Though it’s been in the spotlight recently, Russia is far from the only place where LGBT people face violence and extreme discrimination. Rarely, though, do we get to see statistics about how that kind of stigma might affect people’s lives.
It turns out the link is significant. A new study from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health now shows that gay Americans who live in neighborhoods with strong anti-gay sentiment have lower life expectancies by an average of 12 years.
The researchers relied on an annual survey called the General Social Survey/National Death Index to look at statistics from 1988 to 2002 (it became biennial in 1994). Among many questions, the survey asked about sexual history and views on homosexuality. Four questions determined the level of anti-gay prejudice, or “structural stigma,” in certain neighborhoods:
1. “If some people in your community suggested that a book in favor of homosexuality should be taken out of your public library, would you favor removing this book, or not?”
2. “Should a man who admits that he is a homosexual be allowed to teach in a college or university, or not?”
3. “Suppose a man who admits that he is a homosexual wanted to make a speech in your community. Should he be allowed to speak, or not?”
4. “Do you think that sexual relations between two adults of the same sex is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?”
The researchers, led by socio-medical science assistant professor Mark Hatzenbuehler, then looked at LGB mortality rates next to the strength of anti-gay views in their neighborhoods. The study, published in Social Science & Medicine, found that a gay person living in a high-stigma area was 2.1 times more likely to die of suicide than a gay person living in a low-stigma neighborhood. They also found that 6.25% of gay deaths in highly prejudiced groups of people were due to violence or murder, on average, compared to 1.96% of gay deaths in low-stigma areas.
Living in an anti-gay area also correlated to the age at which a gay person might commit suicide. Those living in highly prejudiced neighborhoods died of suicide at an average age of 37.5 compared to an average age of 55.7 in low-stigma neighborhoods. Violence-related deaths also occurred an average four years earlier in high-stigma areas.
The findings also extended to deaths from disease as well. Cardiovascular deaths for LGB people were also more frequent in high-stigma neighborhoods. Researchers found that LGB people were 34% more likely to die of cardiovascular disease in a high-stigma area than a low one, though they were also slightly less likely to die of cancer. Increased mortality risk because of HIV/AIDS, meanwhile, actually held no significant link to high- or low-stigma neighborhoods.
The authors believe that stress might be the cause of more cardiovascular deaths in anti-gay areas. “The experience of discrimination, prejudice, and social marginalization creates several unique demands on stigmatized individuals that are stress-inducing,” they write. “In turn, psychosocial stressors are strongly linked to [cardiovascular disease] risk.”
It’s important to note that the Columbia study only looked at correlation–there’s nothing yet that can prove that living in a high-stigma neighborhood causes all of these outcomes. The researchers note that factors they didn’t account for could be shortening lives, too–like the availability and quality of health care, air quality, and neighborhood crime rates.
Still, after controlling for different mortality risks with self-rated health, race, ethnicity, household income, and educational attainment, the study authors found that mortality risk remained strongly linked to anti-gay sentiment. If their results can be replicated, it’ll be more difficult to justify homophobia as a strictly personal freedom. Strong anti-gay sentiment, perhaps, could kill.