The ‘gay stigma kills’ mantra is wrong

Michael Cook
December 7, 2016
Reproduced with Permission

One of the most persuasive reasons for treating same-sex relationships with kid gloves is that we need to make amends for unfair institutional stigmatisation in the past. Negative thoughts have generated negative actions like employment discrimination, hate speech, and hate crimes.

And, according to research by researchers at Columbia University, reduced life expectancy.

In 2014 a landmark paper in the journal Social Science & Medicine showed that individuals who lived in communities with high levels of anti-gay prejudice had a shorter life expectancy -- 12 years on average -- compared with their peers in the least prejudiced communities.

The take-away was that prejudice kills. It was far more lethal than tobacco. While smoking reduced life spans by ten years, living in a prejudiced community cut 12 years off LGBT life expectancy. The author, Dr Mark L. Hatzenbuehler, acknowledged that people opposed to same-sex marriage did not “want to hurt people”. However, he continued:

This may well be true, but social science research indicates that policies banning same-sex marriage do, in fact, hurt people. In a series of studies that my colleagues and I have conducted, we have shown that same-sex marriage policies affect the mental and physical health of LGBT individuals.

The research was widely reported as a startling indictment of homophobic attitudes.

But it was wrong.

Writing in the same journal, Mark Regnerus, from the University of Texas at Austin, reported that he tried to analyse Hatzenbuehler’s data ten different ways – and none of them yielded the results claimed in the original article.

Hatzenbuehler had used data gathered in the General Social Survey between 1988 and 2002, which asked some questions about gay prejudice, and the National Death Index. But the GSS data had serious shortcomings. The questions were not the same every year, so Hatzenbuehler had to make assumptions to squeeze the data for results. And it is not clear what those assumptions were. “Hence,” writes Regnerus, “the original study's claims that such stigma stably accounts for 12 years of diminished life span among sexual minorities seems unfounded”.

As every statistician knows, if you torture the data long enough, it will eventually tell you whatever you want.

There's more than a bit of role reversal going on here. Regnerus was crucified for a 2013 study he did of same-sex parenting in which he found that children who had been raised, for at least a brief time, in families with a gay, lesbian, or bisexual parent were more likely to report dysfunctional adult outcomes than those raised in intact biological families. The ensuing uproar over his "homophobia"nearly sank his career. Gay activists campaigned for him to be fired for lack of academic integrity. He continues to be vilified by bloggers.

But no one proved him wrong. He weathered the storm and is currently an associate professor of the University of Texas at Austin and head of the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture.

Will there be a similar outcry over Hatzenbuehler’s study? There should be.

Unless the editors of Social Science & Medicine were persuaded by Regnerus’s critique, it is highly unlikely that they would have published such a comprehensive and humiliating rebuttal. There must be something to it.

This does not mean that the Hatzenbuehler’s research is fake. It may simply be another casualty of a crisis in research, especially in the social sciences. More than a decade ago, a statistics expert, John Ioannides , reached the astonishing conclusion – which was published in the journal PLOS Medicine -- that “for most study designs and settings, it is more likely for a research claim to be false than true. Moreover, for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias.”

Since then, it has become clearer and clearer that accepting social science research as gospel is naive. Apart from a parade of high-profile researchers found guilty of out-and-out fabrication of their data, it has been demonstrated, incredible as it seems, that most research cannot even be replicated.

In a 2015 project , 270 academics teamed up to test the robustness of 100 psychology papers. They found that only 39 percent could be replicated. So Regnerus’s carving up of Hatzenbuehler’s claims is hardly unusual. In fact, it’s almost to be expected.

But while most of the 100 papers were abstruse and inconsequential, Hatzenbuehler’s flawed research has become part of the mythology of LGBT stigmatization which underpins the legalisation of same-sex marriage.