Is Homosexuality Harmful — and So What?

First published June 17, 2004, in Between the Lines

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Or so it seems as gay-rights opponents, in a desperate last-ditch effort to win their cultural war against homosexuality, trot out arguments that have been discredited for decades.

Many of these focus on the alleged harms of homosexuality. Having failed to make a convincing moral case, gay-rights opponents often shift to claims of “health risks” — including disease, decreased life expectancy, higher suicide rates, and so on.

Such scientific-sounding concerns give these opponents a veneer of objectivity. Indeed, their arguments sound almost compassionate at times. Consider the following question posed by Marquette University professor Christopher Wolfe:

“On the basis of health considerations alone, is it unreasonable to ask if it is better not to be an active homosexual? At the very least, don’t the facts suggest that it is desirable to prevent the formation of a homosexual orientation and to bring people out of it when we can?”

The correct answer to Wolfe is, “It depends.” For there are three key questions we must first ask:

(1) Are the allegations of harm accurate?

This question seems obvious, but it’s crucial. Many of the studies cited by gay-rights opponents are abysmally bad.

Consider the oft-repeated claim that homosexual males face a dramatic decrease in life expectancy. The claim is rooted in the research of psychologist Paul Cameron, who argues that even apart from AIDS, gay men on average die over thirty years sooner than their straight counterparts.

How did he reach this startling conclusion? By comparing obituaries in 16 gay publications with those in two mainstream newspapers.

As Dave Barry says, I am not making this up. Cameron’s methodology is laughable even to those with no formal statistical training. Newspaper obituaries are unscientific. Those that appear in gay publications are far more apt to record the deaths of those lost in their prime than of those who died elderly, especially given the target demographic of such publications. There was no control group (after all, gays have obituaries in mainstream publications too). And so on.

It should thus come as no surprise that 1983 Cameron was expelled from the American Psychological Association for ethical violations. Yet his work continues to get cited by otherwise respectable researchers like Wolfe.

But suppose, purely for the sake of argument, we were to grant the allegations of harm cited by gay-rights opponents.

We would still have to ask a second question:

(2) Are the alleged harms caused by homosexuality itself, or some external factor?

In particular, we would have to ask whether many of the alleged harms result from anti-gay sentiment. In that case, there would be a vicious circle: opponents of homosexuality would be basing their opposition on factors caused by that very opposition — a classic case of “blaming the victim.”

In some cases these external factors are complex. Gays are, to a considerable extent, a wounded people. Many experience ostracism from their own families during formative years, with deep emotional scars resulting.

To say this is not to say that gay life is miserable or that we should not take responsibility for our own well-being. Rather, it is to remind those who allege various problems in gay life that they may share responsibility for those problems.

But suppose I’m wrong. Suppose — again for the sake of argument — that the alleged problems result from homosexuality itself, rather than social pressure. There is a third question that must be asked:

(3) What follows?

This is the question most people miss. They assume that if a practice is riskier than the alternatives, the practice must be wrong. But that assumption is demonstrably false.

Driving is riskier than walking. Being a coal miner is riskier than being a newspaper columnist. Football is riskier than chess. Yet no one thinks that the former activity in each example is wrong just because of the risks involved.

There are too many holes in the argument that links homosexuality with risk and risk with wrongness. Consider how Wolfe’s argument would look if we applied it to football:

“On the basis of health considerations alone, is it unreasonable to ask if it is better not to be [a football player]? At the very least, don’t the facts suggest that it is desirable to prevent the formation of [an interest in football] and to bring people out of it when we can?”

After all, there are safer hobbies, like chess!

Well, sure. But football players don’t want to play chess; they want to play football. The argument reminds me of an old joke:

Question: What’s the best way to avoid spilling your coffee while driving?
Answer: Drink tea.

Gays, like everyone else, can take steps to minimize risks in their lives. They can start by confronting the pseudo-science and invalid inferences of their opponents.