Marriage Equality is Just the Beginning

By Elizabeth Borngraber

Last month’s Supreme Court ruling to guarantee the right of same-sex couples to marry is one important step forward in creating a nation that recognizes and values the human rights of all its citizens. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, men and women should have equal rights to marry, and while it does not explicitly mention same-sex marriage, the United Nations has spoken out in support of marriage equality for same-sex couples.

As social workers, we value our client’s right to self-determination in shaping their goals and life decisions, which is why the SCOTUS decision is so important to our practice. Clients who are engaged in same-sex relationships will now have the choice to marry and social workers will not have to navigate the strange space between our professional obligation to support social justice and a system that inherently denies a client’s rights. Within the old system, and in many places that are still fighting the implementation of these laws, social workers were tasked with operating within the context of a law that did not support our code of ethics. When this happens, we are faced with the ethical dilemma of either siding with an unjust law or upholding the values of our profession, a choice many social workers will hopefully no longer have to make. While this is now the case, it should also be noted that in places of continued discrimination, it is the role of social workers to facilitate change and understanding among citizens in the fight for human rights and positive social change.

As this ruling begins to be implemented across the nation, the farther reaching effects of the SCOTUS decision will come to light. One effect will most likely include healthier LGBTQ communities due to decreased social stigma and increased access to health insurance. Since the LGBTQ population has traditionally faced worse health outcomes and greater heath disparities, allowing same-sex couples’ access to a spouse’s insurance will ensure that a greater number of individuals will have access to quality healthcare.

Specifically, the American College of Physicians has come out in support of same-sex marriage, noting the public health benefits in terms of alleviating psychological stress associated with discrimination. Allowing same-sex couples to marry also allows them to experience the tangible health benefits that come with marriage and provides couples with a legally stable environment in which to raise children. Same-sex unions will also now be recognized in having and adopting children, expanding their rights to parent and have a family.

The legalization of same-sex marriage further acknowledges the humanity of same-sex couples by expanding access to a human right previously reserved to a closed group. However, this one victory is far from being the end of the war for sexual orientation and gender identity rights. In many states it is still legal for an employer to fire an individual they believe is gay or trans+ and many people are denied housing based on their sexual orientation or gender. In my home state of New York, employment non-discrimination laws only fully protect sexual orientation, however, there is no comprehensive law protecting gender identity. While this is at least some progress, we cannot forget that there is an entire section of the population that is often overshadowed by the battle for same-sex marriage. It is our responsibility as social workers to recognize this and continue to be a vocal champion of equal rights for all people.