Could Homophobia Be Hazardous To Your Health?

February 26, 2014 by Justin Lehmiller


Editor’s note (March 25, 2019): The study discussed in this article published in Social Sciences & Medicine has since been retracted. While the results of that particular study appear to have been due to a coding error and should no longer be considered valid, it is important to note that there is a large body of research supporting the idea that anti-gay prejudice appears to be harmful to the health of sexual minorities. See here, here, and here for examples of recent reviews and meta-analyses on this subject.

Several studies have found that people who are frequent victims of anti-gay prejudice and discrimination report worse health. Not only does the stress of victimization put wear and tear on the body, but victims of prejudice often turn to alcohol abuse, substance use, and a range of other unhealthy behaviors as a way of coping, or to seek psychological “escape.” However, a new study published in Social Sciences & Medicine suggests that anti-gay prejudice isn’t just unhealthy–it may actually translate to a dramatically shorter lifespan. And not only that, but another study just published in the American Journal of Public Health suggests that anti-gay prejudice isn’t just harmful to the health of sexual minorities; rather, it may also create serious health risks for those who hold anti-gay views.

The Social Sciences & Medicine study examined how levels of anti-gay prejudice in various communities across the United States are linked to mortality rates for sexual minorities using data from existing nationally representative surveys [1]. Specifically data from the General Social Survey collected between 1988-2002 was linked to data from the National Death Index through 2008.

For purposes of this study, a “sexual minority” was defined as anyone who has ever had same-sex sexual contact in the last year, the last 5 years, or since age 18. So, you did not necessarily have to self-identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual to fall into this group. This resulted in a sample of 914 individuals.

To determine the level of anti-gay prejudice in a given community, researchers looked at how people in that area responded to the following four survey items: (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 found that in communities with the highest levels of anti-gay prejudice, sexual minorities died at younger ages on average than those who lived in areas that were more gay-friendly. And this difference wasn’t small either—in the most anti-gay communities, sexual minorities died 12 years earlier on average. That’s right—12 years!

Another new study (this one published in the American Journal of Public Health suggests that these negative health effects aren’t limited to sexual minorities, though [2]. Using data from the same nationally representative U.S. datasets, researchers looked at how levels of anti-gay prejudice are related to mortality rates for heterosexuals.

For purposes of this study “heterosexual” was defined as anyone who has only had partners of the other sex during the last year, the last 5 years, or since age 18. Again, participants did not necessarily have to self-identify as heterosexual. This resulted in a sample of 20,226 individuals.

The results indicated that heterosexuals who lived in communities with more anti-gay prejudice died sooner than those who lived in gay-friendlier places. The difference wasn’t quite as large as it was for sexual minorities, but was still significant—in the most anti-gay communities, heterosexuals died 2.5 years earlier on average. Of course, in both of these studies, it is important to acknowledge that anti-gay prejudice probably isn’t the only thing that differed across these geographic areas, meaning that other factors could potentially explain the discrepancies in mortality rates. The researchers attempted to address this concern by controlling for a number of factors in the analyses, including socio-economic status, race, age, and so forth; however, there is always concern in studies of this nature about whether all possible confounding variables have been identified and taken into account.

Nonetheless, the results of these studies suggest that anti-gay environments may be harmful to the health of everyone—not just GLBT folks. In light of this, it might do us all a lot of good to learn how to be more tolerant of those who are different.

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[1] Hatzenbuehler, M.L., Bellatorre, A., Lee, Y., Finch, B.K., Muennig, P., & Fiscella, K. (2014). Structural stigma and all-cause mortality in sexual minority populations. Social Sciences & Medicine, 103, 33-41.

[2] Hatzenbuehler, M.L., Bellatorre, A., & Muennig, P. (2014). Anti-gay prejudice and all-cause mortality among heterosexuals in the United States. American Journal of Public Health, 104, 332-337.

Image Source: Jenny Mealing via Wikimedia Commons

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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