This week's stoush between the Church and gay rights advocates may not have advanced the nation towards agreement, says Alan Austin, but it may have encouraged both sides to clarify their claims and listen more attentively to their opponents.
Oscar Wilde once observed that
“…the truth is rarely pure and never simple”.
He wasn’t talking about the debate over homosexuality, though Wilde certainly knew firsthand about homophobia.
This week has seen intense focus in Australia on the truth about the health profile of homosexuals. The contest seems not so much about simple facts. But rather how they are wielded in the current gay marriage battle.
The issue arose when Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) head Jim Wallace made this statement at the University of Tasmania last week:
“I think we’re going to owe smokers a big apology when the homosexual community’s own statistics for its health – which it presents when it wants more money for health – are that it has higher rates of drug-taking, of suicide – it has the life of a male reduced by up to twenty years. The life of smokers is reduced by something like seven to ten years and yet we tell all our kids at school they shouldn’t smoke.”
Technically, when this is deconstructed, there is nothing actually wrong here. But the response was as ferocious as it was predictable.
Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group’s Rodney Croome snapped back:
“The quoting of irrelevant and biased studies to stigmatise gay Australians is a low and desperate tactic that diminishes Mr Wallace and his cause.”
Prime Minister Julia Gillard cancelled a speaking engagement with the ACL and explained why:
“I believe yesterday’s comments by Jim Wallace were offensive. To compare the health effects of smoking cigarettes with the many struggles gay and lesbian Australians endure in contemporary society is heartless and wrong.”
Australian Medical Association president Steve Hambleton described Wallace's comments as “appalling” and the comparison with smoking as “totally inappropriate”.
Wallace released a clarifying statement last Thursday. Unfortunately, this was just as inflammatory as his outburst the day before.
‘I was not comparing homosexuality with smoking at all,’ wrote Jim Wallace.
‘What I was saying is that on one hand we are vocal on our discouragement of people to smoke and on the other we are suppressing public dialogue about the health risks associated with homosexuality.’
‘If we warn against smoking because it carries health dangers, we should also be warning young people in particular about activity which clearly carries health risks.’
Just as Wallace may have begun feeling a little isolated, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney leapt to his defence: “I am generally supportive of ACL”, Peter Jensen told ABC's Q&A program on Monday.
“As far as I can see, the lifespan of practising gays is significantly shorter than the ordinary so-called heterosexual man. That seems to be the case. What we need to do is to look at why this may be the case and we need to do it in a compassionate and objective way. Some people say it’s because of the things I say … and that creates, for example, a spate of suicides. That may be true, but how can we get at the facts if we’re never willing to talk about it.”
So what does the research show? A human rights complaint by a group of gay, lesbian and bisexual Canadians against their government in February 2009 is one of the sources Jim Wallace relies upon.
‘The health status of GLB Canadians is among the poorest of any population in Canada,’ it asserts.
‘While the number of studies on the life expectancy of GLB people is limited, what research exists consistently indicates that the life expectancy of GLB people is substantially lower than that of the general population. It has been estimated that gay/bisexual men have a life expectancy 20 years less than the average man in Canada.’
This led to accusations from University of NSW researcher Martin Holt and others that Jensen was using dodgy research from the USA. The Archbishop responded affirming his assertions but calling for further discussion.
So what does the research show? Well, it depends where you want to look. One frustration in this area that so much ‘research’ seems designed with an agenda.
A human rights complaint by a group of gay, lesbian and bisexual Canadians against their government in February 2009 is one of Jim Wallace’s sources.
“The health status of GLB Canadians is among the poorest of any population in Canada,” it asserts.
“While the number of studies on the life expectancy of GLB people is limited, what research exists consistently indicates that the life expectancy of GLB people is substantially lower than that of the general population. It has been estimated that gay/bisexual men have a life expectancy 20 years less than the average man in Canada.”
So, Wallace and Jensen are conveying accurately the substance of this submission. The issue is then whether they are using the content to bolster their case unfairly.
Gay rights advocates claim that their passionate “warning about” same-sex relationships is actually code for “condemning and prohibiting”. The conservative Christians are not really concerned about assisting gay people to find safe, fulfilling, approved unions, critics say. They want them banned altogether.
These attitudes, according to Steve Hambleton and Rodney Croome, are at the root of the discrimination, which is the primary cause of the health issues.
“Yes, there are health problems in parts of the gay and lesbian community”, Croome said. “But they are caused by the prejudice of people like Mr Wallace and the discriminatory laws he defends.”
The research in Canada, quoted above, supports this:
'There are many factors causing a lower life expectancy for GLB Canadians, with the social isolation and marginalization caused by homophobia and heterosexism at the top of the list of major stressors in their lives. This is no surprise: We know that other populations such as Aboriginals, people of color, and the poor have poorer health status because of their marginalization.'
This week may not have advanced the nation towards agreement. But it may have encouraged both sides to clarify their claims and listen more attentively to their opponents.
The debate has a way to go. Hence the more tolerance, understanding and forgiveness the better.
Or, as Oscar Wilde advised, “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much”.
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