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An unusual debate about love

Australia gets a vote on my relationship

Marriage equality in Australia (image: Pixabay)

If you’re not hooked in to Australian politics, you might be surprised that Australia is yet to embrace marriage equality for same-sex couples. Gay marriage is not a thing in Australia.

This has been an issue that has been rumbling along for a number of years. In the latest development, the Australian government (against the wishes of the LGBT community) have decided to put the question to a vote by the Australian electorate.

A popular vote on marriage equality was a process that seemed to work pretty well in Ireland, but the Australian approach is slightly different. This will be a postal vote, conducted outside the normal voting processes. Voters have been posted a ballot paper and are asked to answer the question:

“Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?”

Voters are able to answer Yes or No. It’s not compulsory to return the ballot.

The ballot forms have been distributed, and voting is currently underway. We’ll know the outcome of that vote on 15 November 2017.

The results of the postal vote aren’t binding in any way on the government, but if the result is a majority for Yes, then it’s expected that the legislation required for marriage equality could be passed by the Australian parliament before the end of 2017. If the result is a majority for No, then there won’t be a vote by parliament, nothing will change, and it’s likely that marriage equality will be off the agenda for the foreseeable future.

By all accounts, the campaigning around this postal vote has brought to the surface divisions and differences of opinion within Australia — divisions and differences of opinion that a lot of people seem to have been unaware of. The latest polling suggests that the Yes vote will probably win, but there is a lot of support for the No vote and anything is possible.

Although I live in the UK, I’ve got an emotional stake in this process — I’m from Australia, and my immediate family are all in Australia. I don’t get to vote on this however as I’m no longer on the Australian electoral roll.

I’ve got an emotional stake in the process and in the outcome, but I’m struggling to work out how to talk about the marriage equality vote with my family. The only person who’s mentioned it so far is my father — we agreed that the whole process was a farce, but I was reluctant to ask him how he intended to vote. I imagine he’ll vote No – he’s a socially-conservative man who takes his religion seriously. My mother hasn’t mentioned the vote, although when we caught up a couple of months ago we had a tense conversation regarding the legacy of tennis player Margaret Court (who’s vehemently anti gay marriage) – my mother feels that whatever you think of Margaret Court now, we shouldn’t forget that she was a very good tennis player. My sister and brother are both busy with their families, their jobs, their lives — the topic of gay marriage hasn’t come up. I imagine that they’ll both vote Yes, but they may just be too busy to get around to voting.

I feel like a bad gay. I know I should be engaging with them all on this, I know I should be ensuring that they’re aware of how important this issue is to me and everyone within the LGBT community. I know I should be ensuring that they vote, and that they vote Yes.

It seems crazy that something that, to me, is so basic and obvious and a no-brainer needs to be hashed out through this kind of public vote process. Since when did the status of my relationship need to be put to a public vote? Since when does the rest of the world get a say in how I define my love?

If you take religious considerations out of the debate for a moment, the argument against gay marriage is that marriage is between a man and a woman and that to introduce any variations into that would be a slippery slope that would quickly lead to the destruction of society as we know it.

Even if you feel that this might be a valid concern, there’s a lot of countries around the world that have decided that it’s worth taking that risk and don’t seem to be any worse off because of it. You’d wonder why Australia is so particularly fragile and vulnerable that it couldn’t cope with recognising that families come in lots of different shapes and sizes.

A couple of years ago, when marriage equality was a big discussion point in the US, a study was conducted in the state of Massachusetts. The study tracked a population of gay men in the 12 months before and the 12 months after the legalisation of same-sex marriage in that state (this was before the US Supreme Court decision that enshrined marriage equality in all states of that country).

At the time, I spoke with Dr Qazi Rahman, assistant professor in cognitive biology at London’s Queen Mary University to try and understand what the results of the study meant. Reading back over that interview, it reminded me that marriage equality isn’t just about doing what’s ‘right’ or advocating against inequality or discrimination — there’s health and economic benefits that make the case for marriage equality fairly compelling.

I’m re-posting my interview with Dr Qazi Rahman below, just in case you’re interested:

In simple terms, why is this study good news?

What this study found is that in the 12 months after gay marriage was legalised in Massachusetts where these men lived, they were significantly less likely to have a whole range of health problems.

But it’s not just Massachusetts, we are seeing evidence that in those US states that legalised same-sex marriage before they were forced to by the Supreme Court, gay men and lesbians have significantly better health outcomes than in those states that didn’t have legalised same-sex marriage.

To put some quantum around this, the evidence suggests that having state sanctioned same-sex marriage would reduce health problems in gay men and lesbians by about 20%.

