The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

Social Shift

Same-sex marriage and the impact of family and gender policies
  • Newlyweds in red car at Boston Gay Pride March, 2004

Badgett’s work is illuminating that even in states that have passed marriage equality legislation, same-sex couples do not share all of the benefits allowed heterosexual couples.

Social movements appear to be a natural part of the evolutionary process—last century’s women’s suffrage and civil rights movements alone transformed our society. These shifts, however, do not come without their troublesome quakes, which is why economist M.V. Lee Badgett, a world-renowned expert in social policy issues that affect same-sex couples and their families, is conducting research surrounding the impacts of gay marriage legislation on societies.

Badgett’s research is informing policy makers worldwide as they grapple with the highly politicized issue. Badgett has been called on to offer congressional testimony surrounding her research, has been widely cited by the mainstream media in recent years, and even earned a spot in Curve Magazine’s 20 most powerful lesbians in academia.

As the United States has begun to legalize same-sex marriage on a state level (Massachusetts the first among them), the gay community has rejoiced, while others remain unconvinced that marriage equality is the right path. To get to the heart of the issue, Badgett has worked to consolidate existing data and conduct personal interviews to study the greater social impact of new legislation. Her latest book, When Gay People Get Married: What Happens When Societies Legalize Same-Sex Marriage, won the 2010 American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Book Award. As part of her research, Badgett traveled to the Netherlands to study the effect of the 2001 legalization of same-sex marriage. Her research details the social transformation, showing that the legislation has done little to change the institution of marriage while the social inclusion has hugely benefited same-sex couples and their families. Badgett is now researching the impacts of civil unions versus marriage in California. She has found that people (both heterosexual and homosexual) in legal partnerships are generally healthier overall.

“Some mental health indicators are better for people who are in those legal relationships. It’s one of the first studies that shows that maybe civil unions and marriage for same sex couples have the same kind of effect as marriage does for different sex couples,” Badgett explains.

Badgett’s research in California has brought her to the forefront of the state’s political back-and-forth surrounding same-sex marriage. Badgett has spent days on the witness stand throughout the ongoing legal battle over Proposition 8—a California statute that defines marriage as a partnership strictly between a man and a woman. Citing data from Massachusetts and the Netherlands, Badgett attests that not only would same-sex marriage benefit the social strength of the community, but also would boost the state’s economy more effectively than civil unions.  Badgett is providing expertise and advising government officials farther afield as well as they chart a course for social policy surrounding legal recognition of same-sex couples. She has advised Members of Parliament in Australia and is next advising the Ministry of Justice in Vietnam.

Badgett’s work is illuminating that even in states that have passed marriage equality legislation, same-sex couples do not share all of the benefits allowed heterosexual couples. And even though many states and private institutions have policies in place that ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, millions still could benefit from a federal order to protect them.

Having recently wrapped up a successful four-year project funded by the Ford Foundation to “encourage more and better data collection on sexual orientation,” she is also teaching students to value strong research. Badgett directs the campus Center for Public Policy and Administration (CPPA), nationally recognized for research, teaching and outreach related to social welfare, justice and inequality. The CPPA team is working to instill strong analytical skills in the program’s students—tomorrow’s leaders and activists.

“We’re teaching students how to address problems, to ask questions about how the world works…how to take those skills out into the world,” Badgett says.

Badgett conducts both the CPPA and her own research with an emphasis on strong, reliable research that adds to the public conversation and solves problems for the common good. She is internationally praised for her no-nonsense ability to stick to the facts—a skill that makes her work influential across the United States and beyond.

“The end goal should always be doing good research that meets the standards of academics, that uses good data, asks good questions, does careful analysis, and is replicable, transparent, and discussed. All those things are really important because science has become very politicized,” Badgett says.

Amanda Drane ‘12