who are sexual minorities."

Their data didn't reflect that, but it's definitely something to keep in mind. Marriage equality isn't a panacea for all the ills faced by LGBTQ people in America, and the fact that it appears to act as a beacon of hope for young people is a bonus but not a complete solution (many of those young people are also struggling with basic survival issues, like homelessness). There's still a long way to go for us to achieve equality as a community, from protecting young trans people to installing laws across the US that explicitly protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. But in the meantime: it's good to see that it does get better.