Marriage Referenda Stress LGBT People, Divide Families, Damage Communities, And Waste Money

As marriage equality legislation advances in New Jersey, Washington, and Maryland, many conservative groups, such as the National Organization for Marriage and Family Policy Institute of Washington, are discussing the possibility of taking the issue to the ballot. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) even called a referendum “the bargain of your life,” suggesting there are no consequences to such an approach.

But Glenda Russell, a psychologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has published significant research on the negative impacts of LGBT-related ballot initiatives through the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies (which merged to become part of the Williams Institute). In an unpublished letter to the editor obtained by ThinkProgress, she highlights how problematic Christie’s “bargain” is:

New Jersey’s Governor Christie offers a referendum on same-sex marriage as a way to simultaneously appear reasonable and avoid alienating conservative voters in a possible future national election. “Reasonable,” perhaps — until one considers the impact of such referenda. Decades of research have shown that these elections take a significant psychological toll on people whose lives and loves are objectified, dissected, and subjected to all manner of myths and lies. They divide families and communities and introduce vitriol into conversations among neighbors. Further, Christie is horribly wrong in his assertion that African-Americans “would have been happy to have a referendum on civil rights …” Research demonstrates that when any group’s rights have been submitted to popular vote, they have usually lost those rights. Such outcomes have served as tragic reminders of de Tocqueville’s warning to beware the tyranny of the majority.

Here are some of the severe psychological consequences Russell and other researches have identified:

  • LGBT people are stressed by being the focus and target of a “culture war,” having the way they their lives analyzed and debated, enduring the reinforcement of homophobic and heterosexist ideas and stereotypes, and resisting anti-gay rhetoric and pseudo-research.
  • The children of same-sex couples also experiences these stresses, which can be compounded by stigma and bullying they may face in school.
  • LGBT people face extra psychological risk if they actively engage in the hostile political campaign.
  • Communities are divided as individuals “take sides” in the debate.
  • Family members can become estranged if they intend to vote differently on these issues.
  • The measures also increase stress for the family members of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals who might be impacted by them.

In addition, ballot initiatives are huge financial drains for the community. For example, Minnesota’s marriage fight has already led to over $2 million in fundraising between both proponents and opponents of the discriminatory amendment and the vote is not for another nine months. This is money that could be spent supporting the social welfare rather than fueling a divisive and harmful debate.


To treat ballot initiatives like they have no consequences is foolish. They drain time, money, and morale from the LGBT community, using a plea for “democracy” as an excuse to delay the advance of civil rights.