The Psychological Harm of Anti-Gay Ballot Campaigns

Gregory Herek

December 3rd, 2008

If you’ve been experiencing post-election psychological distress in the wake of the recent antigay ballot campaigns ­– whether in the form of anger, sadness, irritability, feelings of betrayal, revenge fantasies, sleep difficulties, or something else ­– research suggests you’re not alone. What you’re feeling these days is a natural and normal response to the attacks you endured during the months leading up to November 4, and to the trauma of election night.

In my latest post at Beyond Homophobia, I describe the results of two studies on the psychological impact of antigay ballot measures.

One study was conducted by psychologist Glenda Russell and her colleagues in the wake of Colorado’s 1992 Amendment 2 campaign. Examining personal accounts by sexual minority Colorado citizens, the researchers observed themes that are all too familiar today to many sexual minority residents of California, Florida, Arizona, and Arkansas.

Respondents reported feeling overwhelmed or devastated by the vote. Some were shocked that the measure passed. Many experienced anger, fear, sadness, or depression. Some felt a sense of loss, saying they would never again feel the same about living in Colorado. Some expressed regret at not having done more to prevent the measure’s passage.

Dr. Russell’s team also found that a substantial segment of the sample reported many symptoms commonly associated with depression, anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and perceived that these symptoms were a direct result of having lived through the months of antigay campaigning.

The second study, which will soon be published in the prestigious Journal of Counseling Psychology, supports and extends Dr. Russell’s findings. The researchers — led by Dr. Sharon Rostosky at the University of Kentucky — assessed the psychological well-being of sexual minority adults across the United States before and after the 2006 elections. They found that, as a group, participants residing in states with a marriage amendment on the ballot reported experiencing significantly more psychological distress than did the residents of other states. Moreover, their levels of stress, negative emotions, and symptoms of depression were significantly higher after the election compared to six months earlier.

Taken together, the studies’ findings are consistent with the conclusion that antigay campaigns not only take away individuals’ rights, but are also harmful to the mental health of the gay, lesbian, and bisexual people who live through them.

You can read more about the studies and the implications of their findings at Beyond Homophobia.

Tara TASW

December 3rd, 2008

Not only the mental health effects, but every time I saw one of those “The gays are coming to your elementary school to recruit your kids” commercials, my blood pressure shot throught the roof.

Ephilei

December 3rd, 2008

Thanks for bringing attention to this underestimated problem. I think the depression caused by heterosexism is far more dangerous than laws.

fannie

December 3rd, 2008

Sadly, I don’t think the effects that these initiatives have on our mental health matters to most “marriage defenders.”

When we’re sad, we’re just being overly-sensitive gays as usual.

banshiii

December 3rd, 2008

nice article….but it gets a big DUH from me.
I want solutions on how to cope with the aftermath, healing and getting back to kicking some ass for our community.

David C.

December 3rd, 2008

To: banshiii:

Here are some of my suggestions:

http://www.boxturtlebulletin.com/2008/12/01/7018#comment-26431

Duncan

December 3rd, 2008

It is valuable research, but it has to be recognized that in every election there will be a loser. Many activists cope with it by delegitimizing the other side’s victory; a few Republicans are blaming fraud by ACORN this year just like Democrats blamed fraud in Florida in 2000 (or said 2004 was down to having scared the electorate, sort of thing).
For those who don’t allow themselves such luxuries, the result is indeed distressing because they staked so much in it. It would have been equally troubling for social conservatives had they lost a referendum after years of bragging that the majority was on their side; and so it will be, soon.
It has to be acknowledged that gay marriage will be built on the broken dreams of already-married people who are only doing what is most natural, defending the privilege they have so that they can look down on those who lack it.

AJD

December 3rd, 2008

Duncan,

The point is that Prop. 8 wasn’t a typical political campaign. Of course people feel disappointment when their favored initiative or candidate fails. I’m sure some poultry farmers are unhappy about that chicken cage proposition passing, while plenty of Republicans are ticked that Obama won.

What sets Prop. 8 apart is that it was a deliberate attack on a group of people who grow up being bullied and demonized.

Louie

December 3rd, 2008

Before the election, I recalled having a few bad dreams about a frenzied crowd of straight people breaking down the door to our home and lynching my husband and I for being gay.

These feelings were generated by all of the “Yes on 102” signs put up on almost every single street corner in metro Phoenix and posted on many churches lawns. It was like a direct slap on my face everytime I saw one!

Even on election day, as people were driving onto church property to cast their vote, these signs were right where every single passing car would read it. But, I couldn’t post my “No on Prop. 102” sign because it was “private” church property!

Hmmm, I wonder how that worked out? How convenient for “Yes on 102”.

Add to this all the problems with the economy and personally getting laid off from my job, etc.

Then they vote to take one of my civil rights away! In California anyway.

Arizona already had a ban on same gender marriages, so either one was a loss. Except now it’s defined in the Constitution!

jOHN

December 4th, 2008

Now I am feeling better just knowing I wasn’t alone. I fell into a depression 2 Saturdays before the election. I live in SF and I was driving down to San Bruno and saw all these people with Yes on 8 along El Camino, and cars honking their horn in support. It lasted about 4 weeks and finally I started to feel better. i think that a lot of it comes from the fact that I try and support so many causes for so many people and just could not believe at the joy and happiness people were feeling as they were telling lies to hurt people who just wanted to have the same happiness as they themselves enjoyed.

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