COMMENTARY

The Respect for Marriage Act: How This Law Supports the Health and Well-Being of LGBTQ+ Youth

Jonathan Warus, MD

January 18, 2023

Childhood and adolescence are periods of life with rapid growth and development in which the psychosocial factors of one's environment can have a profound effect on health. There is increasing evidence that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can have significant negative effects on long-term health with effects persisting into subsequent generations.

Dr Jonathan Warus

Youth themselves, however, often do not have the voice, ability, or political power to advocate for safe and more supportive environments that are essential to their well-being. Thus, advocacy has been central to the profession of pediatrics since its inception, where providers can partner with their patients, families, and communities to push for changes in the environments in which youth live and grow.2

LGBTQ+ youth are known to be at increased risk for ACEs because of the stress that comes from being part of a minority group and the discrimination they experience by their families, communities, and society at large. These factors within their environments have been shown to be associated with increased rates of anxiety, depression, substance use, sexually transmitted infections, and homelessness.3 

As with other health outcomes that have been linked to the social determinants of health, these disparities are not inevitable and could be greatly improved upon through advocacy and changes in the environments of LGBTQ+ youth.

Marriage equality (the recognition that same-sex couples have the same legal right to marry as opposite-sex couples) has been shown to be not only a political issue, but one that affects health. The debates surrounding marriage equality have contributed to minority stress by questioning the validity of same-sex relationships and assigning them less value relative to opposite-sex relationships.4 In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which federally defined marriage as being legally recognized only between opposite-sex couples.

Individual states then continued the marriage equality debate by passing individual state laws either allowing or prohibiting same-sex marriage. During this time, it was shown that, in states where same-sex marriage was legally prohibited, LGBTQ+ adults reported significantly higher rates of generalized anxiety disorder, alcohol use disorder, any mood disorder, and psychiatric comorbidity when compared with states without a legal ban on same-sex marriage.5

Using data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, it was shown that state policies recognizing same-sex marriage were associated with a 7% relative reduction in suicide attempts reported by adolescent sexual minority students compared with before these policies.6 It was also shown that children with same-sex parents were overall less likely to have private health insurance, but this disparity was improved in states that legally recognized same-sex marriage and allowed second-parent adoptions.7

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that DOMA was unconstitutional, requiring the federal government to legally recognize same-sex marriages for the purposes of federal benefits. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court further ruled that same-sex couples are guaranteed the fundamental right to marry, requiring that all states issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. These rulings were associated with a decrease in reported levels of stigma over time and increased reported levels of family support, particularly for those in same-sex relationships.8

The Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA) was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Biden on Dec. 13, 2022. This law officially repeals DOMA and requires all states and the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages performed in any U.S. state or territory.9

If the U.S. Supreme Court were to overturn the 2015 marriage equality decision, individual state laws ensuring or banning same-sex marriage would again be in effect. However, the RFMA ensures that all states continue to recognize same-sex marriages performed in any U.S. state or territory (even if that state itself bans same-sex marriage). While we do not yet have any studies or data regarding the effect of the RFMA on public health, we can expect positive effects by drawing on the previous evidence on the effect of marriage equality and its effect on the health and well-being of LGBTQ+ individuals. By establishing marriage equality in the United States, our government institutions are affirming the relationships and identities of those in same-sex relationships, with the potential effect of helping to destigmatize the LGBTQ+ community.

Since 2002, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that pediatricians "support the right of every child and family to the financial, psychological, and legal security that results from having legally recognized parents who are committed to each other and to the welfare of their children," acknowledging that "legislative initiatives assuring legal status equivalent to marriage for gay and lesbian partners…can also attend to providing security and permanence for the children of those partnerships."10 While changes in legal marriage equality are likely to have a positive effect on those within the LGBTQ+ community, it should also be understood that this will not solve all of the psychosocial effects and resultant health disparities that these children face.

A recent scoping review highlights that, as the result of marriage equality progress, sexual minority adults have reported increased social acceptance and reduced stigma across individual, community, and societal levels, but that sexual minority stigma continues to persist across all levels.11

As pediatricians, we can continue to support LGBTQ+ patients and parents by providing care in a safe and affirming environment in which families understand and embrace the healthy development of gender identity and sexuality in an open and destigmatized manner. Delivering care using this approach in and of itself can be seen as advocacy to promote health and well-being within minoritized populations. Pediatricians are also encouraged to become engaged in local and national advocacy initiatives to have a broader effect in the fight for health equity in minority populations, including LGBTQ+ families and youth.

Pediatricians should work with their patients, families, and communities to advocate for structural change needed to address the social determinants of health for optimal growth and development.

Dr. Warus is an adolescent medicine physician who specializes in care for transgender and gender-nonconforming youth, and LGBTQ health for youth at Children's Hospital of Los Angeles. He is an assistant professor of pediatrics at University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

Resources:

Bright Futures – Promoting Healthy Development of Sexuality and Gender Identity (Implementation Tip Sheet): https://downloads.aap.org/AAP/PDF/BF_HealthySexualityGenderIdentity_Tipsheet.pdf

Bright Futures – Implementing Social Determinants of Health Into Health Supervision Visits (Implementation Tip Sheet): https://downloads.aap.org/AAP/PDF/Bright%20Futures/BF_IntegrateSDoH_Tipsheet.pdf?_ga=2.214227031.1330574154.1673910248-58875083.1673910248

American Academy of Pediatrics – Advocacy Website: https://www.aap.org/en/advocacy/

References:

1. Hughes K et al. Lancet Public Health. 2017;2(8):e356-66.

2. Camero K and Javier JR. Pediatr Clin N Am. 2023;70:43-51.

3. Lund EM and Burgess CM. Prim Care Clin Office Pract. 2021;48:179-89.

4. Buffie WC. Am J Public Health. 2011;101(6):986-90.

5. Hatzenbuehler ML et al. Am J Public Health. 2010;100:452-9.

6. Raifman J et al. JAMA Pediatr. 2017;171(4):350-6.

7. Gonzales G and Blewett LA. Pediatrics. 2013;132(4):703-11.

8. Ogolsky BG et al. J Fam Psychol. 2019;33(4):422-32.

9. Library of Congress. H.R.8404 – 117th Congress (2021-2022): Respect for Marriage Act. 2022 Dec 13. www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/8404/text.

10. Perrin EC and Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. Pediatrics. 2002;109(2):341-4.

11. Drabble LA et al. PLoS ONE. 2021;16(5):e0249125.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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