A fresh look at the 'new evidence' part 1 - blog by lifelinking


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A fresh look at the 'new evidence' part 1
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Posted 06-Mar-2012 at 01:16 AM (01:16) by lifelinking
Updated 23-Mar-2012 at 03:38 PM (15:38) by lifelinking

Let me set out the context of this blog. Some weeks ago Cardinal Keith O’Brien came out with this during a tirade against same sex marriage reform:

“The empirical evidence is clear, same-sex relationships are demonstrably harmful to the medical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of those involved, no compassionate society should ever enact legislation to facilitate or promote such relationships, we have failed those who struggle with same-sex attraction and wider society by our actions.”
In response to this I asked to be provided with references for this ‘clear empirical evidence’ and was provided with four links by John Deighan, the Parliamentary Officer from the Catholic Parliamentary Office in Scotland. I subsequently blogged about these here, here and here.

What I found and reported on was a mixture of pseudo science stated as fact, the presentation of old and now entirely discredited medical ‘facts’ , and the highly selective use and misrepresentation of legitimate research findings.

Today (5 March 2012) John Deighan was on a talk show on Radio Scotland following on from yet more statements by Cardinal Keith O’Brien, and again started talking about ‘evidence’. For example, in response to being asked whether he pitied gay people he stated:

I think they are choosing the wrong path Kaye. I think they are choosing something that doesn’t help them, you know. There’s major issues that are covered up, and I’m afraid Tom* would charge us with being homophobic just for raising them things to do with the life expectancy, and mental health and suicide rate, all of these things are swept under the carpet.
To break this stated position down:

• Gay people are choosing a ‘wrong path’ ( a moral judgement)
• The choices they are making are not only immoral, they are bad for them in terms of making them mentally ill, leading them to die younger and making them more susceptible to taking their own lives.
• These things are somehow being ‘covered up’ and those who raise them are open to being labelled as homophobic.

I phoned in to the same programme and challenged Mr Deighan about the quality of his evidence and he went on to mention having ten pieces of new evidence, which he offered to send to me if I made contact. I did so and he sent me details of nine pieces of research and some guidance notes. What follows are details of the first piece of research he sent to me along with some of my own commentary and analysis.

Cochran,S.D and Mays,V.M. (2000) Lifetime prevalence of suicide symptoms and affective disorders among men reporting same-sex sexual partners: results from NHANES III, American Journal of Public Health, April; 90(4): 573–578.

What this research says

This study looked at information obtained in a periodic national survey into health and nutrition in the United States, comparing the prevalence of ‘suicide symptoms’ (reported thoughts of death, desire for death, thoughts of committing suicide, attempts at suicide) between male respondents aged between 17 and 39 that reported a history of same sex sexual partners, those reporting female only sexual partners and those reporting no sexual partners. The study found a higher level of suicide symptoms in the group that had reported same sex partners than those who reported only female partners. The authors stated in the abstract:

These data provide further evidence of an increased risk for suicide symptoms among homosexually experienced men. Results also hint at a small, increased risk of recurrent depression among gay men, with symptom onset occurring, on average, during early adolescence.
It should be noted that there were actually no questions about sexual orientation in the survey. There were questions related to sexual behaviour, which had been intended to provide a measure of risk behaviour related to HIV infection. The authors used the answers to these behavioural questions as a ‘proxy’ for sexual orientation and classified respondents accordingly as ‘behaviourally’ heterosexual or homosexual / bisexual. The study found (P575) that:

on average, men reporting previous male sex partners evidenced significantly greater numbers of lifetime suicide symptoms (mean=1.2, SE=0.2) than men who reported only female sex partners (mean=0.5, SE=0.3; t=3.42, P < .01). Statistical adjustment for demographic confounding did not change these results.
In the discussion section of the report (P577) the authors specifically looked at possible causal factors:

..the differences observed in suicide symptoms and possibly recurrent depressive disorders among men with different sexual histories in NHANES III may result from widely disparate factors. These factors might include stigmatization and psychosocial stress among homosexually experienced men, as hypothesized by some,5,21,34 or differences in response bias in which there is possibly a lower threshold among homosexual men for reporting negative psychological symptoms. Only further research in this area can begin to answer these questions definitively.
An analysis

This study has been produced as evidence that the choices that gay people make are bad for them, because they are more likely to commit suicide. The idea of sexual orientation being a choice is not actually considered in this study at all. The authors do conclude that their findings support the idea that homosexual / bisexual men are at higher risk of suicide (which in turn supports previous research findings which have supported the same hypothesis).

