On Sunday, we watched Atlanta's Pride march from the northwest corner of 10th and Peachtree Street. Opposite us, on the northeast corner, stood a tiny group of protesters broadcasting their messages to the crowd. They loved us, they insisted -- so much they had traveled all the way from South Carolina to tell us The Truth.
They told us that America's founding fathers had rallied 'round the battle cry, "No king but Jesus!" (But, no, the founding fathers didn't.) They told us America's founding fathers shared this group's conservative, fundamentalist faith. (But, no, the founding fathers didn't.) They told us any happiness gay men experienced was an elaborate delusion, and that our only hope was to embrace their Truth. (No one in the crowd came forward to do so.)
But, for me, their most remarkable claim was this: that, due to gay men's wretched, disease-ridden lifestyle of debauchery, we can expect to die at the average age of forty-three.
That's a remarkably specific claim. So I wondered: could there be any basis, any evidence at all, to back it up?
A Little Critical Thinking Goes a Long Way
Problems with the claim become immediately apparent to anyone inclined toward basic critical thinking. For such a statistic to have meaning, the researchers would have to had taken a large number of variables into account, including:
Who's really gay? I know a number of people who identify themselves as gay. But I also know some married men who, despite being attracted to or having relationships with men, describe themselves as straight. Given that a number of "gay" men spend their whole lives hiding or denying their true sexual orientation, any statistics on gay men would have to be limited to statistics on "men who admit they're gay."
Another problem, along the same lines: do you know anyone who works for the Department of Proclamation of Sexual Orientation at Death? No? So how, out of all men who die, does one determine the gay ones?
Which men? What group of gay men, specifically, does the statistic describe? Gay men in America? In North America? In Africa? It seems unlikely -- especially give my earlier point -- that one could gather reliable data on all gay men on Earth.
What killed them? To my knowledge, no coroner has ever issued a death certificate identifying the cause of death as "being gay." Some gay people died defending their country in Afganistan. Some gay people died when drunk drivers slammed into their cars. Some gay people died of old age. Should their deaths be figured into the "average age at which gay men die?" And, more importantly, is it accurate to say these men died *because* they were gay?
When was the study completed? Let's be generous and say the statistic *might* be based on the average age of death for self-identified gay men with terminal AIDS. That number would have probably been very low during the height of the AIDS crisis. But even yesterday's parade features a contingent of marchers who have been living with HIV for thirty years. With advances in treatment, the average age of death for a gay man with age has surely risen since, say, 1985.
The Basis of the Claim
In the end, we don't have to speculate about the basis for the claim. As is the case with so many things in life, a little Googling around reveals the origins of the statistic.
Some defenders of this statistic site research by Robert Hogg, Steffanie Strathdee, and others, which studied life expectancy of gay men in Vancouver in the late 1980's and the early 1990's. As the authors of this very paper have themselves pointed out, "our research … [demonstrated] how life expectancy … can be estimated from limited vital statistics data … [I]f we were to repeat this analysis today, the life expectancy of gay and bisexual men would be greatly improved … As we have previously reported there has been a threefold decrease in mortality in Vancouver as in other parts of British Columbia."
In other words: the people who actually conducted this research are the first to say their data doesn't support any claim about the average life expectancy of gay people in general, in either the past or the future. Their goal, instead, was to "assist health planners with the means of estimating the impact of HIV infection on groups."
Others, though -- including former Education Secretary William Bennett -- have cited another source for the claim that homosexuality "takes thirty years off your life," resulting in an average life span of just forty-three years for gay men. The number comes from Paul Cameron, a discredited researcher associated with the anti-gay Family Research Institute, who was stripped of his credentials by the American Psychological Association following complaints about his methods.
In this case, Cameron's research consisted of acquiring back-issues of gay community papers from "several" urban areas, reading the obituaries, and noting the age of death. Cameron averaged these numbers together to create his "average age of death for homosexuals" statistic.
The glaring problem with this "research," pointed out by Centers for Disease Control statistician John Karon, is that "you're only getting the ages of those who die." The ages of gay men who lived would not be included in Cameron's sample, distorting his results.
These problems with Cameron's research have been known -- and widely discussed -- since at least 1997. Anyone citing this statistic as a fact today, fourteen years later, is simply and deliberately lying.
What You Say Says a Lot about You
Jesus once said, "By your words, you shall be justified, and by your words, you shall be condemned" (Matthew 12:37).
Which brings us back to our friends on the street corner this past Sunday.
What would the Christ have to say about people who preach "the Truth" … by lying?