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Formerly St. Louis Center for Family Development
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Love is Love, and Family is Family: Reflecting on LGBTQIA+ Family Rights and Mental Health

June is Pride month, an opportunity to reflect on the advancement and achievements of the LGBTQIA+ community over the past few decades. Major strides in public opinion and policy have not only improved the definition of family, but also produced a positive effect on mental health. Both are truly reasons to celebrate!

The Passage of Marriage Equality

In 2000, the LGBTQIA+ community began to see a steady change of policy at the legislative level when the state of Vermont established the right for same-sex couples to enter into legal civil unions. In the following decade, various states made same-sex marriage legal via court ruling or legislation, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Iowa, which led to LGBTQIA+ couples traveling to these destinations to get married. Then, in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which had previously declared gay and lesbian couples were not recognized by federal law. In June of 2015, the Supreme Court finally declared same-sex marriage a constitutional right nationwide!

These changing policies have had a profound effect on individuals and the LGBTQIA+ family unit. Studies before and after the passage of the 2015 Marriage Equality Act showed that marriage carried with it an array of moral, economic and social support that strongly affected mental health. For example, one study by Columbia University found that living in a U.S. state where same-sex marriage was outlawed was directly related to chronic stress and psychological problems, and that these issues extended both to LGBTQIA+ individuals and their friends and families.

Amazingly, after the act was passed, a study found there was a reduction in depression and similar conditions in the LGBTQIA+ population, and a 17-year study found LGBTQIA+ teens were less likely to attempt suicide after the state in which they lived legalized same-sex marriage.

The LGBTQIA+ Family and Parenting

Marriage equality is a hugely important component to the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community and how it affects the family unit, but there is another topic that has gained far less press: parenting rights.

While public discussion still often defaults to the notion of a family as a married heterosexual couple with biological children, Census Bureau data shows that fewer than a quarter of modern U.S. households actually fit that description. Furthermore, the ACLU estimates that between six and 14 million children are being raised by at least one lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender parent, and these families live in 96 percent of counties in the U.S.

The route to parenthood for LGBTQIA+ individuals and couples can come from many directions, such as from a heterosexual union, foster care, adoption, the care of relatives, surrogacy, donor insemination, or shared parenting in custody agreements. But gaps in parenting law have historically prevented two members of a same-sex couple being legally recognized as a child’s parents. However, recent laws have sought to close these gaps. One example is second-parent adoption, which allows a parent to adopt his or her partner’s child, regardless of whether the couple’s relationship is legally recognized, without terminating the first parent’s legal status.

Children in LGBTQIA+ families are now being protected by many policies and practices that heterosexual couples have long taken for granted. Consider a child who may go without health insurance because the main breadwinner in the family is not legally recognized as a parent — in that case, advancements in LGBTQIA+ rights could have a direct effect on the child’s health! Other examples include: parents’ medical decision-making abilities; a family’s ability to vacation across state lines; access to government aid and safety net programs; a parent retaining custody of children after divorce or the death of the other parent; child tax credits; and eligibility for Social Security survivor benefits and inheritance.

In many ways, legal recognition of the LGBTQIA+ family unit and changes to parenting laws are enhancing these families’ ability to thrive.

Adoption by LGBTQIA+ Parents

The acceptance of LGBTQIA+ individuals as parents is important for the children they are already raising, as well as children currently awaiting forever homes all across the country. The ACLU estimates that 500,000 children are currently in the foster care system, with more than 100,000 awaiting adoption.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association, the research is clear: the quality of the parent-child relationship is what affects a child’s mental health, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Home environments with lesbian and gay parents are as likely to successfully support a child’s development as a home with heterosexual parents. In fact, there’s some evidence that children raised by individuals in the LGBTQIA+ community are more accepting of diversity, and the Family Acceptance project at the César E. Chávez Institute at San Francisco State University has found that children raised by lesbian parents show higher levels of social, academic and overall competence with fewer behavioral problems. Not to mention that lesbian co-mothers have been found to share family responsibilities more equally than heterosexual parents.

Continuing to change policy to support adoption by LGBTQIA+ families would make it possible for the many children languishing in the U.S. foster care system to find a loving family.

The Importance of Family Support

While public policy has made major strides in keeping up with the constantly evolving reality of the American family, there continues to be discrimination and stigma.

Policies are frequently the responsibility of state government, which means there is variation from state to state, and there are still many states in which the law makes discrimination against LGBTQIA+ families all too easy. And federal law still does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in the employment, housing, and service fields, and fewer than half of the states outline clear protections for LGBTQIA+ people in those areas.

To help put an end the stigma, it’s just as important that LGBTQIA+ individuals receive support in the home as at the legislative level. Research has continually shown that, in general, families contribute hugely to a person’s mental health and well-being. Additionally, LGBTQIA+ individuals who are supported by their families during adolescence are less likely to report experiencing depression, attempting suicide, or using illegal drugs, and are more likely to report higher self-esteem.

It’s clear that support in the home is vital to an LGBTQIA+ individual’s ability to thrive!

5 Ways to Support an LGBTQIA+ Relative or Friend:

  1. Demonstrate acceptance through engaging in conversation that includes their friends and activities.
  2. Attend events with them, such as a local Pride parade or social activity.
  3. Reduce the stigma and shame by being open with friends and family; don’t purposely hide their identity, unless that is his or her request.
  4. Educate yourself and use the correct terminology, including your loved one’s preferred pronouns.
  5. Accept your loved one unconditionally for who they are and who they love.

Local Sources for Support

At Sparlin Mental Health, we are proud to have served members of the LGBTQIA+ community for nearly 10 years. Our licensed therapists are trained to support people experiencing a variety of issues, including depression, anxiety and trauma. Additionally, the following is a list of other support resources for LGBTQIA+ families.