Professor Carpenter on LGBT Research and Initiatives on Vanderbilt Campus


Stephanie Wang

Marriage equality has undoubtedly been a contentious issue. Even with the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage in the 2015 court case Obergefell v. Hodges, a number of state and national initiatives seek to undermine or overthrow the decision. In addition, with the legalization of same-sex marriage, several related questions have popped up: How has the legalization of same-sex marriage impacted health insurance access for same-sex couples and their children? How has legal access to same-sex marriage impacted how employers decide to offer/not offer health insurance to same-sex partners? How do same-sex marriage, transgender bathroom laws, religious freedom restoration acts, and laws prohibiting discrimination in employment impact local economic activity?

These are all questions that Professor Christopher Carpenter, a professor of economics, along with other core Vanderbilt core faculty, is seeking to understand via a series of LGBT-related projects funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson (RWJ) Foundation. Through this grant, these Vanderbilt researchers will be conducting a series of studies that will be finished by 2018. The primary study seeks to measure the impact marriage equality has had on the health of adults and kids in these households. Preliminary evidence has pointed towards a relationship between health care access/utilization and social policy (marriage equality), finding that marriage equality has not only increased same-sex marriage, but has also led to increases in health insurance coverage, reported use of medical care, and regular basic health checkups.

Other facets of their research project include studying how anti-LGBT laws and policies (such as transgender bathroom bills) impact local economic activity by using county business patterns, unemployment rates, and quarterly census of wages and employment from different sectors and industries. Influenced by what happened in North Carolina with HB2, which was repealed as a result of companies and concerts pulling out or threatening to pull out of the area, Carpenter and his team want to study if economic activity actually lulls if anti-LGBT policy is adopted and if it causes states to reverse their decision. Carpenter and his team also plan to study the impact the legalization of same-sex marriage has had on the health insurance offered by employers to LGBT individuals. Potentially, it could turn out that an unintended consequence of marriage equality would be that health insurance and gaining access to it is more tied to marriage. This could possibly lead to a pressure to get married that didn’t exist before, causing people to get married just to take advantage of health insurance benefits.  

LGBT individuals traditionally aren’t a demographic researchers have studied in the past, making this research linking public policy (namely the legalization of same-sex marriage) to health insurance and family outcomes for LGBT individuals all the more important. Says Professor Carpenter, “This is a very exciting time to be working on LGBT issues– and by exciting, I mean good, and scary, and bad, and wonderful, and horrific– so many different things, because so many rights are at risk in the current political climate.”

Especially with the threat that Obergefell v. Hodges could be overruled, either by state or national action, Carpenter is hoping that this research can help guide public policy decision-making and be used in future Supreme Court cases concerning LGBT discrimination/marriage equality. These results could also be used at the state level to display the consequences of chipping away at marriage equality. Not only does it keep people from getting married, but it could also lead to bad health outcomes for these individuals.

That’s a message that Tennessee residents and lawmakers should consider. In May, the Tennessee governor, Bill Haslam, signed legislation requiring words in Tennessee law to be interpreted as having their “natural and ordinary meaning,” creating a potential way of denying same-sex couples the legal rights and protections granted to a “husband,” a “wife,” a “father” or “mother.” No other state has a similar law, and such law could potentially legitimate LGBT couples and transgender individuals in the state. Last month, a group of Evangelicals met in Nashville to create a document that essentially rejects homosexuality and “transgenderism.” In the scope of these sort of happenings, Professor Carpenter’s research becomes all the more important in protecting LGBT individuals’ rights.

In addition to this research projected funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Professor Carpenter is also a part of the TIPS (Trans-Institutional Programs) project, an initiative funded by Vanderbilt University. Through the TIPS project, 11 core faculty members will be developing a course on LGBT policies for undergraduates that will be offered as soon as next year, holding seminars with internal speakers and external speakers (like national experts) to talk about LGBT policies, providing immersion opportunities for students interested in the intersection of LGBT issues and public policy, and holding a conference at Vanderbilt presenting LGBT public policy research in the spring of 2020.

To further engage the Vanderbilt community, Professor Carpenter is also leading a small grants program for students and faculty for this calendar year. Anyone who has a research project idea related to LGBT policy (such as interviewing a political leader, transcribing data, or working with a faculty member on a research project) can submit a proposal to receive a grant from $500-$1500.

Says Professor Carpenter, “It’s exciting that Vanderbilt has made an investment in us and that the RWJ Foundation has made an investment in us to work on these topics because I think it sends a very strong and positive message to students in this community on campus. But the fact that there is a need for this research is a problem. The fact that I can study so many examples of states adopting laws targeting LGBT people in negative ways, I’m not happy about that. But it just makes the research all the more important, so I’m excited to be able to contribute to it in this way.”