Are anti-discrimination policies really effective in improving the wellbeing of people being discriminated against? A new study (Chen and van Ours, 2020b) by Shuai Chen and Jan van Ours, presented at the annual congress of the European Economic Association in August 2020, attempts to answer this question through the specific lens of the impact of same-sex marriage legalisation (SSML) in the Netherlands on mental health of sexual minorities. 

They find that the legislation indeed improved mental health of both male and female sexual minorities and thus substantially closed the sexual orientation gap in mental health by more than 50% between sexual minorities and heterosexuals.

Furthermore, they provide evidence that SSML took effect, as a typical anti-discrimination policy, probably by improving social attitudes to sexual minorities as well as providing this additional marriage option and stabilising partnerships for sexual minorities (Chen and van Ours, 2020a). 

Their study is based on the combination of precise and rich administrative micro-data and elaborate and extensive health surveys from Statistics Netherlands. They investigate the mental health effects of SSML by comparing the changes in mental health before and after the legislation of individuals with a different sexual orientation. Mental health of heterosexuals did not vary significantly after SSML while mental health of sexual minorities largely converged to heterosexuals. 


Sexual minorities have been confronted with a variety of discrimination for long such as that in the labour market and housing. In the past, same-sex relationships were against the law and in some countries they still are. Due to such discrimination and unfair treatment, sexual minorities have suffered more from mental health problems than sexual majorities. 

Slowly, as part of many changes in partnership formations and family institutions, countries around the world have started to legalise same-sex marriage (SSM). SSML, as a typical anti-discrimination policy, provides sexual minorities with marriage equality and thus may help to mitigate their mental health issues to some extent.

With precise registered information on individual characteristics and household compositions over a relatively long period 1995-2018, they are able to identify sexual minorities accurately. Identification of sexual minorities comes from gender comparison between partners in (recorded) cohabiting couples as well as married couples. Correct classification between sexual minorities and heterosexuals is key to relevant studies about sexual minorities.  

Then they examine and discuss various mechanisms through which the mental health effects of SSML materialise. Comparing married and non-married sexual minorities after SSML, they do not find that marriage was associated with significantly larger mental health gains. Also the beneficial mental health effects for non-married sexual minorities cannot be explained by marriage. 

Moreover, the legislation stabilised same-sex partnerships, which may contribute to the mental health gains of sexual minorities (Chen and van Ours, 2018). Additionally, other indirect channels such as the improvement in societal attitudes to sexual minorities and self-perception of being socially accepted probably play an important role, too, in closing the sexual orientation gap in mental health.

Furthermore, they investigate differences of the mental health effects of SSML in terms of gender, urbanisation degree of the resident place, age, employment status and educational attainment. They conclude that SSML closed the sexual orientation gap of mental health more completely among younger people and college degree holders. As for other divisions of characteristics, the legalisation benefited mental health of every subgroup in different dimensions.

Their study may provide implications for the beneficial wellbeing impacts of anti-discrimination policies in general on other discriminated minorities with respect to race, religion, immigration, disability and so forth.


Chen, S. and J. C. van Ours (2018). Subjective well-being and partnership dynamics: Are same-sex relationships different? Demography 55 (6), 2299–2320.

Chen, S. and J. C. van Ours (2020a). Symbolism matters: The effect of same-sex marriage legalization on partnership stability. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 178, 44–58.

Chen, S. and J. C. van Ours (2020b). Mental health effects of same-sex marriage legalization. mimeo.


Authors: Shuai Chen[1], Jan C. van Ours[2]


[1] Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research (LISER) 

[2] Erasmus School of Economics; Department of Economics, University of Melbourne;         

    Tinbergen Institute (Rotterdam), CEPR (London) and IZA (Bonn)

Emails: (Shuai Chen), (Jan C. van Ours)

Phone: +352 661 866 688 (Shuai Chen)

Twitter: @ShuaiChenEcon

Personal website:

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