SPLC myth #4: Homosexuals don’t live nearly as long as heterosexuals

As anticipated, the groups identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “hate groups” have reacted with defensive distraction. Instead of responding directly to the charges made by the SPLC, they have organized a significant effort to change the subject. Called Start Debating/Stop Hating, the website   consists of endorsements from some prominent conservative activists, politicians and ministers. The website also asks visitors to sign a petition which reads:

“We, the undersigned, stand in solidarity with Family Research Council, American Family Association, Concerned Women of America, National Organization for Marriage, Liberty Counsel and other pro-family organizations that are working to protect and promote natural marriage and family. We support the vigorous but responsible exercise of the First Amendment rights of free speech and religious liberty that are the birthright of all Americans.”

That sounds fine until you realize that the SPLC did not place groups on the list because they favored “natural marriage and family.” There are other unlisted organizations (e.g., Focus on the Family, Alliance Defense Fund) which clearly and publicly oppose gay marriage.  The SPLC clearly stated reasons why the new groups, including the FRC and the AFA were listed. The issue is a systematic effort to vilify gays, such as this gem from American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer:

Homosexuality gave us Adolph Hitler, and homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine and six million dead Jews. Gays in the military is an experiment that has been tried and found disastrously and tragically wanting. Maybe it’s time for Congress to learn a lesson from history.

That is SPLC myth #5. For this post, I am going to look at myth #4 which focuses on the claim that gays don’t live as long as straights. I have addressed this before extensively and so I am only going to point out again that the groups and their defenders are changing the subject instead of addressing actual problems in the information they present to their constituents.

A recent case in point is a column by Bryan Fischer of the AFA where he did exactly what the SPLC complained about in myth #4. Watch:

While drugs have been found to mitigate the damage done by HIV, there is no cure. Once someone contracts it, he has it for life, a life often tragically shortened by between eight and 20 years, according to the International Journal of Epidemiology.

Smoking will cut six to seven years from the lifespan of the smoker, meaning a cigarette habit is less dangerous to human health and longevity than gay sex.

Given the reference, I assume he is referring to the 1997 study by Hogg et al in the International Journal of Epidemiology which found the following:

In a major Canadian centre, life expectancy at age 20 years for gay and bisexual men is 8 to 20 years less than for all men.

Does Mr. Fischer have a get-off-the-hate-list-free card because he cited a peer reviewed journal? Those who really want to support these groups might be inclined to stop right there and cease their investigation of the question. Indeed, that is what the American College of Pediatricians do on their Facts About Youth website. They say:

The only epidemiological study to date on the life span of gay men concluded that gay and bisexual men lose up to 20 years of life expectancy.

I have pointed out to the people who put that website together that Hogg et al is not the “only epidemiological study to date on the life span of gay men” but they have not changed their website. In any case, the point is that people who count on these organizations for accurate information would not get it by trusting them and reading their claims.

The Hogg et al study was conducted using data from 1987 – 1992 when AIDS claimed many lives. In 2001, Hogg et al countered the incorrect use of their study – the same study that Bryan Fischer and ACPED cites as current information – by noting that life expectancy had improved significantly, saying:

In contrast, 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. As we have previously reported there has been a threefold decrease in mortality in Vancouver as well as in other parts of British Columbia.

This is not reported on the ACPED site nor is it referred to by Bryan Fischer. Why not? If these groups were interested in presenting accurate information in debating and not hating, then why not present the whole picture?

However, there is more. A more recent 2008 studyby Danish epidemiologist Morten Frisch and statistician Henrik Brønnum-Hansen found that the trajectory of gay mortality is improving there to the point where, according to these researchers,

Despite recent marked reduction in mortality among gay men, Danish men and women in same-sex marriages still have mortality rates that exceed those of the general population. The excess mortality is restricted to the first few years after a marriage, presumably reflecting preexisting illness at the time of marriage. Although further study is needed, the claims of drastically increased overall mortality in gay men and lesbians appear unjustified.

The authors found that mortality improved dramatically with the introduction of antiretroviral treatments and while the mortality rates were still not as favorable for gays and lesbians, they were not compatible with the claims of a 20 year difference. Indeed, the Danish researchers found that the mortality picture of married GLB people is improving over time.

More research needs to be done and these studies need replication but the accurate picture is that life span differences are not dramatic and are not comparable to those produced by smoking. If anything, the mortality picture is improving substantially, not declining. If this new effort from the FRC is supposed to be about debate and dialogue then, please discuss this.

Here is a question:

Why haven’t the groups (or their supporters) singled out by the SPLC disclosed the update provided by Hogg et al in 2001 or the study by Frisch and Brønnum-Hansen in 2008?

Regarding mortality, the truth is more in line with what Hogg et al noted in their 2001 update:

It is essential to note that the life expectancy of any population is a descriptive and not a prescriptive mesaure. Death is a product of the way a person lives and what physical and environmental hazards he or she faces everyday. It cannot be attributed solely to their sexual orientation or any other ethnic or social factor. If estimates of an individual gay and bisexual man’s risk of death is truly needed for legal or other purposes, then people making these estimates should use the same actuarial tables that are used for all other males in that population. Gay and bisexual men are included in the construction of official population-based tables and therefore these tables for all males are the appropriate ones to be used.

In addition to avoiding information inconsistent with their premise, the groups identified by the SPLC often use the information they do disclose in an incorrect manner.  If these groups want to debate, then I suggest they use all of the information available and they use it in accord with accepted scientific standards. For instance, generalizing from Hogg et al in 1997 to all gay people everywhere in 2010 is improper and can easily lead to charges of purposeful negative stereotyping. Instead of changing the subject, I would like to see these groups change the way they defend their views.