They are very cautious about speculating what the reasons for this might be, stating that further research will be required to uncover whether these differences lie in variable likelihood of reporting psychological symptoms or in variable causal factors which they tentatively suggest might include stigmatisation. We must be equally cautious about assuming that these findings from the United States in 2000 would necessarily be replicated elsewhere in 2012.

I note that yet again, a piece of research into a serious public health issue is used to bolster a moralistic argument made against the population that are the subject of the study. The view of those quoting this study (but most certainly not that of the researchers) seems to be “let’s blame these people, because we happen to dislike the way they live their lives.” Once again the fact that most people irrespective of sexual orientation do not report any of the symptoms of suicide is conveniently ignored. In this version of reality however, there is no equal playing field for those that do. This world view connects not only sexual orientation but mental health with moral judgements, but only for the targeted group.

It is assumed, entirely without evidence , that the causes of suicide for gay people are endogenous and more, that they derive from their own choices. The implication of this is that they are, at least to some extent, to blame. I ask this question of those in the Roman Catholic Church who believe this. What do you think causes the symptoms of suicide in people that are not gay?

Some people of all sexual orientations, may reach points in life where they consider taking their own lives, or attempt to do so, or actually do so. We should be looking both at exogenous factors that may be contributing to this (such as the despair arising from poverty or trauma or dislocation) and endogenous factors (such as mental health conditions like clinical depression). Often, we will be looking at combinations of both.

The purpose of doing this is to figure out practical things we can do to support and help people in these situations and to reduce the incidence of suicide. Singling out a particular sub-set of people and pointing a stigmatising finger of blame at them based on a false argument from authority is grubby, unworthy and harmful.

There are other groups at higher risk of suicide too. Young men in Scotland are twice as likely to take their own lives as men elsewhere in the UK, and suicide is twice as common in deprived areas. Maybe we should blame these men for being young and Scottish, or the poor for having the temerity to be poor. Does this sound ridiculous? But hiding prejudiced assumptions behind a cloak of ‘having evidence’ (a cloak that mysteriously disappears when you look more closely at it) is not just ridiculous, it is abhorrent.

When did you last hear a Senior Roman Catholic Cleric in Scotland get as upset, animated and vocal about poverty, as they do about the possibility of two grown up people who love each other getting married? If I believed in such things, I would expect the man who turned over the tables of the moneylenders, to be birlin in his grave.

A fresh look at the 'new evidence' - Part 2

*Tom French from the Equality Network was in the same call in programme

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  1. Old Comment

    Evidence? What evidence?

    By 'new evidence' I assume Deighan meant new to him since the first one is 12 years old.

    Anyway, I do wonder if the increased suicide rate for gays has anything to do with the homophobia they frequently encounter. I wonder then what Deighan or O'Brien would say if there was conclusive evidence that this was the case and that the solution was to challenge and consign all such discrimination to the dustbin of history once and for all. Would they change their stance even if it reduced these suicides? I think not.
    Posted 06-Mar-2012 at 02:08 AM (02:08) by Zeno2712
  2. Old Comment
    lifelinking's Avatar
    Thank you Zeno. From a practical, common-sense viewpoint, having to cope with homophobic bigotry, fear and stigmatisation would seem to be a likely candidate as the major causal factor. More in depth studies adopting an ethnographic / hermeneutic approach might help to uncover this. Of course this would mean coming to the subject with the intention of really listening to and respecting what people say without the baggage of assumptions and stereo-types.
    Posted 06-Mar-2012 at 11:26 AM (11:26) by lifelinking lifelinking is offline
  3. Old Comment
    ouinon's Avatar
    About homosexuality and choice I beg to differ: although most male homosexuality does appear to be more "driven"/less "free" or "chosen", ( perhaps because of a typically greater need in many/most men for some sort of sexual activity, and the greater male inability to participate in sex if feel no desire than is the case with women ... ) some/a significant number of women identifying as lesbian insist that their sexual behaviour/activity and identity is a choice.

    Reluctant respect/admiration/hats off to you for making the effort for trying to change the range of cultural influences acting on at least the people listening to the radio etc even if the church figures remain impervious to you. Yuck to their views. Bleh. Vile.
    Posted 06-Mar-2012 at 03:49 PM (15:49) by ouinon ouinon is offline
    Updated 12-Mar-2012 at 08:48 AM (08:48) by ouinon
  4. Old Comment
    Gurdur's Avatar
    Tweeted from @The_Heathens:

    Lifelinking blogs again on Cardinal O'Brian, #Scotland, #gaymarriage, #LGBT, #discrimination --- in http://goo.gl/OHNou --- #UKpolitics
    Posted 06-Mar-2012 at 07:28 PM (19:28) by Gurdur Gurdur is offline
  5. Old Comment
    Thank you again, Lifelinking for taking the time to unravel this.
    When did you last hear a Senior Roman Catholic Cleric in Scotland get as upset, animated and vocal about poverty
    Quite. Or domestic violence. Or sectarianism. Or even child abuse....
    Posted 06-Mar-2012 at 09:51 PM (21:51) by Fia Fia is offline
  6. Old Comment
    lifelinking's Avatar
    Ouinon, thank your for your comments. It is interesting (as always) to get your view on things. It seems pretty clear that for many people their sexual orientation is not a choice but is an expression of who they are at a biological / genetic / neurological level. The experiences and perceptions of some others, such as those you describe, are indeed different and my own view is that this is neither inherently worse or better, it just is.

