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Could Legalizing Gay Marriage Improve Health? Cohabiting Gays Report Worse Health Than Married Heterosexuals

Update Date: Feb 27, 2013 12:45 PM EST

The benefits of marriage don't apply to cohabitating gay couples, according to a new study.

Previous studies have found married people experience greater mental and physical health and are less likely to develop chronic conditions compared to single, widowed or divorced people.

However, the new study, published in the March edition of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, found that married heterosexual couples are healthier than people in same0sex relationships who live together.

Researchers said that the latest findings, which are independent of socioeconomic status, could lend support to advocates of gay marriage.

"Past research has shown that married people are generally healthier than unmarried people," lead author Hui Liu, an assistant professor of sociology at Michigan State University, said in a journal release.

"Although our study did not specifically test the health consequences of legalizing same-sex marriage, it's very plausible that legalization of gay marriage would reduce health disparities between same-sex cohabitors and married heterosexuals," he added.

The latest study compared self-rated health reports of 1,659 same-sex cohabiting men and 1,634 same-sex cohabiting women with that of their different-sex married, different-sex cohabiting, un-partnered divorced, widowed, and never-married counterparts.

Researchers said that the study consisted of white, black and Hispanic nationally representative adults between the ages of 18 and 65. 

Participants rated their overall health as excellent, very good, good, fair or poor. Researchers divided the participants into two groups: participants who reported excellent, very good or good overall health and those who reported fair or poor overall health.

"When we controlled for socioeconomic status, the odds of reporting poor or fair health were about 61 percent higher for same-sex cohabiting men than for men in heterosexual marriages and the odds of reporting poor or fair health were about 46 percent higher for same-sex cohabiting women than for women in heterosexual marriages," Liu explained.

Liu said that there could several reasons for this discrepancy in self reported health. She explained that past research consistently suggests that "out" sexual minorities experience more stress and higher levels of discrimination, which may negatively affect their health.

"It may also be that same-sex cohabitation does not provide the same psychosocial, socioeconomic, and institutional resources that come with legal marriage, factors that are theorized to be responsible for many of the health benefits of marriage," she added.

Based on the latest findings, researchers suggest that providing same-sex cohabitors the option to marry would improve their measures of self-rated health because they would experience higher levels of acceptance and lower levels of stigma.

"Legalizing same-sex marriage could also provide other advantages often associated with heterosexual marriage -- such as partner health insurance benefits and the ability to file joint tax returns -- that may directly and indirectly influence the health of individuals in same-sex unions," Liu added.

Interestingly, researchers found that gay people living together reported better health than heterosexual people living together and heterosexual singles.  However, researchers noted that these differences were fully explained by socioeconomic status.

"Without their socioeconomic status advantages, same-sex cohabitors would generally report similar levels of health as their divorced, widowed, never-married, and different-sex cohabiting counterparts," Liu said.

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