Psychology’s state, provincial and territorial associations have long been active in addressing licensing issues, scope-of-practice questions and training concerns. But now these organizations are taking stands on more far-reaching issues: public interest concerns, including same-sex marriage, domestic partnerships and gay rights.

The California Psychological Association, for example, is working to overturn the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, a move supported by the group’s 2007 policy that guides the association on how and when to step into social issues. “If we feel psychology can offer something useful, then we’ve decided there’s a role for CPA to step forward,” says Jo Linder-Crow, PhD, the association’s executive director.

In 2008, CPA supported the court case seeking to overturn the state’s ban on same-sex marriage and opposed Proposition 8, encouraging members to speak out against it. Voters approved the ballot question in November 2008, amending the state constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. Nonetheless, CPA’s stand helped propel the association into a leadership position on LGBT and social justice issues in California, Linder-Crow says.

“By stepping forward on this issue, we’ve had a great return because we have people who are part of our organization who were never a part before,” she says.

It’s important for state associations to consider taking a stand, says Glenda Russell, PhD, both to help people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and to make voters aware of what the latest psychological research has to say about such issues.

“I think psychologists forget how much power we have to give real information to LGBT people who are being affected by these campaigns, but also to voters, because a lot of mythology gets out there during the course of these campaigns,” says Russell, a staff psychologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s counseling center, who has studied the impact of ballot measures aimed at gay rights.

Initiatives in other states

The Maine Psychological Association’s advocacy on gay rights dates to 1995, with its work to defeat a referendum that would have removed sexual orientation from the state’s civil rights law, says association member Doug Kimmel, PhD. Last year, MePA’s then-president-elect David Lilly, PsyD, testified to support state legislation that would authorize same-sex marriages. The law passed, but opponents got a “people’s veto” question placed on the November ballot.

Joining with a coalition called Protect Maine Equality to support same-sex marriage rights, MePA members wrote letters to newspapers, appeared on local news programs, called constituents and knocked on the doors of likely voters, Kimmel says.

Despite the campaign, Maine voters vetoed the law by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent.

Maine’s association is now considering whether to pursue state recognition of civil unions, restart the push for same-sex marriage or wait to see whether lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act reach the U.S. Supreme Court, Kimmel says.

In Michigan, the state psychological association has also been active in discrimination issues. Working through an initiative called the Michigan Project for Informed Public Policy, the Michigan Psychological Association encouraged voters in Kalamazoo to uphold a city ordinance that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the city’s non-discrimination law. “The rule we use is, if there’s a mental health issue where we can provide psychological data, we’ll get involved,” says Judith Kovach, PhD, the association’s executive director.

Association members testified before the Kalamazoo City Council in favor of the expanded protections. The council first approved the ordinance in June 2009, then rescinded it in favor of a city-wide referendum.

Psychologists testified in support of the change, emphasizing the research showing the adverse effects of inequality, such as high rates of verbal harassment, physical violence, and employment and housing discrimination. Their arguments proved persuasive: In November, voters approved the law with expanded civil rights protections by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent.

Along with arguing for expanded civil rights protections, state associations have also supported the rights of same-sex couples who want to adopt or serve as foster parents. In 2008, the Arkansas Psychological Association opposed a referendum that attempted to limit adoption and foster parenting to married, heterosexual couples in the state.

Working with Arkansas Families First, association members helped design campaign ads using research showing that children raised by same-sex parents are on par developmentally with peers who have married, heterosexual parents. Arkansas voters supported the referendum in November 2008, and it is being challenged in state court.

Washington state is also enmeshed in a battle over giving same-sex couples access to many of the same benefits and protections of marriage, in the form of state-recognized domestic partnerships. Opponents put the question to voters in a referendum last November after an “everything-but-marriage” domestic partnership law was approved in May 2009.

The Washington State Psychological Association joined a coalition supporting the law and distributed a letter to 1,300 psychologists in the state outlining research showing the harm inflicted by denying marriage rights to same-sex couples.

“We made lots of concrete suggestions about what people could do, so they could find the method that felt most comfortable to them,” says WSPA member Stacey Prince, PhD.

Their work was successful: Voters affirmed the legislation and preserved domestic partnerships. “I’m really proud of the role we played in passing this law in the first place, and protecting it,” says Prince, PhD.