    I am acutely aware that there is a danger in debating organisations such as the RC Church on their own terms, as it might seem to lend legitimacy to their false, polarised view of a world where there is a natural order that is inherently good (the naturalistic fallacy) and some choices are inherently bad because they run contrary to their particular fixed dogma (an appeal to authority fallacy). The danger is that arguing with them in this territory lends a validity to their view of the world it does not really have, and a legitimacy that it does not deserve. As I have written before, what if a person that was not 'biologically predisposed' to same sex attraction made a choice (lifestyle or otherwise) to have a same sex relationship with another consenting adult? Would that be inherently bad? If not inherently bad, would it be morally 'less good' than a relationship based on 'genuine' biological attraction? (Maybe we could develop a DNA test to make sure that people did not enter the wrong kind of relationship ...)

    Apologies for repeating this rhetoric, but I suppose my point is, where would this kind of thinking end? This is one of the reasons I think that we have to go beyond 'appeals to nature' and recognise the essentially social and political nature of the same sex marriage debate. Making this about 'nature' is at best a diversion and at worst potentially dangerous. This is not a debate about our 'genetic programming'. It is about things like liberty, social justice, human rights and (let's not forget) love. Part of the reason for the work I am putting in to looking at this 'evidence' is to remind folk that people like Cardinal O'Brien are not just mistaken about what they think the evidence means on a surface level, but that their philosophical view of nature and morality is more deeply and fundamentally flawed.

    Thank you for tweeting this Gurdur.

    Fia, thank you for the kind words and for the points you make.
    Posted 06-Mar-2012 at 11:27 PM (23:27) by lifelinking lifelinking is offline
    Updated 06-Mar-2012 at 11:41 PM (23:41) by lifelinking
  7. Old Comment
    Makbawehuh's Avatar
    Lifelinking, it's good to see you back! And you're blogging interesting things!


    While I don't identify as lesbian, my experience has been that I'm as likely to fall in love with a woman as a man, provided they've got the right personality traits; attraction tends to follow those feelings, so it's less about being one or the other, and more about caring for the people involved. I can see where people could point at women and say "it's a choice", when for me, the "choice" isn't really about where the attraction lies for me, it's about suppressing my feelings about other women. The attraction is always going to be there.

    And you're right... At least from having watched friends, it seems like sexuality tends to be a lot more hard wired for men than it is for women. Not all women, but many.

    Not objecting, just throwing out my two cents and musing.

    Now, what I have to wonder, in light of how many lesbians I know spent years and years married to men they cared about but weren't really attracted to, is how much of the women's "not seeming hard wired" for it, is actually social programming? I've mentioned in other blog posts that there is incredible pressure put on women, and the expectations ingrained from a very young age, to grow up, get married, and have children like a good girl, even in this supposedly liberated society. Good girls are doormats and do as they're told, to put it bluntly, and it's the message we get from the time we're small... And it affects every part of our lives, even those of us who are known for being loudmouthed bitches. Given the alternate reactions of hypersexualization and homophobia to lesbianism, neither one of which exactly feel nice to the women involved, there's lots of reason to keep that knowledge to yourself, or to try to quell the attraction, or to spend years in denial about it. And if that's the case at all, how much damage is that causing to the women involved?

    Sorry, Lifelinking. I'm off topic. You can go back to your regularly scheduled programming, now. This post and the comments in it are generally very thought-provoking, and I do appreciate it.
    Posted 07-Mar-2012 at 04:26 AM (04:26) by Makbawehuh Makbawehuh is offline
  8. Old Comment
    lifelinking's Avatar
    Not off topic at all Makbawehuh. Germane and thought provoking I thought. Thanks for the comment.
    Posted 07-Mar-2012 at 11:53 AM (11:53) by lifelinking lifelinking is offline
  9. Old Comment
    ouinon's Avatar
    Makbawehuh About how "hard-wired" women's sexuality might actually be: your remark brought me up with a jolt; the thought that men might be less "obedient"/conformist/submissive to social pressure than women, and that this combined with what appears to be a generally more "urgent" sexual drive in men practically "pushing" them to express it may mean that a larger proportion of homosexual men are active and/or out than homosexual/lesbian women is rather shocking. Do you mean that the number of women currently out and/or actively in lesbian relationships may be a relatively small percentage ( compared to the proportion of gay men ) of those who actually feel/have felt sexual attraction to women?

