Unseen

‘No, She’s Not My Sister’: The Hidden Stresses of Gay Relationships

A new study finds gay couples worry about being rejected by wedding merchants, and often have to correct the misperception that their partner is a sibling or a close friend.

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Imagine renting an apartment with two bedrooms when you only need one, just so you can pretend like your partner is your roommate.

Or being told that you can’t bring your partner home for the holidays.

Or being invited home but only if you remove your wedding ring so that other people don’t ask when you got married.

These were all experiences reported by some of the 120 couples that San Francisco State University sociologist Dr. Allen LeBlanc and his colleagues interviewed for a scholarly study published in October 2017—one of the first in-depth looks at the unique stressors that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people face when in same-sex relationships.

Now, Dr. LeBlanc’s latest co-authored paper—published this month in the Journal of Marriage and Family—confirms through the study of 100 additional couples that the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision alone has not been enough to alleviate the burdens imposed by these unique stressors.

“These findings, however preliminary, are a stark reminder that equal access to legal marriage will not quickly or fully address longstanding mental health disparities faced by sexual minority populations,” the study concludes, noting that “important minority stressors related to being in stigmatized relationship forms will endure.”

The research that Dr. LeBlanc and his colleagues have been conducting is starting to fill a vital gap in the existing literature on LGBT minority stress: the stress faced by couples.

There is plenty of data showing that LGBT people experience mental health disparities on an individual level due to widespread societal discrimination. But LeBlanc and team wanted to look at “not just what each individual brings to the equation of being in a relationship—or the individual-level stressors—but the stressors that emanate from the stigmatization of the relationship in itself,” as LeBlanc told The Daily Beast.

“The existing models just left out the relationship context,” he noted. “Something was missing from the existing stress research and we wanted to bring it in.”

Through detailed interviews with the first set of 120 couples, some lasting over three hours, LeBlanc and the team were able to identify 17 kinds of stressors that were unique to their experience.

These ranged from the obvious, like worrying about being rejected by wedding merchants, to the less obvious, like not having relationship role models, to the incredibly specific, like having to correct the constant misperception that your partner is actually a sibling or a close friend.

As one woman in a same-sex relationship told the researchers: “And even at work, I mean, when people see the pictures on my desk, in my office… Sometimes people say, ‘Well is that your sister?’”

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“I honestly don’t even know if our neighbors know we’re gay,” an Atlanta man in a same-sex couple told the researchers, noting that “sometime[s] I think they think he’s my caretaker.”

For LeBlanc and his colleagues, this minute level of detail defied expectations. The stresses faced by couples went far beyond what they could have hypothesized.

“They talked about hiding their relationships,” he told The Daily Beast. “We had people tell us about their efforts to rearrange their apartment if family were visiting their home to make it look like they didn’t share a bed or they took away gay art or indicators they were interested in gay life from their apartment when people visited.”

And, because most of these stressors “occur in social/interpersonal and familial settings” rather than legal ones, as the 2017 study noted, the mere legalization of same-sex marriage can only do so much to help same-sex couples.

Adding to that frustration is the difficulty of finding out just how many people in the LGBT community are even in same-sex marriages. Because most federal surveys do not ask about sexual orientation, the best estimate of the number of same-sex couples that the UCLA-based Williams Institute has been able to produce is 646,500.

The subset of 100 couples that LeBlanc and his team surveyed for their 2018 follow-up paper still displayed some common signs of mental health burdens like depression and problematic alcohol use—but at differing rates: Those who were in legal marriages reported “better mental health” than those in civil unions or domestic partnerships.

But crucially, the survey didn’t just ask about marital status; it also asked about “perceived unequal relationship recognition,” or the extent to which same-sex couples feel like they are treated as “less than” other couples, as LeBlanc explained.

“There are all these informal things that happen in people’s lives with their families, in their workplace, with their peer groups, that are not about the law,” he told The Daily Beast. “[They] are about how people treat them and about how they perceive they are being treated.”

And this perception of inequality appears to be a significant factor in the well-being of people in same-sex relationships.

“One’s perception of unequal recognition was significantly associated with greater nonspecific psychological distress, depressive symptomatology, and problematic drinking,” the study found.

This was true even after controlling for the marital status of the couples. For LeBlanc, that finding means researchers ought to keep looking not just at the effects of laws and policies on same-sex couples, but at the discriminatory devil in the details.

“This new work shows that it’s not a simple thing where you change a law and then everything changes accordingly,” LeBlanc said.