Legalizing Hope: LGBTQ Aspirations, Mental Health, and Social Policy


Growing up we’re told to dream big– to envision our ideal future selves so that one day we can turn those reveries into reality. Such forward thinking cultivates hope and helps propel us through life’s darkest chapters, and yet actualizing certain dreams can be harder for some than for others. What happens to people whose wants and desires are made wholly impossible by the world they live in? What happens to those individuals whose aspirations are held hostage within courthouses? Or hinge upon a legislator’s pen?

These are the questions that informed the recent research of SexLab Director José Bauermeister. Using data from a national cross-sectional web survey of young sexual minority men (N=1,487, ages 18-24), he sought to investigate whether or not the relationship between participants’ fatherhood aspirations and their psychological well-being was being shaped by statewide LGB discriminatory policies. More specifically, he examined how the presence or absence of state marriage equality bans, same-sex joint adoption bans and second parent adoption bans influenced the connections between fatherhood aspirations, depressive symptoms, and self-esteem. Overall, young sexual minority men who aspired to be fathers and lived in states without same-sex marriage or adoption bans reported greater psychological well-being than those living in states with these bans in place. The fatherhood aspirations of participants living in states with restrictions on same-sex marriage and adoption had no protective effect and, in fact, actually became associated with markers of psychological distress, such as symptoms of depression or anxiety. These findings indicate that young sexual minority men who have no legal recourse to carry out their parental ambitions may see their hopes turn into hopelessness—their dreams weighing down their spirits rather than lifting them up. While there is substantial evidence that social policies affect health, this study provides further evidence on how LGBTQ-specific policies affect the well-being of our communities.

Across the United States, policy-makers are introducing new bills that would either limit or expand the rights of LGBTQ individuals, but these bills rarely consider their impact on health. In February for example, Arizona ignited a national outcry when controversial Senate Bill 1062 passed in the largely Republican led state legislature. The measure would have allowed businesses to deny certain customers, and LGBTQ folk in particular, services based on religious grounds. Although the bill was vetoed by Governor Jan Brewer on February 26th, similar bills remain undecided in Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, Oregon, and Utah. If passed, this sort of legislation could essentially legalize religious bigotry and further exacerbate the vulnerability of LGBTQ communities living in these states. Simply reaching for your partner’s hand in a crowded restaurant or exhibiting some non-normative gender flair while shopping in these states may become lofty dreams rather than crucial human rights, and what then? What impact would this discrimination have on LGBTQ mental health? What untold psychological violence would these policies unleash?  Despite these looming threats, the corporate and grassroots mobilization that rallied against senate bill 1062 promises that similar measures will have an uphill battle getting signed into law. But while some aspirations are jeopardized in Congress, others are given renewed promise.

Last Friday U.S. District Court Judge Bernard Friedman struck down Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage and adoption, deeming both unconstitutional.  Despite the stay issued on the ruling, on Saturday hundreds of marriage licenses were issued to same-sex couples through special accommodations. When I first heard about the ruling, I shrugged it off as immaterial. I thought surely our state government would repeal and we’d back to where we started. Hours later as I was walking home I felt earth shift ever so slightly. I felt the stirrings of a dream that had been dead for longer than I realized—the dream to start a family close to my own. In writing this post and seeing this ruling unfold, I came to appreciate the true force that policy can have within our community—it can resuscitate the aspirations long ago buried in our hearts, giving our dreams the chance to finally become reality.


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