A first-of-its-kind study has found that a link between facing homophobia in the communities in which LGBs live and a greater risk of dying young.
Researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, publishing this month in the journal Social Science & Medicine, wanted to investigate why lesbian, gay and bisexual people from some communities appear to be more likely to die early than others.
In order to assess the relationship between levels of prejudice and mortality, the researchers created a way of measuring an average level of anti-gay prejudice in communities where LGB people are living. To do this, they extracted social indicator data from the national General Social Survey which, among other things, tracks responses to how people feel about hot-button social issues like gay rights. Starting with data from 1988, the researchers then compared that data with mortality rates as recorded by the National Death Index. The researchers chose 2008 as their cut-off point, giving them two decades worth of data to study.
By using all this information, the researchers were able to see how mortality risk tracked with LGB people living in communities with high or low levels of discrimination. What they found was that around 92% of respondents from areas that were rated as “low-prejudice” were still alive by the cut-off point. Only 78% of respondents living in high-prejudice areas of the United States were still alive, a startling contrast that saw LGB people living, on average, 12 years less in high prejudice areas.
Digging deeper, the researchers also found that suicide rates, rates of homicide and violence, as well as cardiovascular disease were all higher in high prejudice communities. For instance, homicide rates were more than three times higher in high-prejudice communities than in low-discrimination areas. LGB people were also more likely to commit suicide on average 18 years earlier in high discrimination areas. While further study would be needed as to the exact reasons why cardiovascular disease appears higher, extreme stress and anxiety are known to be factors that elevate cardiovascular disease risk.
“The results of this study suggest a broadening of the consequences of prejudice to include premature death,” the study’s lead author, Mark Hatzenbuehler, PhD, assistant professor of Sociomedical Sciences, is quoted as saying. “Our findings indicate that sexual minorities living in communities with higher levels of prejudice die sooner than sexual minorities living in low-prejudice communities, and that these effects are independent of established risk factors for mortality, including household income, education, gender, ethnicity, and age, as well as the average income and education level of residents in the communities where the respondents lived,” said Dr. Hatzenbuehler. “In fact, our results for prejudice were comparable to life expectancy differences that have been observed between individuals with and without a high school education.”
The study is classed as particularly strong for two reasons. Its categorizing of discrimination doesn’t rely on LGBs self reporting but rather was derived from the overall prejudiced attitudes that were found in the data.
The religious right has often touted the fact that gay people tend to die younger than heterosexuals as some kind of evidence that the “gay lifestyle” is harmful to a person’s health. What is interesting about this study is that it points out what other studies appear to have also shown: that discrimination is one contributing factor driving LGBTs toward an early death, whether by creating psychological stress that makes them more prone to certain diseases, or by increasing the likelihood of unhealthy behaviors, for instance the higher rate of damaging drug use in the gay community.
While this research does not establish a causal link between discrimination and hastened death in the gay community, it does add to a strong body of research that certainly points in that direction. So the next time someone says that homosexuality is a “dangerous lifestyle,” you might wish to show them this study and point out that the real danger here is prejudice.
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