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Is same-sex marriage an adequate response to queer youth suicide?

By Rob Cover - posted Wednesday, 22 August 2012


Much of the current debate on same-sex marriage in Australia has focused either on political expedience and legislative passage, on whether or not marriage is a 'right' for all regardless of genders, or on how it might affect traditional and Christianity-derived notions of marriage as an inherently heterosexual institution.

More recently, however, there has been some deliberation on the relationship between same-sex marriage and health outcomes for younger GLBTIQ persons.

In my recent book, Queer Youth Suicide, Culture and Identity (Ashgate, 2012) I made several points critical of GLBT politics' recent focus on campaigning for same-sex marriage legislation rather than directing resources to the more urgent life-and-death issue of youth suicide risk which remains comparatively high in contrast to heterosexual youth.

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An article on Western Australia's suicide rate in the Sydney Morning Herald quoted this work as an argument in opposition to same-sex marriage generally although of course the relationship between suicide prevention and same-sex marriage is more complex than simply for-or-against.

Most recently, Amanda Villis and Danielle Hewitt from Doctors for Marriage Equality argued in On Line Opinion that there were indeed health benefits from legislating for same-sex marriage for GLBTIQ adults. Rightly, they pointed out that there is no evidence same-sex marriage is harmful to heterosexual marriages, and that accepting marriage as a right for all persons has significant benefits.

However, it remains the case that the relationship between the legalisation of marriage and GLBTIQ youth health and wellbeing is more complex and it is important not to assume that legislative amendment leads directly by itself to a reduction in youth suicidality.

While the actual rate of GLBTIQ youth suicide and self-harm is not fully known (as sexuality can often remain hidden and as not all suicide attempts are disclosed) it has not dropped significantly despite a whole host of other legislative changes and protections, from de-criminalisation of homosexuality, to anti-vilification laws, to institutional anti-discrimination policies in schools and youth recreational organisations.

Rather, a range of changes are needed that work in conjunction with each other, from the prevention of bullying to stronger media portrayal of diverse GLBTIQ persons in mainstream film and television.

That is, same-sex marriage may have many benefits for GLBTIQ adults and for reducing discrimination among them, but it should not be considered a "magic bullet" with which we'll solve queer youth suicide.

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MARRIAGE BENEFITS: PRO AND CON

Youth do benefit from same-sex marriage as an added legitimation of alternative sexualities. Legislating for same-sex marriage rights sends a clear message that politicians see GLBTIQ persons as 'normal'. It helps to disavow discrimination (e.g., in finding rental properties, in day-to-day life), and it can aid in reducing the sense of not-being-quite-socially-normative.

Villis and Hewitt rightly refer to evidence that in several US states with same-sex marriage legislation (and other GLBT-friendly programmes), there have been known population health improvements among non-heterosexual persons indicating a correlation, although a correlation does not necessarily indicate a cause-and-effect chain.

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About the Author

Dr Rob Cover is Associate Professor in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at The University of Western Australia where he researches and publishes on digital media theory, youth suicide and cultural studies. His recent book is Queer Youth Suicide, Culture and Identity (Ashgate 2012) and his work on GLBTIQ youth suicide and self-harm has appeared in a number of scholarly journals, including Reconstruction.

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