I recently wrote to Peter Kearney of the Scottish Catholic Media Office to raise concerns about his statements in the media which appeared to recycle some of the junk science being used by campaigners against LGBT equality in the US. In my letter I promised to publish his reply, so here it is. Where he has provided URLs I have incorporated them as active links, but this is the only change I’ve made to his text.
However I have made a few comments, and noted these throughout in square brackets and italics. Over the next day or two, I’ll add more of my own, as well as those from other sources. However two crucial points stand out:
He doesn’t explain why any of this is relevant to the same sex marriage debate, which is the context in which it was raised. If he wants to see poor health treated as a legal barrier to marriage, I suspect he will be on his own on that one.
He says almost nothing which is relevant to women. His original comments were about same-sex sexual activity, but almost everything he writes to back this up is about gay and bisexual men. I can’t say I’m hugely surprised by this glaring omission.
7 August 2012
Patrick Harvie MSP
52 St Enoch Square
Dear Mr Harvie
Thank you for your letter of 27 July on the subject of the health implications of same sex relationships. I agree entirely with you that public debate on this issue should be “well informed and not subject to misleading arguments.” Sadly, to date, there has been little or no public debate in Scotland on the matter. This is in stark contrast to the ongoing debates on the health implications of smoking, drug use, alcohol abuse and over eating. I welcome, therefore, the opportunity to correspond with you on the matter and your commitment to publish our exchanges on your website.
You mention your previous work in the field of “gay and bisexual men’s health” in your letter. There is no question that such work has firmly established the proposition that gay and bisexual men have particular health concerns and consequences. This is instructive and I presume you would resist any attempt to suggest that it wasn’t the case.
[Naturally. Many groups have particular patterns of health and ill health, and particular needs in terms of health promotion. LGBT people are no different in that than straight people, young people, disabled people, or dare I say it celibate people.]
From December 1997 you were employed as a Glasgow Youth Worker by a group called PHACE West (Project for HIV and AIDA Care and Education). I understand part of your responsibilities included helping to run the meetings and activities of the Bi-G-LES youth group. This group was attended by children as young as twelve. A publication called “Gay Sex Now” was available at this youth group. It can be viewed here.
I am sure that anyone who reviews this publication will agree that the extremely graphic images and offensive language are not appropriate for a youth group attended by children as young as twelve. Yet this approach is symptomatic of what passes for “debate” on the subject of same sex health risks in Scotland. I believe that we urgently need a new approach informed by a concern for the wellbeing of anyone with same sex attraction based on an honest assessment of all medical evidence.
[Mr Kearney may be sure what offends him, but I'm surprised that he feels he can speak for everyone. In fact - as made clear at the time - this publication was produced for and was used with sexually active adult gay and bisexual men. The youth group I worked with, like many youth groups, had an age range up to the mid twenties, and there were certainly occasions on which it was entirely appropriate to use this publication.]
Insofar as evidence is concerned, I think our starting points are probably similar I have not made any assertions which are not regularly made by others. The issue of life expectancy is relevant, the Canadian study, R. S. Hogg, S. A. Strathdee, et al., “Modeling the Impact of HIV Disease on Mortality in Gay and Bisexual Men,” International Journal of Epidemiology, (1997) has been widely quoted and as you know subject to considerable revision, reflecting the fact that underlying mortality rates attributable to HIV improved in the decade following the initial research. According to a CDC News Release in October 10, 2001, death as the result of HIV infection had dropped significantly since 1996. It is important to note however that this study focused on HIV/AIDS only which according to some authors is under-reported by as much as 15-20 per cent. Alarming recent increases in HIV rates must also be considered.
[This is the study which I highlighted in my original letter. The authors have, as I pointed out to Mr Kearney, been so concerned about the misuse of this work by anti-equality campaigners that they have issued this statement.]
Interestingly, in 2009 a group of homosexuals headed by Gens Hellquist, director of the Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition, filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, they detailed numerous statistics to prove the high-risk nature of the homosexual lifestyle, including:
- The life expectancy for gay and bisexual men is 20 years less than the average Canadian man;
- GLB people commit suicide at rates ranging from twice as often to almost 14 times more than the general population;
- GLBs have smoking rates ranging from 1.3 to three times higher than average;
- GLBs become alcoholics at a rate 1.4 to seven times higher than the general population;
- GLBs use illicit drugs at a rate from 1.6 to 19 times higher than other Canadians;
-GLBs experience depression at rates ranging from 1.8 to three times higher than average;
- Homosexual men comprise 76% of AIDS cases and 45% of all new HIV infections;
- Homosexual and bisexual men suffer a higher rate of anal cancer than heterosexual men;
I don’t think these campaigners were accused of “homophobia” for raising their concerns, but I may be mistaken.
[Mr Kearney does not provide the original source of the life expectancy figure, but here it is. As expected it is not a piece of peer-reviewed research, but a clinical guide designed to help health professionals care for lesbian and gay people effectively. The legal complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission was written clearly to highlight the negative health impact which arises from a group being marginalised in society, and was not the work of scientific researchers.]
In their Wellbeing in Sexual Health (WISH) e-Bulletin in June 2012, NHS Scotland promoted “GAYCON 2012: Scotland’s 4th National Conference on Gay Men’s Sexual Health and Wellbeing” being held later this year in Glasgow. As well as urging recipients to attend, their message stated: “The conference will identify key priorities for future sexual health work for gay men in Scotland at a time when this group continues to be disproportionately affected by HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.” This statement tends to suggest that I might not be not alone in believing that a variety of medical complications affect the homosexual population in a way that is not proportionate.
[Clearly in Scotland gay and bisexual men have a higher than average prevalence rate of HIV. This is in contrast to the picture in other countries where HIV is widespread throughout the population, and heterosexual transmission is the norm. This is not news to anyone.]
