Let's start with a fact: there are lies, damn lies and statistics. Let's start with another fact: the news media does not understand this fact. A good illustration of these facts is the recent spate of news stories about how gay men are happier than heterosexual men. These stories are based on a very small study publsihed in Psychosomatic Medicine. US News ran a story claiming:
"A new study has found that gay and bisexual men are less likely to be depressed and have psychological problems than heterosexual men."
Stephen Colbert riffed on the study saying it makes sense to him.
"Of course gays are less stressed. They don't have to deal with women."
The study also claimed to find that people who were out of the closet were less stressed and less depressed than people who were not out about their sexuality. Over at Huff Post live, I appeared on a show that argued that happiness comes from coming out publicly about your sexual secrets, whatever they are. Guests on the show argued that if you like to be spanked, tell everyone and you'll feel better.
Alas, none of this good news for gays and spanking fetishists is really backed up by the data in the original study, which, while intriguing, is hardly evidence that it is being out and gay that makes men happier (let alone women). The original study, published in Psychosomatic Medicine, doesn't really show much of anything for the general public. For one, the study recruited participants in Montreal, a large and fairly progressive city where being openly gay does not come with high social or economic costs. For another, it is based on 87 participants who were: primarily white, primarily with a post-secondary education and/or students, and very young (average age was 24.61).
While gay men in the study seemed to experience less stress and depression than straight men, there are a variety of alternative explanations that might explain this fact (like whether they worked out or not; whether they had children or not; income level and stability). And while closeted people were supposedly more stressed out than non-closeted people, the way "closet" was measured was if the participant was not out to every single person in his/her life. In other words, you might be out at work and at home, but if your grandparents don't know you're gay, then you're marked as closeted. Although this method allowed the study authors to claim fourteen "closeted" participants, I am not completely convinced that this is a good way to figure out whether someone is in the closet or not. Furthermore, the closet might be more an effect of economic security (Will a person get fired if they're out? Will he/she get cut off from familial support?) than disclosure status.
Despite these facts, the news media seems anxious to proclaim that being happy is about being "out." The fact that the lesbian and bisexual women in the study seemed to be as unhappy (in terms of depressive symptoms) as straight men and less happy than straight women is overlooked as well.
All of which is a good lesson not in science, nor in happiness, but in how the news media can distort facts and figures to propagate a story it already believes to be true. That story goes something like this:
Once upon a time there was a gay man and he came out of the closet and was happy and lived happily everyafter.
That story leaves out the fact that coming out depends a lot on the dominant heteorsexual culture in which that person operates. Coming out can lead to increased suicide and depression. Students who come out in the US are far more likely to be punished than their straight peers and this is especially true for lesbian students. And coming out safely is dependent on living in a place where it doesn't lead to increased violence and discrimination.
It seems like more than just bad reporting to tell gay men and women that happiness is up to them, not the world at large, and happiness will derive from disclosure when that very disclosure can be dangerous. All the study really told us is that being gay, male, young, educated and white in a large, libreral city like Montreal can be advantageous. But coming out for a gal in Kansas, metahporically speaking, can be as dangerous as a tornado that lifts your world into the air.