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Studies show connection between anti-gay bias and death

It comes as no surprise that anti-gay prejudice carries a wide range of damaging effects, but could one of them be death? Two recent studies suggest as much.
Pro and Anti-Gay Marriage Activists Rally At Utah's Capitol
Demonstrators hold an anti-gay marriage rally inside the Utah State Capitol on Jan. 28, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

It comes as no surprise that anti-gay prejudice carries with it a wide range of damaging effects, but could one of them be death?

Two recent studies suggest it’s a possibility.

One, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, found that sexual minorities living in high-prejudice communities faced shorter life expectancies by approximately 12 years. An analysis of specific causes of death showed that suicides, homicides and cardiovascular diseases were all elevated among sexual minorities (i.e., individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual) in communities with more prominent anti-gay attitudes.

As the study notes, prior research has addressed the harmful impact of things like self-stigma and hate crimes on the health and well-being of sexual minorities. But few studies have until now examined the health hazards associated with so-called “structural stigma” -- things like community norms or policies -- on LGB individuals. 

One of the most jaw-dropping findings from the research was an 18-year gap between the average age of sexual minorities who take their own lives in high-prejudice communities, and sexual minorities who take their own lives in a low-prejudiced communities. In areas with high levels of structural stigma, the average age of an LGB person who committed suicide was 37.5; in communities with low levels, the average age was 55.7. Given that suicide indicates such a clear measure of emotional suffering, the study presents compelling evidence of the association between anti-gay bias and mortality in gay people.

The more surprising analysis came out of the American Journal of Public Health, which published a study by the same research team that found a connection between anti-gay prejudice and mortality rates among heterosexuals. According to that research, those who were not highly prejudiced against gay people lived an average 2.5 years longer than those were.
Both studies measured anti-gay bias using a test called the General Social Survey (GSS,) which determines a person’s prejudice score based on answers to four questions:

1.  “If some people in your community suggested that a book in favor of homosexuality should be taken out of your public library, would you favor removing this book, or not?”

2. “Should a man who admits that he is a homosexual be allowed to teach in a college or university, or not?”

3. “Suppose a man who admits that he is a homosexual wanted to make a speech in your community. Should he be allowed to speak, or not?”

4. “Do you think that sexual relations between two adults of the same sex is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?”

Using responses to the GSS between the years 1988 and 2008, researchers analyzed the mortality rates of participants, 4,216 of whom had died by the end of the study period. Their results: researches found that anti-gay prejudice was specifically associated with increased risk for cardiovascular-related deaths.

Why? Well, a lot of it probably has to do with anger. As the study notes: “Anger is a core affective component of anti-gay prejudice among heterosexual men. In turn, physiological changes associated with anger, such as increased cardiac responses, have been linked to the development of hypertension and to coronary heart disease.”

So does that mean every member of the Westboro Baptist Church should stock up on diuretics and beta-blockers? Not exactly. It's important to note that while the studies show an association between anti-gay prejudice and mortality, the research does not show that stigmatizing gay people causes death. In the American Journal study, researchers also sought to control for variables that could also be linked to when a person dies -- such as age, income, education, gender, self-rated health, and race, among others. 

Both studies concede several limitations and the possibility for confounding variables. For example, areas with high levels of anti-gay prejudice may have other risk factors affecting mortality that the study did not fully control for, such as "availability and quality of health care, air quality, crime rates, and the built environment." Additionally, the GSS does not consistently measure certain behavioral factors -- like mortality, diet, smoking, and alcohol consumption -- all of which are known to affect health.

Does this mean a great deal of people are at risk? Not necessarily. There's a bright spot for sexual minorities living in high-prejudice communities. In the past decade, America has seen a significant shift in public acceptance of gay rights, and recent advances on the marriage equality front suggest the trend is not likely to end soon.