It Was Never Just About a Cake

The fallout of the SCOTUS decision over a wedding cake not baked goes beyond the law, affecting the mental health of queer people.

Yesterday, my mother, a lifelong Republican who gets her “news” from Fox, blocked me on her iPhone. The collapse of our communication—and perhaps relationship going forward—stems from a heated disagreement about the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission that ruled in favor (7–2) of Jack Phillips, the baker who refused to design a wedding cake for same-sex couple Charlie Craig and David Mullins in 2012 on the basis of his purported religious beliefs.

Although the ruling was narrowly decided, the Supreme Court’s refusal to firmly shutdown the possibility of future proprietors from shunting queer people in the name of religion ripped open a formative wound. Suddenly, I was ten and closeted, with big hair, zits, and braces, on the playground with Sharon Kelley, a popular girl, running away from me screaming, “Lez alert! Lez alert! Lez alert! Run from Steph!” The idea that I could be legally rebuffed from buying a cake—the quintessential symbol of celebration and joy—made Phillips’s refusal seem especially sinister. I wanted to have it out with someone and who better than a Trump-supporting parent?

Like many arguments on the Trumpian Right, my mom resorted to a facile—and infantile—defense of Phillips: “Why didn’t they just go to another bakery? The baker has a right to his beliefs, that’s what America is all about. Why do you care? You live in New York City. It doesn’t affect you!”

AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Dave Mullins and Charlie Craig during a rally at the Colorado State Capitol in support of them after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, who refused to make a wedding cake for the same sex couple in 2012.

On that last point, Julia Raifman, a professor in the School of Public Health at Boston University, begs to differ: “Evidence suggests [that religious refusal laws] may harm lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB) people by communicating to them—and everyone else—that LGB people are unequal or not deserving of equal rights,” Raifman said in a recent telephone interview.

Raifman is the lead author of a newly published investigative report in JAMA Psychiatry that found a 46% increase in mental distress among LGB people between the ages of 18–64 years after their states passed laws permitting religious-based denials of goods and services (marriage licenses or adoptions) to same-sex couples, relative to heterosexuals, and to sexual minorities in nearby states without such laws. This relationship persisted whether or not LGB people reported being single or part of a couple, suggesting that the laws did not only affect same-sex couples directly experiencing service denials.

Raifman and her team looked at Utah, Michigan, and North Carolina, states that have passed laws permitting government clerks and local businesses the right to deny certain services to LGB people on religious grounds in 2015, and six nearby, demographically similar states (Idaho, Nevada, Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, and Delaware) without such laws. Using the 2014–2016 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System data on self-reported mental distress, defined as depression, stress, and anxiety, the researchers analyzed data from 4,656 participants identified as sexual minorities across all nine states and found a 10-percentage point spike (a 46% relative increase) in incidence of mental distress among LGB individuals from 2014 to 2016 after their states passed religious refusal laws. (Straight people and LGB individuals in states without such laws experienced a markedly less dramatic rise—1-percentage point—in occurrence of mental distress.)

Raifman’s study is particularly important, she says, because courts in some states have dismissed cases in which LGB plaintiffs have not been able to demonstrate direct service denials. “There are harms associated with policies permitting the denial of services to same-sex couples and individuals just by virtue of having those policies in place and our study illustrates that.”

It may not change my mom’s opinion—she clings to her beliefs (in spite of all evidence) as defiantly as her fellow Trumpians—but Raifman hopes her research will inform better policies and legal decisions in the future. “It’s not about going somewhere else to get your cake or going somewhere else to get your marriage license or going somewhere else to adopt a child,” she emphasizes, “It’s about that services denials are permitted—and they shouldn’t be.”

AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Stephanie Fairyington is a journalist who writes on gender and sexuality in NYC.