How Marriage Equality Helps Fight HIV

Any day now, the Supreme Court is expected to release its decisions on Prop 8, California's ban on gay marriage, and the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). We hope the justices do the right thing and strike down these unjust bans on same-sex marriage. The health of our nation depends on it, because the fight to legalize gay marriage is about more than just equal rights; it's vitally important to ending the HIV epidemic in the United States.

A study published in 2009 by Emory University finds that bans on same-sex marriage can be directly tied to a rise in rates of HIV infection. Researchers estimated that constitutional bans on gay marriage -- which are currently in place in 31 states -- raise the infection rate by four cases per 100,000 people. As one of the study researchers plainly states, "intolerance is deadly." This is simply unacceptable.

When we promote and permit intolerance through bans on same-sex marriage, we enable and encourage feelings of marginalization, depression, and isolation among gay people -- particularly LGBT youth. As a result, things like substance use, alcohol consumption, and sexual risk taking increase. And we cannot ignore the data: These activities lead to more cases of HIV.

On the flip side, when we promote tolerance through marriage equality, we bring people in from the margins, we help them to feel more affirmed and connected, and risk taking decreases. When this happens, HIV infection rates also decrease.

Marriage equality also plays a critical role in reducing the stigma and homophobia that often prevent LGBT people from seeking out the services they need to maintain their emotional and physical well-being. When people are respected and valued, they are more likely to take better care of their health: They get tested regularly for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, they talk openly with their sex partners, and they seek out information and resources.

There are currently 1.1 million Americans living with HIV/AIDS, and approximately 50,000 new HIV infections occur nationwide every year. The epidemic continues to have a disproportionate impact on gay and bisexual men, and racial and ethnic minorities.

Right now, more than 30 years into the epidemic, we are making tremendous strides in our efforts to stop the transmission of HIV. Recent scientific advances, such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), have energized advocates and health care providers and given us new hope that we can truly end the epidemic in our lifetime. The last thing we need at this moment is intolerant laws that single out minority groups and damage health. Aren't we a better country than that?

The Supreme Court has the power to affirm the values of this great nation, promote inclusion, and alter the course of the HIV epidemic forever. So much is at stake -- for we will never be truly equal until we eliminate all the barriers that create health disparities in our community. The justices, with their decisions, have the power to tear down barriers to better health.

I am hopeful that in the coming days we will be applauding a decision that stands on the right side of history, not just for matters of equality but for a stronger, healthier nation.