    Lifelinking: I didn't mean to say that the argument about homosexual rights needed to settle anything about how genetic or not it is, at all, but I got the impression from your blog piece that you were assuming or referring to a genetic/"non-chosen" nature of homosexuality to support your position, ie. in drawing a parallel with poverty, which I presume you mean is not chosen? Sorry if I misunderstood your argument; it seemed to rely on homosexuality being unchosen/genetic.
    Posted 07-Mar-2012 at 08:33 PM (20:33) by ouinon ouinon is offline
    Updated 12-Mar-2012 at 08:49 AM (08:49) by ouinon
  10. Old Comment
    iamwombat's Avatar
    Very well said and written Lifelinking!
    Posted 07-Mar-2012 at 10:06 PM (22:06) by iamwombat iamwombat is offline
  11. Old Comment
    lifelinking's Avatar
    Ouinon, it was good that you drew my attention to this as this is a point worth regularly making clear so people can think about these issues rather than just accepting the 'hard wired' V 'choice' argument at face value.

    Thank you for the comment Iamwombat.
    Posted 08-Mar-2012 at 02:36 PM (14:36) by lifelinking lifelinking is offline
  12. Old Comment
    Makbawehuh's Avatar
    Ouinon -

    I don't know for sure; it's one of those things where I note a trend among older lesbians to have been through the, raised a family, spent decades to a man they weren't really attracted to, and came out in their thirties, forties, or fifties. I can't really tell what the prevalence is, or how societal shift is affecting that with younger people, because... They aren't really there, yet. I'll probably spend the rest of my life watching to see if that gets verified at all. The common trend with these women seems to be that they got married because it's what they were supposed to do, but cared for other women, and usually, their husbands knew they were lesbians way before they did. It took them that long to admit it to themselves. I have no numbers here, and I really wish I did.

    Homosexual behavior is a lot more tolerated in younger women these days, though... Though as I said before, it also is a thing that tends to get hypersexualized, or to get treated in a way that swings back and forth between hypersexualization and homophobia, so...

    On one hand, you have men, who are pretty much trained to go after whatever they want from an early age and to be assertive about it, and are sometimes harshly pushed towards that sort of thing whether they need it or not. Yes, they get treated badly if that ends up being channeled into homosexual behavior by a lot of folks, but on the other hand, they're still doing what they've been trained to do. And on the other, you have women, who are still trained, sometimes subtly and sometimes not, to keep their mouths shut because no one wants to hear them anyways, to do their duty, and be a good girl... And unlike the men, who have to deal with only the homophobic reactions, women have the dual enemy of hypersexualization of lesbianism and homophobia to deal with. So yes, I think in some ways, women have -more- of a reason to keep quiet or deny their feelings, even to themselves, than men do. Given the opportunity to do so, women are just as sexually aggressive as men, so it's not like I think there's less drive.

    And I beg to differ with people who say lesbianism is more acceptable than being a gay man. It's treated differently, but you get punished all the same... *blinks, has thoughts, keeps her musings on topic*

    I could be completely wrong, but it'd be a fun study if I was a sociologist or something.
    Posted 09-Mar-2012 at 02:59 AM (02:59) by Makbawehuh Makbawehuh is offline
  13. Old Comment
    ouinon's Avatar
    I wish that society taught us that each and every kind of consensual adult sexual encounter was equally valid and acceptable.

    Am struck by your point about lesbianism being met with a mixture of both hypersexualisation and fear/loathing/disgust. Have experienced this at first hand from men. Bleh.
    Posted 09-Mar-2012 at 09:05 PM (21:05) by ouinon ouinon is offline
    Updated 12-Mar-2012 at 08:47 AM (08:47) by ouinon
  14. Old Comment
    Makbawehuh's Avatar
    Originally Posted by ouinon View Comment
    I wish that society taught us that each and every kind of consensual adult sexual encounter was equally valid and acceptable.

    Am struck by your point about lesbianism being met with a mixture of both hypersexualisation and fear/loathing/disgust. Have experienced this at first hand from men. Bleh.
    Ditto on both points.

    I tend to have more relationships with men than women, but that is, imho, mostly a numbers game. There's just more men interested than there are women interested.
    Posted 10-Mar-2012 at 02:00 AM (02:00) by Makbawehuh Makbawehuh is offline
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