Recent research from Harvard and Johns Hopkins links the presence of state marriage equality with reductions in suicide attempts among adolescents. The effect was particularly strong among adolescents who reported they were gay, lesbian, bisexual or unsure. LGBTQ communities have long debated the merits of marriage equality as a sign of acceptance or as a loss of more radical rethinking of relationships. How though could adopting marriage policies reduce reported suicide attempts?
A substantial body of research tells us that when policies treat people as less valuable, there is a cost to health. Having supportive family members, trusted adults who care, gay-straight alliances and a place of worship that affirms you can all help protect against broader messages of being less valuable. Equality in policies can help young people more easily visualize a future. It sends a message that we are part of the state and treated as equals. This is why I loved the “It Gets Better” campaign of YouTube videos and TV shows like “Glee,” “Modern Family,” “Transamerica” and even “Orange Is the New Black.” Each helps us visualize some of the many ways a queer life can beautifully unfold across a lifetime. Policies like marriage equality and positive recognition in the media help show a possible and positive future. They counteract generations of criminalization, medical attempts to “cure” us, sermons of sin and a media that rendered us invisible, or at best sad and lonely (if not being murdered or committing suicide).
Social science research shows that when one believes the negative messages told about our communities, it makes it hard to believe in ourselves and harder to see a future worth investing in. Growing up is hard, but it’s harder without a light at the end of the tunnel. Affirming our communities’ humanity through policies is one way to show that light, and I think is likely one of the reasons the study found such an impressive association between marriage equality and reductions in suicide attempts.
This is also why House Bill 2, which ignores identity and expression in favor of sex assigned at birth, is so mean spirited. It creates a lie about who is on the receiving end of violence and harassment. It resurrects unfounded fears of difference. It reinforces the exact opposite messages of marriage equality: You are different, feared and the state sees no future for you. It’s clear to everyone who pays attention to scientific methods that House Bill 2 doesn’t make anyone safer; it isn’t even that enforceable. It alienates and removes some of the light at the end of the tunnel of discrimination for the transgender, genderqueer and gender non-conforming members of our families. But, it is effective. Maybe not effective for keeping jobs in the state or for improving the state’s reputation, but it’s effective at providing people something to fear. Historians have long documented the “benefits” of picking a marginalized, often minority group and turning them into a threat. Creating a group to fear can help consolidate power and focus attention away from other policy changes. This approach works best under certain conditions. Economic troubles for the majority and a target group that has been doing better or becoming more visible provide an opening.
With a state legislature intent upon snuffing out hopes for non-discrimination and any expression that is not neatly Johnny in blue and Susie in pink, there will continue to be consequences to the wellbeing of our LGBTQ communities. We can expect to see worse health. But, we can also lessen the effects of House Bill 2 and discrimination on our communities’ health. Efforts to strengthen our LGBTQ community centers, festivals, traditions and to provide support to each other matter. Even as our communities and allies work to repeal House Bill 2, illuminating visions of a bright future for LGBTQ youth are required. Highlighting the beautiful diversity of gender expression and joy across that spectrum is critical in our state. So, too, is linking with our allies to show our humanity and work against political forces in the state legislature that seek turn members of our community into things to fear.
info: Dr. Joseph Lee leads the East Carolina University LGBTQ Health Promotion Team and is an assistant professor of Health Education and Promotion. He is from Madison County, North Carolina.