Gay health claims based on faulty studies
Controversial comments by some Christian leaders over the past week suggesting smoking was healthier than the “gay lifestyle” have now been linked back to discredited research funded by a fundamentalist group in the US as well as other papers which have since been retracted or disowned by their authors.
LGBTI health workers have also indicated that there actually exists very little credible research on the life expectancy of gay people.
Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen (pictured) re-ignited the controversy over gay health after appearing on ABC TV’s Q&A on Monday night, during which he seemed to back remarks by Australian Christian Lobby chief Jim Wallace when he suggested in a recent debate on marriage equality that the life expectancy of gay people was less than that of smokers.
One of the sources for the claims made by Dr Jensen and Wallace seems to be a 1994 study published in the Omega Journal of Death and Dying by the Colorado-based Family Research Institute, which is recognised as a hate group and operates under a mission to “generate empirical research on issues that threaten the traditional family”.
The study, which involved the researchers consulting obituaries in the urban gay community press in the US, has been debunked after it concluded gay men have an average life span of 43 years. The sample used for the study suffered from significant statistical errors caused by the non-inclusion of gay men who were still alive.
Another source for the claims is believed to be a 1997 Canadian study in the International Journal of Epidemiology which concluded that life expectancy in the city of Vancouver for gay and bisexual men at age 20 was eight to 20 years less than for all men.
The study’s data however was collected between 1987-1992 – at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and well before new antiretroviral drugs and other advanced treatments had been developed.
In a 2001 follow-up study though, the authors took aim at “select groups in the US” and elsewhere who were wrongly exploiting the results of the research.
“If we were to repeat this analysis today the life expectancy of gay and bisexual men would be greatly improved. Deaths from HIV infection have declined dramatically in this population since 1996,” they wrote.
“It is essential to note that the life expectancy of any population is a descriptive and not a prescriptive measure. Death is a product of the way a person lives and what physical and environmental hazards he or she faces every day. It cannot be attributed solely to their sexual orientation or any other ethnic or social factor.”
Responding to the continuing furore, Dr Jensen released a statement yesterday in which he said he welcomed the discussion over the issue.
“Some doctors have told me that health outcomes are worse for gay and lesbian people, and gay activists themselves point to health problems. I mean this in the widest sense, not just HIV-AIDS but rates of cancer, alcoholism and other disease,” he said.
“I do not know whether there is sound evidence for this or not. But I think there should be a discussion as to whether this is so, as I said, ‘in a compassionate and objective way’. My hope is that it is not true. If it is true, we need to work out how to respond as a community.”
National LGBTI Health Alliance general manager Warren Talbot said one problem with the claims made Dr Jensen and Wallace was that very little research had been produced on topics dealing with gay health and life expectancy.
“There’s very much a lack of information concerning life expectancy for LGBTI people. We simply don’t know,” Talbot told ABC radio.
“With regard to gay, lesbian and bisexual people, we know that the smoking rates are about twice as high, so that's been well documented.
“The suicide information is quite robust now. And we have data which suggests that for gay, lesbian and bisexual people, suicidality could be three times that of the general population. And for transgender Australians, could be as high as 14 times the general population.”
Most researchers and organisations such as Beyondblue and Headspace believe though that many of the mental health problems to be found among gay and lesbian people, such as high rates of depression and anxiety, are linked to discrimination and homophobia.
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