Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Homosexuality, hate crimes and health

President Obama recently signed a law extending federal hate crimes protections to gays and lesbians. Its about time. Human and civil rights and safety from persecution and violence are fundamental cornerstones of public health. The FBI reports that of the 7,624 hate crime incidents in 2007, 17 percent were based on sexual orientation. This most certainly represents an undercount, since not all such crimes are reported, and until now they did not have the official designation of hate crime.

Thankfully, hate crimes are rare events. But this new law has other potential health benefits that are far more profound. Acknowledging that abuse is unjust or criminal helps to acknowledge that as a society we recognize the essential humanity and value of the individual or group suffering the abuse. Providing not only protection of law, but also recognition that a social group is valued and worth protecting helps to increase their level of social support and social integration, while decreasing their sense of isolation and the need to constantly be vigilant against attack. The public health literature is rich with evidence linking higher levels of social support, social integration and trust with better health, and higher levels of isolation with poorer health.

Marriage has also been linked to better health and longer life, and the growing movement worldwide to grant marriage rights to same sex couples continues this social evolution towards not only a more dynamic and just society, but also a healthier one.

Discrimination against homosexuality has long been justified by health bigotry and pseudo science, invoked both through intentional malice or old fashioned ignorance. On the health side, discussions of gay or lesbian health are frequently dominated by concerns about AIDS/HIV and risky sexual behavior, even though these populations obviously face many other health challenges as well.

And many people have attempted to leverage science to support the “its not natural” argument about same-sex couples. In truth science proves that the rigid construct of what constitutes male, female, and the respective roles of each is purely a human creation. Take earth worms. Every worm is equipped with male and female reproductive organs, and they choose which gender to assume at each mating. In some cases they lose their male genitalia, and continue life as permanent females. A small tropical fish called the wrasse is capable of a similar gender-morph: A single male lives with a harem of females, but when he dies, the dominant female becomes a male, and assumes his duties. From the warm blooded mammalian world, up to 18% of rams attempt to mate exclusively with other males, even when females are available. Not that those examples are necessary for us to simply do the right thing: There’s nothing “natural” about democracy, money, hospitals, mass transit, or vacations in the South of France, but who has a problem with them?

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