It was a spectacular assertion. A 2014 study published in the journal Social Science & Medicine by a Columbia University researcher asserted that “sexual minorities living in communities with high levels of anti-gay prejudice” have a “shorter life expectancy of approximately 12 years.”
Yes, you heard that right. Being gay in an unwelcoming community takes 12 years off your life! This study was heralded broadly by the press with no critical analysis provided for the reader. Not one mainstream journalist stopped to consider, much less challenge, the sweeping grandeur of this claim. It was used as a blunt object to condemn anyone not keen on the mainstreaming of homosexuality.
Quite blunt it was. Reducing another’s life by 12 years by failing to agree with his or her sexual desires is no small charge. But is it legit?
Compare This to Other Major Health Conditions
First, just consider this 12-year-life-reduction charge in contrast to other dramatic life-reducing health conditions. The New England Journal of Medicine reports that being a regular smoker shaves up to 10 years off one’s life. Research conducted at Johns Hopkins University finds that 67-years-olds with up to five serious chronic health conditions (such as heart disease, cancer, pulmonary disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s) will live on average 7.7 fewer years than their peers with no such conditions.
Thus, being gay, lesbian, or bisexual and living in a non-affirming community is more deleterious to one’s health than consistent smoking, heart disease, or cancer. Uhm.
An analysis of the 2014 study released this month further damages the veracity of this dramatic 12-year-life-reduction conclusion. Published in the same journal, Social Science & Medicine, this highly sophisticated analysis sought to replicate the findings of the original 2014 study, and could not.
First, the author carefully followed the methodology the original author explained in his article. He then ran the data in nine different ways seeking the original conclusion, which brought him to report “none of which generated anything like the results reported in the original study.” He concluded that the conclusion of the original study “is so sensitive to subjective measurement decisions [by the authors] as to be rendered unreliable.”
In plain English, it appears as if the 12-year conclusion was arrived at with great care. If a conclusion purporting to be scientific cannot be replicated using the very same data after ten tries, is it really a conclusion? That’s a rhetorical question.
The Research Contradicts This Wild Contention
It has become a well-worn and largely unchallenged truism in gay politics: If gay and lesbian people as a whole have poorer rates of mental and physical health and attempt suicide at dramatically higher rates than the general population, it’s because of anti-gay attitudes. Many of us working in this field are accused of this regularly.
It is the rare article on the imbalance of health measures between gays and straights, either in the popular or academic press, that does not give this “minority stress” factor as the cause. But there is no definitive research driving this conclusion. It’s only “true” because so many people of goodwill desire it to be true. This lack of research is noted in the “12 years” study itself with the authors admitting (on page 2) that “although researchers have long theorized that [social] stigma may exert deleterious consequences for health” upon sexual minorities “there has been scant empirical attention paid to this topic.”
They acknowledge a comprehensive review of the literature on this question only uncovered two studies, which are of questionable quality. The “dearth of research” on this topic is due to the “paucity of available measures” of social stigma, a gap their study intended to fill. But it did not. So all we are left with is speculation.
Beyond this shortage of proof, the manipulative “accept-our-sexuality-or-we-die” accusation faces serious challenges on a whole other front. What if it were true that gay citizens from the most uncontestedly gay-friendly nations in the world also experienced these disturbingly high levels of distress? They do, in the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, and others. Here, here, and here are just three examples of proof. In fact, there is sadly no country—tolerant or not—where LGBT folks’ health measures are on par with the general population.
Along this line, a 2016 study published in the European Journal of Epidemiology examined how the hard-fought social affirmation that legalizing gay marriage was promised to provide impacted the well-being of Swedish same-sex married couples. They have suicide rates nearly three times that of their opposite-sex married peers. The authors caution their numbers are likely an underestimation. A similar Danish study found that same-sex married women suffered a six-fold increase in suicide risk over their opposite-sex married peers, and same-sex partnered men an eight-fold increase risk.
Even Many Gay People Don’t Blame Stigma
An additional vein of investigation sheds further light. Of same-sex or bi-attracted youth in the United States, only 21 percent who attempted suicide said their action was “highly related” to their sexual orientation, and 43 percent said it was “not related” in any way. In addition, 66 percent of such youth first attempted suicide before coming out to their family and only 16 percent did so after coming out. Such findings led one scholar to note that suicide attempts among LGB youth
…most often followed same-sex awareness and preceded disclosure of sexual orientation to others. It is therefore very likely that sexual minority youth who complete suicide may do so never having disclosed their sexual orientation, identity or behaviors to others.
What likely drove such tragic behaviors among these youth did not seem to be how people treated them due to their sexual identity. Their desperation happened before they revealed it to the world. Also, suicide risk doesn’t seem to remit, nor mental and physical health level out, as one grows older and more confident with his or her sexuality. Sadly, it doesn’t appear to get better even as gay acceptance improves by dramatic measures, as much as we would like to believe it does.
Regardless of where you find yourself on this issue, we must all recognize that these dramatic differences found among our LGB friends, neighbors, and family members is of serious importance. But we must also recognize that if the United States or any other nation were to adopt the remarkable acceptance and affirmation of homosexuality long experienced in many parts of Northern Europe and Scandinavia, it would do little to change this imbalance.
To take this issue with the seriousness if deserves, we must be open to considering other causes so that we can find real solutions.