When Harvey Milk was murdered in late 1978 just a few short months after being sworn in as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, some felt that America had experienced a high-water mark for anti-gay intimidation. Milk, of course, was an icon in the gay community, becoming the first openly gay man to win public office in California. His death shook the gay community and all of San Francisco, and it served as a painful reminder of the challenges faced by those brave enough to come out of the closet.
Almost four decades later, many things have changed, and openly gay politicians scarcely have to worry about public assassination today. This does not mean, however, that those individuals are necessarily safe from harm that they might face. Gay men in America face significant obstacles, from social separation to the denial of basic rights to physical intimidation. Young gay men commit suicide at uncommonly high rates, a fact that suggests the prevalence of damaging bullying in many of the nation’s communities.
The effects of anti-gay prejudice are most often seen in those communities where civil rights protections scarcely exist. Many states and a number of American municipalities provide no employment discrimination protections. A South Carolina police chief was recently fired amid rumors that her termination had something to do with her openly gay status. In South Carolina and states like it, though, there is nothing in the law that prevents employers from discharging gay employees just for being gay. While civil rights laws prevent people from being fired for their race, religion, or a host of other protected statuses, gay men fall outside of this category of protection, leaving them in constant limbo with employers. Likewise, members of the religious right have fought anti-bullying measures in states like Tennessee. Those laws, which are designed to ensure that both in-person and online bullying comes with a criminal consequence, have been re-worked so that bullying on the basis of religious beliefs is exempted form the law. The practical effect is a world where people are free to bully gay men – including both physical intimidation and verbal taunting – if they can justify that bullying with some genuinely held religious belief.
This is not to say that all communities around the country embrace such prejudice against gay men. Houston, for instance, just passed HERO, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, which ensures that gay men and women have certain protections. This keeps those individuals from being discriminated against in employment in the city, and it ensures them equal use of public facilities. While it is not a perfect solution, it goes a long way to ensuring that gay men are kept in the middle of society rather than being pushed to the margins. Several other communities are becoming more gay-friendly, but there is certainly work to be done. Especially in rural parts of the country, gay men find themselves without a place to stand. Often, these communities have a dearth of openly gay men, and gay men are not accepted as a part of straight groups. This leaves them in limbo, with many experiencing depression as a result of this marginalization.
While fixing these problems would be important enough based upon the moral imperative, there are legitimate health reasons why the marginalization of gay men matters today. All too often, young gay men find themselves without the critical health services that could extend their lives. A recent Columbia University study found that gay men living in communities with a high amount of anti-gay prejudice tended to live twelve years less on average. There are legitimate explanations for this life span difference. For one, stress can take a significant toll on the body, leading to conditions like cancer and hypertension. In addition, young gay men are often scared to seek the medical attention that they need for fear that they might be outed. This is especially true when it comes to sexual transmitted diseases, which too often go untreated among gay men because of the stigma associated with those conditions. Likewise, suicide influences the lifespan numbers.
While studies differ on the exact numbers, each suggests that gay youth are roughly four to six times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers. These gay-straight disparities continue into old age, as well, with gay men being more likely than their straight counterparts to end their own lives prematurely. These things matter, of course, and they represent a public health crisis that all too often goes unnoticed.
Especially for young men, suicide is one of the leading causes of death, and because gay men are pushed to the margins of society, they are at much greater risk for this type of ending.
While gay men today might not have to worry about a wild gunman coming into their office and pulling the trigger, dangers still lurk. Prejudice exists in big cities and small towns, and it cannot be isolated to one part of the country or another. Rather, it is an insidious disease that tends to characterize much of America, even today. The legitimate health effects are worth noting, as this group bears the brunt of the problems because of prejudice and discrimination. While some things may be improving – and some cities may be taking notice – many more lag behind, leaving gay men at risk of pre-mature death, stress-related conditions, and mental health-induced suicide.
- Remafedi, Gary. Death by denial: Studies of suicide in gay and lesbian teenagers. Alyson Publications, PO Box 4371, Los Angeles, CA 90078-4300, 1994.
- Rofes, Eric E. ” I Thought People Like that Killed Themselves”: Lesbians, Gay Men, and Suicide. San Francisco: Grey Fox Press, 1983.
- Schneider, Stephen G., Norman L. Farberow, and Gabriel N. Kruks. “Suicidal behavior in adolescent and young adult gay men.” Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 19.4 (1989): 381-394.
- Shilts, Randy. The mayor of Castro Street: The life and times of Harvey Milk. Vol. 12. Macmillan, 1982./li>