The Political is Psychoanalytic: On Same-Sex Marriage

Mark J Blechner PhD. Studies in Gender and Sexuality. Volume 9, Issue 2. April-June 2008.

The political is psychoanalytic. A psychoanalyst cannot adequately address the mental health issues of stigmatized people without also taking a stand against discrimination and bigotry in society, as Harry Stack Sullivan showed us in word and deed (Perry, 1982; Blechner, 2005a; Wake, 2005). Some people argue that same-sex marriage is a legal, political, and economic issue but not a topic for psychoanalysis. They are wrong on two points:

1. Psychoanalysis as a treatment is involved with optimizing mental health, and the ban on same-sex marriage has serious mental health ramifications for gay men, lesbians, and their children.

2. Psychoanalysis is the science of irrationality, and the arguments about same-sex marriage are filled with irrationality. It is within the purview of psychoanalysts to analyze this irrationality, to seek out its roots and causes.

The Mental Health of Gay and Lesbian Adults

We all grow up with certain values, life aims, and role models. In our culture, one of the main ones is marriage and family. Most children’s fantasy life about the future includes the expectation of marriage and children, and most people try to actualize those fantasies during adulthood, with more or less success. However, when a person realizes that he or she is gay or lesbian, there is a disruption of this fantasy. The message is sent to a gay or lesbian person, “What society holds as a primary goal in life and source of satisfaction is unavailable to you. You are unfit for it.” This causes a host of psychological problems or at least challenges: it may lead gay and lesbian youth to distrust the possibility of having a full relationship and, in despair, seek primarily sexual connections without love. It allows the “conversion therapists” to bolster their spurious message that you can be happier if you convert to heterosexuality. When a young person is contemplating a future of being denied basic rights, privileges, and social support, it may seem obvious, at least in theory, that heterosexuality is preferable. Those who follow such thinking can be seriously damaged by conversion therapy and eventually discover that sexuality is not malleable, and no amount of societal support will make up for a loss of genuine passion.

As adults, most gay and lesbian people come to realize that they are as equipped as heterosexuals, emotionally and psychologically, to form lasting and meaningful relationships. Yet not being allowed to marry robs them of many kinds of security and support. You may have a wonderful relationship with your gay or lesbian partner, but when issues come up that involve the public and society, not being married will cause you enormous grief. In the eyes of the law, you and your partner are strangers-and this is not an exaggeration. When your partner gets sick and is hospitalized, the hospital may not let you in to see him. When your partner dies, if you were married, you could inherit his assets tax-free. Without marriage, the government will tax his estate as if you are a stranger, which may cost you more than 50% of his assets. If your partner fathers a child, and you raise the child together, and your partner dies suddenly, your partner’s parents can sue to get custody of the child, and you may then not even be allowed to visit the child. All of these situations will be so stressful, they will surely affect your mental health.

In 2004, the United States Government Accountability Office identified a total of 1138 federal statutory provisions in which marital status is a factor in determining or receiving rights, benefits, and protections (Shah, 2004). I cannot discuss here all the ways being denied these 1138 rights can cause hardship for gay and lesbian couples, so I will describe just one case. A gay man, whom I will call Mr. X, had certain personality barriers that were interfering with his finding a long-term partner, which he ardently desired. He worked through those issues in psychoanalytic therapy. He then met a man from Brazil, Mr. Y, with whom he experienced great mutual love. But the combination of U.S. immigration law and the unavailability of same-sex marriage combined to turn Mr. X’s life into a nightmare. When his partner went back to Brazil to renew his visa, the American government refused to allow him to return to the United States. Mr. X had to commute from New York to Brazil for a year and a half, until his multinational corporation allowed him to relocate to London, where his partner could join him. When Mr. X testified before Congress in 2006 about the injustice of U.S. immigration law, he said,

At every turn, U.S. immigration law disqualifies lesbian and gay families like ours. … I feel ashamed that my country has treated my partner this way and furious that we cannot visit or live together in this great country. Despite the fact that I am a tax-paying, law-abiding, and voting citizen, I feel unfair discrimination from my government.

