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STUDY: Stigma Causes Gay Community To Die Younger

The study claims high-prejudice environments may impact people's longterm health.

Editor’s note: The study summarized in this article was retracted in February 2019, at the request of the authors and the editors in chief of the journal that published it, Social Science & Medicine. In a statement accompanying the now-retracted paper, the journal wrote, “The reason for the retraction is that the authors discovered an error in the study, which, once corrected, rendered the association between structural stigma and mortality risk no longer statistically significant in the sample of 914 sexual minorities.”

ThinkProgress has also updated some of the language in this article to account for this development.

A new study from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health claims anti-gay stigma significantly shortens the life-spans of people who identity as gay, lesbian, or bisexual (LGB). The study compared LGB people who lived in communities with significant anti-gay prejudice with those who lived in the most welcoming communities and claimed those in the stigmatizing communities had a shorter life expectancy by an average of 12 years.

The study compared data on prejudicial attitudes from the General Social Survey with mortality data from the National Death Index over the 20-year period from 1988 to 2008. By the end of the study, 92 percent of LGB residents in the low-prejudice communities were still living, but only 78 percent in the high-prejudice communities were still living. The distinction appeared to correlate with substantially elevated rates of suicide, homicide/violence, and cardiovascular disease in the high-prejudice community. For example, in those communities, 25 percent of deaths were due to cardiovascular disease, compared to 18.6 percent on the low-prejudice communities.

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The study’s lead author, Mark Hatzenbuehler explained that these differences were supposedly independent of other factors that affect mortality:

HATZENBUEHLER: 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. 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.

Hatzenbuehler was the lead researcher on a similar 2011 study that found that conservative attitudes increased the suicide risk for LGB teens by 20 percent and even impacted the suicide risk for straight youth. A recent analysis found that discrimination similarly increases the suicide attempt risk for transgender people.

Conservatives have long claimed that homosexuality is unhealthy, using the AIDS epidemic as evidence to support the claim. In reality, treatment for HIV has improved so much that people who have contracted the virus are projected to live just as long as people who do not. Minority stress, on the other hand, continues to have a detrimental impact on the health and well-being of the gay community.