“…the evidence suggests that having state sanctioned same-sex marriage would reduce health problems in gay men and lesbians by about 20%.”

When we talk about health outcomes — what does this actually mean?

The focus of health initiatives, particularly for gay men, concentrates a lot on sexual health, but this really is just the tip of the iceberg.

The big thing is mental health and well being — this includes substance abuse and addiction as well as psychological problems and suicide. Adding to this complexity is groups such as younger or older gay men and lesbians where there is very little information to work with.

Given that gay men and lesbians are a relatively small proportion of the population, why do policy makers need to focus on the health outcomes of this group?

Let’s look at some facts: Gay men and lesbians are something like two to three times more likely to suffer from the entire range of psychiatric problems — including depression; anxiety; panic; substance abuse; and suicide. In the US, one-in-10 LGBT youth are homeless (twice the rate of straight homelessness). A further complicating factor is the sometimes difficult relationship that gay men and lesbians have had with health services — for example up until 1973 homosexuality was classified as a psychiatric illness.

So even though gay men and lesbians are a relatively small part of the population, their health issues are significant and the impact on the health system is quite big.

What might be causing these higher rates of health issues for gay men and lesbians?

It’s old news that we know that there is a problem, but we don’t know much about what are the causes.

One really important thing is that this research is not saying that being gay makes you mentally ill. What we’re seeing is that gay men and lesbians have a unique set of challenges and a stressful social environment which causes mental health problems.

There is likely to be some influence from biology, but by far the biggest factor is social factors. There’s the obvious things such as generic discrimination and victimisation, but there is also a school of thought referred to as the Minority Stress Hypothesis.

The thinking behind the Minority Stress Hypothesis is that minorities experience internalised stress — you expect to be rejected; you expect to be attacked; you have to conceal your sexuality — this internalised stress in itself causes increased likelihood of mental health problems.

So any sort of minority group could be experiencing mental health issues higher than the norm?

That’s correct, minorities are likely be more negatively impacted by ‘micro aggressions’ — small, everyday occurrences that in the scheme of things may not seem material, but if you are already feeling vulnerable could have a disproportionately negative impact on an individual.

The impact may be exacerbated for gay men and lesbians as they are really the only true biological minority in the world — nowhere on earth are gay men and lesbians a majority. This may be one explanation for why gay men and lesbians will often move to larger cities, that they are seeking a greater sense of community or cohesion, trying to be less of a minority.

How does this relate to the Massachusetts study? Why would legalising same sex marriage have a positive health impact in this context?

Legalisation of same sex marriage sends a clear social signal — that same sex marriage has the same moral worth as straight marriage.

Following the logic of the Minority Stress Hypothesis, even if you’re not wanting to get married yourself you will still feel a positive benefit from such a public statement of moral worth and equality.

“…even if you’re not wanting to get married yourself you will still feel a positive benefit…”

We are seeing research from the US, the UK, Europe and Australia that demonstrates the cumulative benefits of advances in equality legislation — gay men and lesbians will have better health outcomes in those countries that have more advanced equality legislation.

“…gay men and lesbians will have better health outcomes in those countries that have more advanced equality legislation.”

As a sidebar, there is also an element to the research that suggests that there are some unexpected benefits to being a gay man or lesbian. Gay men and lesbians tend to show higher rates of resilience and psychological flexibility or coping mechanisms.

What does this research mean for the way that policy makers approach the health of gay men and lesbians?

One thing that we do know is that public policy matters — and that the science on this matters — studying the science of intervention is important. It matters in the sense that you are potentially saving lives — particularly of those LGBT youth who may be thinking about suicide.

What’s really important from a scientific perspective is to measure things such as potential health benefits in a really concrete way so that policy makers can be informed about the potential costs and benefits of decisions.

From a clinical perspective we also need to think about the types of health interventions we are undertaking — tailoring psychotherapy educational initiatives in schools in a way that creates a socially supportive environment for LGBT youth and encourages resilience and coping mechanisms.

You can’t assume that everyone is the same — you have to accept and study diversity — then you can make an impact on wellbeing.

Whatever the outcome of the vote in Australia, it doesn’t really change anything for me in the short-term. I love my boyfriend, but I don’t have any immediate plans to get married — I’m an old-school gay and I feel a bit uncomfortable about heteronormativity.

But the outcome of the vote is a huge deal for LGBT people in Australia. It sends an incredibly important signal about value, worth, and how the community around you feels about you.

I just need to pluck up the courage to have that conversation with my family.

Read more from Gareth Johnson

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