The Mental Health of Children

Perhaps the most vulnerable victims of the ban on same-sex marriage are children. It is cruelly ironic that judicial decisions in the United States denying the right to same-sex marriage cite the welfare of children, yet those very decisions harm the welfare of the estimated 1 million children currently being raised by gay and lesbian couples. A report by the American Academy of Pediatrics captures the irrational disjuncture between the stated aim of United States policy on same-sex marriage and its effect (Pawelski et al., 2006):

Public policy designed to promote the family as the basic building block of society has at its core the protection of children’s health and well-being. Children’s well-being relies in large part on a complex blend of their own legal rights and the rights derived, under law, from their parents. Children of same-gender parents often experience economic, legal, and familial insecurity as a result of the absence of legal recognition of their bonds to their nonbiological parents [pp. 251-252].

Several studies have now shown that the quality of gay and lesbian parenting is equivalent to that of heterosexual parents (Stacey and Biblarz, 2001). Nevertheless, children of gay and lesbian parents are essentially punished by our society, deprived of many legal, social, and financial benefits available to the children of heterosexual parents.

And what if same-sex couples turn out, in many instances, not only to be just as good parents as heterosexuals, but better parents? There is one clear reason this could occur: Many children of heterosexuals are unplanned and unwanted, either through the carelessness of a chance encounter, the failure of birth control, or some other reason. Unwanted children tend not to do well in development (Ferenczi, 1929). The occurrence of unwanted children is likely to be lower in gay couples, who must not only intend to have the child but often have to go through bureaucratic and legal hoops to get a child. So unwanted children may be rarer among gay couples; unplanned children are almost nonexistent.


Psychoanalysis is the science of the irrational (Blechner, 2005b), and we ought to identify the irrationality about same-sex marriage and help understand its sources. Judge Robert Smith, in the 2006 New York ruling against same-sex marriage, said there was little scientific evidence to support one kind of parenting over another, but the idea that a mother and a father were the best parents was supported by “intuition” and “common sense.” We know that when people argue that the facts show one thing but that intuition and common sense show another, they are blatantly disavowing rationality for prejudice. Were we to follow such reasoning, we would still believe that the sun revolved around the earth. Such arguments are dangerous but continue to be made.

Judge Smith’s decision echoed a previous ruling by the Indiana Court of Appeals in Morrison v. Sadler (2005). The Indiana court theorized that while same-sex couples can have children only as a result of deliberate intention through adoption or donor insemination, opposite-sex couples can have children through carelessness or accidents (broken condoms, orgies, etc.), and therefore the rights and benefits of marriage should be used as an incentive to corral those careless heterosexuals into more responsible behavior, through the bonds of matrimony. Yet the New York and Indiana courts utterly fail to explain why not letting same-sex couples marry advances the goal of getting opposite-sex couples to do so. As New York Chief Judge Judith Kaye (2006) wrote in her dissent, there are “enough marriage licenses to go around.” Kenneth Choe, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, has pointed out,

It is not enough that there is reason for including the included class. There must also be a reason for excluding the excluded class. The state could not grant right-handed people but not left-handed people the right to marry simply by observing that marriage benefits right-handed people and their children [New York Times, 2006, p. A20].

The analogy with handedness is telling; like gay people, lefthanded people were once thought to be defective, and various measures were taken to help them (or force them) to become right-handed, to no avail.

What leads well-educated people to make spurious and irrational arguments? Some of it is simply the difficulty of abandoning attitudes with which one was raised. As Charles Rosen (1994) has said, “The name generally given to widely accepted error is tradition.”

People born in the 1940s or earlier heard it said that homosexuality was evil, that most homosexuals had bad ethics and molested children-all falsehoods. Many mainstream older people, psychoanalysts among them, still cling to such prejudices. They lived through the 1950s, when such “common sense” was made the law of the land, when Eisenhower banned gay people from serving in government. The underlying idea is that gay people are bad and dangerous, or, to use the hoary shibboleth of religion-derived pseudoscience, perverted. We are loath to yield such early lessons, unless we are regularly faced with their untruth. Younger people today, on average, know many more openly gay people and recognize the irrationality of such prejudices.

