A new study has found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) people who live in anti-gay communities are on average likely to die 12 years younger than they would have if they’d lived in an accepting environment.
Researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health undertook the study, the first of its kind, to look at the consequences of anti-gay prejudice on people’s mortality in the United States.
They found that LGB individuals who lived in communities with high levels of anti-gay prejudice have a shorter life expectancy of 12 years on average compared with their peers in the least prejudiced communities.
The study only focused on the US, where homosexuality is relatively well-accepted and not in countries where it is highly criminalised and is a deep social taboo; but it could be assumed that the results there would be much worse.
“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,” commented the study’s lead author, Mark Hatzenbuehler, PhD, assistant professor of Sociomedical Sciences.
“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.”
The authors also found that suicide, homicide and violence, and cardiovascular diseases were all substantially elevated among sexual minorities in high-prejudice communities.
LGB respondents living in high-prejudice communities died of suicide on average at age 37.5, compared to age 55.7 for those living in low-prejudice communities, a striking 18-year difference.
Homicide and violence-related deaths are one of the most direct links between hostile community attitudes and death, and results indicated that homicide rates were over three times more likely to occur in high-prejudice communities than in low-prejudice communities.
Of the deaths in high-prejudice communities, 25% were due to cardiovascular disease, compared to 18.6% of deaths in the low-prejudice communities. “Psychosocial stressors are strongly linked to cardiovascular risk, and this kind of stress may represent an indirect pathway through which prejudice contributes to mortality. Discrimination, prejudice, and social marginalisation create several unique demands on stigmatised individuals that are stress-inducing,” said Dr. Hatzenbuehler.
In order to examine the relationship between prejudice and mortality, the researchers constructed a measure capturing the average level of anti-gay prejudice in the communities where LGB individuals lived, beginning in 1988, using data on prejudicial attitudes from the General Social Survey, one of the primary sources of social indicator data in the social sciences.
This information on sexual orientation and community-level prejudice was then linked to mortality data via the National Death Index. Thus, the authors were able to examine whether mortality risk differed for LGB individuals who lived in communities that were characterised by high versus low levels of prejudice.
By the end of the study, 92% of LGB respondents living in low-prejudice communities were still alive; in contrast, only 78% of the LGB respondents living in high-prejudice communities were still alive.
The study has been published online in the journal Social Science & Medicine.