I have suggested that same sex sexual practices, not surprisingly, lead to disproportionately high rates of STI incidence among gay men. This echoes an assertion by Peter Tatchell that “Soaring rates of sexually-transmitted HPV infection are occurring among gay and bisexual men” and his concern that “very high rates of anal HPV infection, especially among gay and bisexual men who are HIV-positive, have huge implications”; these statements are available on his website.
[HPV infection is indeed a concern, but that concern is not confined to gay and bisexual men. Heterosexual transmission of HPV puts many women at risk of cervical cancer, and this underlies the importance of the vaccination programme. As Peter points out, many straight couples also have anal sex, so the issue of anal cancer risk also affects them. In short, HPV transmission is not caused by sexual orientation.]
A major study published in the journal ‘Cancer’ in May 2011 revealed that men with SSA (same sex attraction) in California are twice as likely to report a cancer as heterosexual men. Boehmer, U., et al. (2011) “Cancer Survivorship and Sexual Orientation,” ‘Cancer’ 117 (2011): The study which analyses what is described as “the higher prevalence of cancer in gay men” can be viewed here.
A systematic review and meta-analysis of the prevalence of, substance misuse, suicide, suicidal ideation and deliberate self harm in LGB people, concluded that they were at higher risk of suicide, substance misuse, and deliberate self harm than heterosexual people.
[Both these studies, which I will read in detail in due course, appear at first glance to be in keeping with the view of the Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition that there are negative health impacts which arise for a marginalised group whose health needs are not properly addressed. They don't appear to suggest that simply being lesbian, gay or bisexual, or having same-sex relationships, is the cause of health problems.]
Crucially, many such studies have been conducted in countries where homosexuality is widely accepted and affirmed in law such as New Zealand and the Netherlands. Since there does not appear to be an appreciable difference in rates of depression and suicide across societies with widely differing levels of tolerance towards the LGBT community it seems clear from all empirical evidence, that social acceptability is not a significant factor.
[These "many studies" are not cited, so it's difficult to respond. However the conclusion Mr Kearney draws is quite at odds with the view of professionals in the field. As George Valiotis of HIV Scotland reminded me, the International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C. July 2012 unequivocally pointed to the need to end stigma, discrimination and legal sanctions, recognising that stigma and discrimination hamper all our efforts to end the HIV epidemic, and prevents delivery of essential services.]
A study of young men, aged 17–22, who have sex with men, found that the “prevalence of HIV infection is high among this young population of homosexual and bisexual men” Lemp, G. et al. (1994). “Sero-prevalence of HIV and risk behaviours among young homosexual and bisexual men.” An abstract is available here.
[As I noted above, the fact that in Scotland gay and bisexual men have a higher than average HIV prevalence is not news. The idea that society should respond to that by further marginalising gay and bisexual men is, to put it politely, counterintuitive at best.]
Promiscuity is regularly cited as an exacerbating factor in same sex relationships. [Exacerbating what? Does it exacerbate something in same sex relationships that it doesn't exacerbate in mixed sex relationships?] One of the largest studies of same sex couples revealed that only seven of the 156 couples studied had a totally exclusive sexual relationship and the majority of relationships lasted less than five years. Couples with a relationship lasting more than five years, reported incorporating some provision for outside sexual activity in their relationship: McWhirter, D. and Mattison, A. 1985. The Male Couple: How Relationships Develop. Prentice Hall.
Such analyses would explain why even following the introduction of Civil Unions or Same Sex Marriage, there does not seem to be an increase in monogamy or fidelity within the LGBT population or a concomitant reduction in disease prevalence associated with promiscuity.
[Monogamy is an entirely personal choice of course. Whether people choose to have an open relationship or not, their sexual health risks will relate to their behaviour, not to their sexual orientation.]
A study in the Netherlands, revealed that the rate of new HIV infections among gay men in Amsterdam has increased steadily since the introduction of effective antiretroviral therapy according to the online edition of AIDS.
The study found that most of the infections were acquired from casual partners, but the researchers also found evidence of transmissions within relationships.
[Antiretroviral therapy isn't intended to reduce transmission. It's intended to keep people alive. It was always clear that if HIV+ people could stay alive and healthy, this would mean a larger cohort of HIV+ people which could itself give rise to additional new infections. Many developed countries are currently trying to understand this new phase of the epidemic, and exploring what this change and others such as migration patterns will do in terms of new infections. But once again, this has nothing to do with sexuality. Where straight people have access to modern therapy, similar patterns emerge. Would Mr Kearney prefer that people don't have access to antiretrovirals at all?]
I’m sure you will agree these are all challenging findings suggesting an ongoing need for significant public debate in the area of “gay and bisexual men’s health”. It would be refreshing in the extreme if this did not comprise the sort of “do as you please” platitudes commonly uttered by Scottish politicians who appear to be utterly lacking in compassion for a minority group whose health has deteriorated in inverse proportion to the political and social affirmation they have been given.
[Wow, there's a leap. Nothing in the research provided by Mr Kearney, even with his own unique interpretation, has shown that anyone's health has "deteriorated in inverse proportion to the political and social affirmation they have been given". It appears that he has done exactly what he did in his TV interview, and cherry picked the evidence he thinks supports his own prejudices, and then made a wildly unsubstantiated claim to follow it up. It's astonishing to be accused of a lack of compassion by someone representing an organisation which has opposed LGBT people's equality and civil rights at every step of the way.]
It would be equally refreshing if those who disagree with the Church were to accept that it speaks from a position of genuine concern for individuals and for human flourishing. By highlighting facts which have been established by relevant scientific and medical enquiry we do not intend to engage in political point scoring but wish to advance the wellbeing of everyone in society by paying due regard to the consequences of particular behaviour.