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Research Questions

  1. What does existing empirical research reveal about the impacts of granting legal status to marriages of same-sex couples on LGBT individuals, their children, and the general population?
  2. How do changes in marriage policy across states relate to changes in marriage rates, divorce rates, cohabitation rates, and marriage attitudes in the general population?

Twenty years ago, the United States was divided by heated debates over legalizing marriage for same-sex couples. Those in favor argued that granting same-sex couples access to marriage would strengthen commitment for same-sex couples, extend the financial benefits of marriage to same-sex households, and improve outcomes for children raised by same-sex parents. Those who were opposed argued that granting legal status to marriages between same-sex partners would alter the foundation of marriage and diminish its value for different-sex couples, ultimately harming children by making them less likely to be raised in stable, two-parent families.

It has now been 20 years since Massachusetts became the first state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in May 2004. The consequences of extending legal recognition to same-sex couples need no longer be a topic of speculation and debate; researchers have had two decades to study the consequences of legalizing marriage for same-sex couples on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals; their children; and the general public.

The broad goal of this report is to document those consequences. The authors pursued this goal in two ways. First, they conducted a comprehensive review of the existing research literature on the effects of legalizing marriage for same-sex couples. Second, they conducted new analyses to evaluate the prediction that rates of marriage, cohabitation, and divorce and attitudes toward marriage would be adversely affected by granting same-sex couples access to legal marriage.

Key Findings

The evidence review revealed that for LGBT individuals and same-sex couples, their children, and the general U.S. population, the benefits of access to legal marriage for same-sex couples are unambiguously positive

  • When states legalized marriage for same-sex couples, the physical health of LGBT individuals in those states improved; state-level rates of syphilis, HIV, and AIDS fell significantly; same-sex households in those states experienced more-stable relationships, higher earnings, and higher rates of homeownership; and sexual orientation–motivated hate crimes and employment discrimination against LGBT individuals declined.
  • Children of same-sex couples benefited when their parents were granted access to legal marriage, and state-level adoption rates rose after marriage became legal for same-sex couples.
  • No evidence was found of lasting negative changes in public opinion as a result of granting same-sex couples access to marriage. Nationally representative polls show that more than 70 percent of Americans now approve of marriage for same-sex couples.

The new analyses found no evidence for a retreat from marriage; in fact, there was evidence for a possible "increase" in marriage resulting from legalization of marriage between same-sex partners

  • New marriages increased by 1 percent to 2 percent among different-sex couples and about 10 percent overall.
  • The authors found no consistent evidence for an increase in cohabitation by unmarried different-sex couples or an increase in divorce as a consequence of legalizing marriage for same-sex couples.
  • Among high school seniors, the authors found no evidence of a negative shift in marriage attitudes, and they found some evidence of an improvement.

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by Centerline Liberties and conducted in the Social and Behavioral Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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