The Brain Supremacy

From the frontiers of neuroscience

The Brokeback Effect: Homophobia and Premature Mortality

Prejudice is really bad for the health.

This morning I was late starting work, so I was still doing housework when my attention was hauled back to the final few minutes of the BBC’s Today Programme. For those of you whose lives have so far been free of this 3-hour matutinal ritual, it’s the UK’s daily fix of politics and ‘opinion-forming’, famed for its sometimes aggressive style, and carrying huge clout among the governing classes (though there are plenty of Brits who’ve never heard of it).

A woman described as ‘Commentator Ann Leslie’ (she writes for the Daily Mail) was attacking another woman, who’d been complaining about some men’s magazine putting a child’s doll on the front cover. Or something; I wasn’t really listening. What did make me listen was when they got onto the topic of stereotyping kids’ toys, and one of Today’s presenters, Evan Davis, said quietly, “I like pink”. Leslie remarked, “You would.” The other presenter said, “Steady on!”, and at that point the programme ended.

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Evan Davis, you see, is gay.

A few minutes later, I’m logging on and going through the email, among which are tables of journal contents and notifications of interesting new developments in the science world, and I come across this article:

“Structural stigma and all-cause mortality in sexual minority populations”

This is a big US study, linking data from a social survey about levels of anti-gay prejudice to the country’s ‘National Death Index’. And here’s what it found (so says the abstract):

  • Sexual minorities living in communities with high levels of anti-gay prejudice experienced a higher hazard of mortality than those living in low-prejudice communities
  • This result translates into a shorter life expectancy of approximately 12 years (95% C.I.: 4–20 years) for sexual minorities living in high-prejudice communities.
  • Analysis of specific causes of death revealed that suicide, homicide/violence, and cardiovascular diseases were substantially elevated among sexual minorities in high-prejudice communities.
  • Strikingly, there was an 18-year difference in average age of completed suicide between sexual minorities in the high-prejudice (age 37.5) and low-prejudice (age 55.7) communities.

In other words, the research suggests that living in a community full of people who hate and/or despise you, and are happy to let you know it, is really, really bad for your health. Just being a member of a sexual minority (or, I’d guess, some other equally controversial outgroup) can take years off life. But it's not being gay that does the damage; it's the hostility from others.

In terms of life expectancy, being gay among homophobes is comparable with being poor in a nation of rich people (and one whose citizens are taught to revere money and see poverty as self-inflicted).

When people who express prejudices are challenged, they often play the humour card: “Oh, it was just a joke!” They know that we tend to like someone who makes us laugh, and that we don’t like the sense of exclusion implicit in the statement: “You can’t take a joke.” It’s an old ploy, and often effective; no one wants to be seen as humourless.

But as research is increasingly showing (and this study is one of many), anti-gay prejudice is no joke. It’s also silly, in that whether you’re gay or straight or bisexual is irrelevant to most social situations (like how well you do your job, or even whether you have a sense of humour). So why should we care about a person’s sexuality, unless we’re planning a sexual relationship with them?

Libertarians might argue that free speech is a crucial freedom, but these ‘jokes’ aren’t funny. They’re dangerous. For gay people, poor people, and other minorities too, the cumulative social pressure can be lethal.

Twenty years ago, a young member of the UK Labour Party, Neil Kinnock, made a remarkable speech about what he foresaw if the Conservatives took power.

“I warn you that you will have pain – when healing and relief depend on payment.

“I warn you that you will have ignorance – when talents are untended and wits are wasted, when learning is a privilege and not a right.

“I warn you that you will have poverty – when pensions slip and benefits are whittled away by a Government that won’t pay, in an economy that can’t pay.”

The speech ends:

“I warn you not to be ordinary.
I warn you not to be young.
I warn you not to fall ill.
I warn you not to get old.”

Judging by recent research (two decades of social progress later), you’d still better not be poor or non-heterosexual either.

Copyright Kathleen Taylor (@neurotaylor) 2014.

Kathleen Taylor is a freelance science writer and researcher at Oxford University.

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