By Michael Yudell

Kudos to CNN host Brooke Baldwin, who last week asked Tony Perkins, notorious homophobe and head of the hate-group the Family Research Council, “why do homosexuals bother you so much?

Perkins and his anti-gay and anti-gay marriage bigotry regularly appear on the news networks, and it was nice to see his message undermined and his motives challenged by Baldwin. Media Matters reports that from late 2010 to late 2011 Perkins and others from his group made approximately 52 television appearances on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News to promote their brand of hate. This, no less, in the year following the Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2010 classification of the Family Research Council as a hate group for its anti-gay propaganda.

The council's anti-gay bias is clear, according to law center: it “often makes false claims about the LGBT community based on discredited research and junk science. The intention is to denigrate LGBT people in its battles against same-sex marriage, hate crimes laws and anti-bullying programs.” Never mind that last week Perkins and his group presented its highest honor to the North Carolina pastor who has been in the news recently for comparing gays to maggots and calling for the prosecution of gays and lesbians for their “lifestyle.” Perkins claims that “research is overwhelming that homosexuality poses a risk to children,” that “kids do best with a mom and a dad,” and that “redefining marriage remains outside the mainstream of American politics.”

In fact, Perkins and the other bigots who make these claims do so driven by their ideologies, not by the science they so insistently and mistakenly claim supports them.

For example, the American Psychological Association, the “the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States” whose mission is “to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives,” has debunked anti-gay propaganda related to same-sex parent households. The association makes clear that “there is no scientific basis for concluding that lesbian mothers or gay fathers are unfit parents on the basis of their sexual orientation.” Finally, the psychologists' group tells us “that the development, adjustment, and well-being of children with lesbian and gay parents do not differ markedly from that of children with heterosexual parents.”

So what does all of this have to do with public health? And, in the case of gay marriage, what can the state sanctioning of the union between two men or two women do to advance public health?

The most obvious public health issue is that homophobia is more than just harmful words; its social, economic, and political impact can be devastating to the physical and mental health of gay men and women.

Gay and lesbian youth are particularly vulnerable, in terms of bullying and harassment, depression, and suicide. Surveys have shown, for example, a significantly higher risk of attempted suicide among gay and bisexual men than heterosexual men (28 percent compared to 4 percent). Among women, 20 percent of bisexuals and lesbians have attempted suicide compared to 14 percent of heterosexuals.

Statistics on actual suicides of gay and lesbian teens are impossible to come by because sexuality is not recorded on death certificates, and may not even be known by surviving family members. We do know, however, that suicide attempts by gay and lesbian teenagers are more likely in socially conservative areas where homophobia is not condemned (but perhaps encouraged) and where social support for gay youth is limited or non-existent.

We also know from recent evidence that the state sanctioning of gay marriage can benefit the health of gays and lesbians.

First, it may reduce stress. Studies have shown, for example, that homophobia and anti-gay discrimination can lead to poor health outcomes. Acceptance of gay marriage may lead to a perception of social acceptance that decreases such stress and the resultant poor health outcomes. USA Today reported in December on a study that showed that “during the 12 months after the 2003 legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, there was a significant decrease in medical care visits, mental health visits and mental health-care costs among gay and bisexual men, compared to the 12 months before the law changed.” The study’s lead author, Mark Hatzenbuehler, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, said these “findings suggest that marriage equality may produce broad public health benefits by reducing the occurrence of stress-related health conditions in gay and bisexual men.”

Second, with state sanctioned gay marriage also comes the social and financial benefits of marriage. No longer do gay men and women need to be concerned with hospital visitation rights, rights to their husband’s or wife’s health insurance, and the legal rights afforded to spouses. These changes not only help reduce stress, help individuals gain access to health insurance and health care, but they also foster familial bonds and help those outside of gay communities recognize the basic needs and dignity of homosexual men and women.

President Obama’s recent embrace of gay marriage will likely continue to move the country in the right direction on this issue, and may even help the public’s health. This will be an ongoing battle. The recent repudiation of gay marriage in North Carolina is indicative of a still powerful anti-gay marriage sentiment among some segments of the population. But this will change too. The Tony Perkins of the world will always be around, but even in the face of anti-gay rhetoric, we seem to be moving in the right direction.

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