I didn't want to study suicide.
Mainly because suicide is a bummer of a topic. It reminded me of unpleasant memories from adolescence. And whenever I talk about it, the first thing everyone does is get quiet - then they get concerned about my well-being. Which is nice and all, and I appreciate it, but after working on this stuff for a few years, I would forget the level of emotional charge the topic has, and get really excited about some finer point of data analysis, and come off sounding callous when really all I wanted to share was this exciting little piece of the puzzle.
On the other hand, epidemiologic studies of suicide go way back (to Durkheim in 1897, and before him Morselli in 1881), and unlike most health conditions associated with sexual orientation, suicide has been measured in a consistent way across the whole population for an extended period of time. So, in a sense I was stuck with it as the only health outcome that had both geographic and temporal scope, which is what I needed to look at normative heterosexuality.
So anyway, as I mentioned before, I wanted to look at how heteronormativity (a shared set of assumptions about sex, gender, and who ought to be having sex with whom) affected suicide rates.
At first, I wanted to find a data set where I could could compare gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals to heterosexuals. But the death certificates don't have that kind of information. And as I got to thinking about it, even if they did, how reliable could it be?
And that got me to thinking, maybe the sexual orientation of these people is really beside the point. Perhaps the stresses associated with dealing with assumptions of heterosexuality are greatest among people who don't identify as "gay" anyway.
So, the first study I did was to look at gay rights laws as a measure of heteronormativity, the idea being that in order to enact a gay rights law, politicians have to believe that public opinion is such that they'd be better off protecting sexual minorities from discrimination than not. The first gay rights laws were enacted in 1973, in San Diego and Austin, I believe. In 1981, Wisconsin was the first state to pass a gay rights law, and by 2003, most of the country's population lived in a jurisdiction with a gay rights law. (the gray map there has a nifty time-lapse).
I looked at three levels of gay rights protections, in order to get something like a dose-response curve - the red areas had no protections whatsoever, the green areas were protections for public sector workers only, and the blue areas had protections for both public sector and private sector workers.
And the results here are pretty compelling - at least for White males, particularly adolescents, young men, and the elderly.
Each color in this graph represents a different age group. So, among White males aged 15-19, suicide rates were 179 per million in areas with no gay rights protections, 155 in areas with protections limited to the public sector, and 131 in areas with protections for all workplaces. The only group without a step-wise dose-response was White men aged 45-64.
Among White women, the first thing to notice is that suicide is less frequent, and also doesn't increase among elderly white women, unlike men. The decline in suicide rates with increasing levels of gay rights protections is also not so pronounced, but there are declines in each of the age groups under 45.
Suicide is less common among Black men than White men in the US, but is still pretty high. And unlike White men, the peak incidence of suicide is in younger age groups. But what is strikingly different is that the highest suicide incidence among Black males is in areas with the highest levels of gay rights protections, which suggests to that public opinion among Black populations about homosexuality may not be strictly related to public opinion among White populations from the same area, and presumably the enactment of gay rights protections is, in most jurisdictions, reflective mostly of White public opinion. I'd love to do an analysis based on what might be a better measure of heteronormative assumptions in Black communities. Any ideas?
Among Black females, the incidence of suicide is lower than the other populations above, and like White females, declines among older women.
The differences between areas with and without gay rights protections are not large, but in general, suicide rates among Black women tend to be slightly higher in areas with gay rights protections. So these results also raise questions about whether gay rights laws are a good measure of heteronormativity for all populations. Or alternately, if the social forces leading to suicide are perhaps not identical among White and Black populations - perhaps heteronormative assumptions cause more distress in White populations, particularly among White males, while economic issues and racial discrimination play a larger role in Black populations.
Another consideration is that perhaps the stresses induced by heteronormativity are largely related to the performance of masculinity, which is why men turn violent against themselves under these pressures. Perhaps men under heteronormative pressures also direct violence outwards towards the women closest to them, and thus homicide, rather than suicide, might be a more strongly related outcome among women. That's foreshadowing to an analysis I'm thinking about doing next...
The patterns I noted are virtually unchanged after adjusting for a wide variety of potential confounders, namely population density, region of the country, unemployment rate, poverty rate, and measures of social isolation (proportion living alone, proportion who moved in the last five years).
Also, when I looked only at those areas that changed status (went from no protections to having gay rights protections), the same trends held up, so in order to explain these results, some other factor would have to be changing at the same times in the same places, which seems like too much of a coincidence to be possible.
The trends above are very similar when I looked at how people vote on the restriction of marriage to "one man and one woman" as a measure of heteronormativity, but as I mentioned before, the strong trend towards people being less likely to endorse a restrictive definition of marriage makes this measure a bit more complicated, so I'm trying to figure out how best to represent it.