Social Advocacy for Equal Marriage: The Politics of “Rights” and the Psychology of “Mental Health”


  • We would like to thank Virginia Braun for sources of information on the New Zealand situation, Nancer Ballard for advice on our presentation of legal cases, and Victoria Clarke for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

*Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Sue Wilkinson, Department of Women's Studies, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, Canada V5A 1S6 [e-mail:].


Using the contemporary issue of equal access to marriage for same-sex couples as a case study, we examine two distinctive frameworks within which social advocacy may be pursued. We argue that when we speak as psychologists, we use a discourse of mental health; when we speak as social activists, we use a discourse of human rights and justice. Although these two frameworks may converge in supporting equal access to marriage, they represent radically different ways of understanding inequality and advocating for social change. A discourse of mental health focuses on psychological damage or deficit (caused, for example, by the social exclusion of particular groups or individuals. A discourse of rights asserts universally-applicable principles of equality, justice, freedom, and dignity. Further, the paradigmatic framework of psychology as an approach to understanding human beings in the world seems fundamentally antithetical to the conceptual framework of human rights, as a basis for social justice.