In addition, many nominal heterosexuals have a dread of homosexuality in themselves. They may fear that if same-sex marriage is legal, their own heterosexuality will be tainted, through fears of contagion. This is totally illogical, but they are not operating in the realm of logic. They are operating in the realm of von Domarus logic (von Domarus, 1944), in which things that are merely associated with one another are seen to have a causal relationship. For example, a schizophrenic may think, “If my mother’s name is Mary, and Mary is the mother of God, then I am God.” You may think that only schizophrenics think like this, but as Freud and Jung have shown us, when we are under great emotional pressure, we are all capable of reasoning like madmen. Thus a frightened heterosexual may unconsciously reason, If homosexuals are allowed to be married, and I am married, then I may be a homosexual. And if I make it impossible for homosexuals to marry, and I am married, then I will make it impossible for me to be a homosexual.

By fighting against same-sex marriage, some heterosexuals may unconsciously feel they are fending off any dreaded homosexual impulses in themselves. This idea is supported by the many films and books in which a person in homosexual panic marries to prove his heterosexuality (e.g., Mambo Italiano). If same-sex marriage is legalized, marriage may lose its status as an unconscious safe haven for the conflicted. Until then, we will have to watch endless repetitions of public figures most adamant against same-sex marriage and equal rights for gay people being exposed as closet homosexuals. As I write this, the most recent example is the Reverend Ted Haggard, married to a woman, who preached strong opposition to gay rights, yet was revealed to have monthly trysts for 3 years with a male prostitute, Mike Jones (Ireland, 2006)-but there have been many other examples in the past (e.g., Roy Cohn, J. Edgar Hoover, Terry Dolan), and there surely will be more in the future.

Religion is a bastion of socially accepted irrationality. America is a religious country for the most part, and religious people cite the Bible to prove that God supports their bigotry, whether against Black people, gay people, or others. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, said, “Slavery was established by decree of Almighty God… it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation,” (Rowland, 1923, p. 286). And he was right. In the Old Testament, we find unequivocal descriptions of slaves as property (Ireland, 2005):

However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance [Leviticus 25:44-46; see also the New Testament, Luke 12:47-48; 1 Timothy 6:1-2].

The Bible’s prohibition against men lying with other men (Leviticus 18:22) has been similarly used to argue against same-sex marriage. Although the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that homosexual relations are not a crime, religious people continue to consider such relations a sin. They say that their ideas are supported by God’s own words in the Bible, and thus they feel safe from challenge when they oppose same-sex marriage.

Yet they cite selectively. Few people today would argue that because the Bible condones slavery, it is right for contemporary society. By means of selective inattention, those who claim religious authority to punish homosexuals do not also demand the death penalty for those who break the Sabbath or disobey their parents, as called for in the Bible. Someday, we will consider with astonishment that the Bible’s ban on homosexuality was used to deny civil rights to gay people and their children, just as we are astonished that the Bible was once used to defend slavery.

Same-sex marriage has now been legal for some time in the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, and the state of Massachusetts. The institution of marriage has shown no ill effects, nor have those societies reported being damaged in any way by same-sex marriage-on the contrary. The prime minister of Spain, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, put the situation clearly in his speech to the Spanish Parliament after they legalized same-sex marriage (Ireland, 2005):

Today, the Spanish society answers to a group of people who, during many years, have been humiliated, whose rights have been ignored, whose dignity has been offended, their identity denied, and their liberty oppressed. Today the Spanish society grants them the respect they deserve, recognizes their rights, restores their dignity, affirms their identity, and restores their liberty … Honorable members, there is no damage to marriage or to the concept of family in allowing two people of the same sex to get married. To the contrary, what happens is this class of Spanish citizens gets the potential to organize their lives with the rights and privileges of marriage and family. There is no danger to the institution of marriage but precisely the opposite: This law enhances and respects marriage.