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Hate Kills: How Homophobia Takes Years Off of Your Life

That's the conclusion of a new Columbia University public health study comparing death rates with Americans' attitudes toward gay rights.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/BladeBorge

 
 
 
 

This article originally appeared at Pacific Standard, and is reprinted here with their permission.

There’s a price to be paid for homophobia, and it’s a steep one: Approximately two and one-half years off of your life.

That’s the conclusion of a provocative new research paper, which examines the social attitudes and death rates of a large, representative sample of Americans over two recent decades.

“We found evidence that anti-gay prejudice is associated with elevated mortality risk among heterosexuals, over and above multiple established risk factors,” writes a research team led by Mark Hatzenbuehler of Columbia University. “In particular, there was a 2.5-year life expectancy difference between individuals with high vs. low levels of anti-gay prejudice.”

The cause, the researchers write in the American Journal of Public Health, may be homophobes’ higher stress levels. It appears all that intense discomfort takes a physical toll.

Hatzenbuehler and colleagues Anna Bellatorre and Peter Muennig analyzed data from the General Social Survey, which has tracked Americans’ attitudes and behaviors since 1972, and the National Death Index, which compiles information from death records. They focused specifically on attitudes toward homosexuality, as reported in GSS surveys from 1988 to 2002.

Homophobia was measured by noting responses to four specific questions, including “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?” and “Should a man who admits that he is a homosexual be allowed to teach in a college or university, or not?”

The final sample featured 20,226 American heterosexuals. Nineteen percent of them, or 4,216, had died by the year 2008.

After adjusting for a variety of factors known to influence health and mortality, including age, race, marital status, income, and education, the researchers found anti-gay prejudice was “significantly associated with elevated mortality,” resulting in “a-life expectancy difference of approximately 2.5 years.”

While they found no link between homophobia and cancer deaths, anti-gay bias “was specifically associated with cardiovascular-related causes of death among heterosexuals,” they write.

The researchers have no definitive answer regarding the causes behind these earlier-than-expected deaths, but they do offer some ideas.

“Existing evidence suggests that, for highly prejudiced people, intergroup interactions are stressful,” they note. “Stress in turn is associated with less healthy behavior, such as overeating, smoking and heavy drinking. These health behaviors are therefore likely mechanisms linking anti-gay prejudice to mortality.”

Hatzenbuehler and his colleagues report they were “unable to determine whether it is anti-gay prejudice in particular, or prejudice more broadly, that is associated with mortality among majority-group members.”

“However,” they add, “our sensitivity analyses indicated that anti-gay prejudice increased mortality risk more strongly than racial prejudice.”

This suggests it’s a very good thing that Americans’ attitudes toward homosexuality have been moving in the direction of tolerance and acceptance in recent years. This research suggests such a shift may produce a major, unexpected side benefit: longer lives.

“These findings,” the researchers conclude, “contribute to a growing body of research suggesting that reducing prejudice may improve the health of both minority and majority populations.”

We can already envision the public-service campaign: Bigotry: It’s Bad for Your Health.

Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Ventura County Star.