In the wake of the suicide death of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, the nation's attention has been focused on what many have called an epidemic of gay teen suicides.
For example, Ciara Thomas, a writer for the website HealthyPlace.com ("America's Mental Health Channel") states that, "For a number of years, researchers have known that one-third of all teenagers who commit suicide are gay. In one sense, this statistic is incredibly shocking...This means that they are 300 percent more likely to kill themselves than heterosexual youth."
Indeed, that statistic has been widely repeated over the past few weeks, including by Unitarian Minister Debra Haffner in a piece published in the Washington Post a few days ago: "We have known for more than thirty years that at least one third of all suicides to teens are to gay youth," Haffner told the newspaper.
That one-third of gay teens may be killing themselves is indeed a shocking statistic.
But it's not true.
Joel Best, professor and chair of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, untangled the knotty statistics behind the gay teen suicide rate in his book "Damned Lies and Statistics" (University of California Press, 2001).
Where did the number come from? "A chain of bad statistics," explains Best in the book.
Advocates began with the largely discredited assumption that one-tenth of the population is homosexual, derived from Alfred Kinsey's 1940s research. In fact more recent studies and polls find that around 1 percent to 3 percent of the population is homosexual. The advocates further assumed the proportion held true for teens (it may or may not), and out of about 4,500 annual teen suicides, figured that one-tenth (450) should involve gay or lesbian teens.
"Next, advocates drew upon various studies that suggested that homosexuals attempt suicide at a rate two to three times higher than heterosexuals," Best writes. He adds that multiplying 10 percent (the estimated proportion of homosexuals in the population) by 3 (a suicide rate estimated to be three times higher than heterosexuals), along with a mathematical miscalculation, led to an estimate that gays and lesbians accounted for 30 percent of suicides. (The miscalculation: Even if 10 percent of the population is homosexual, and their suicide rate is three times that of heterosexuals, homosexuals should account for only one-quarter — not one-third —of suicides)
This figure was rounded up to one-third. At each step of the calculation the numbers either had dubious validity or were selected from the extreme upper end of the estimates.
So what is the gay teen suicide rate? No one knows. "How could anyone hope to measure gay teen suicides accurately?" Best said. "Coroners, after all, do not record sexual orientation on death certificates."
Without accurate numbers on how many gay teens there are, any estimate about their suicide rate is little more than a guess.
One researcher, Cornell University's Ritch Savin-Williams, examined the two studies that had asserted the high gay teen suicide rate and found many methodological flaws. For example, the researchers failed to account for the fact that "most individuals with same-sex attractions do not identify themselves as gay," Savin-Williams wrote in the December 2001 issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
"The net effect is that conclusions about suicide risk among sexual-minority youths are based not on same-sex attractions but on self-identification [and] researchers who rely solely on gay-identified youths might be omitting significant, more diverse and representative populations of youths with same-sex attractions." The study concluded that "the assertion that sexual-minority youths as a class of individuals are at increased risk for suicide is not warranted."
There's no doubt that many gay teens are harassed and bullied (a study published in the January 2010 issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health suggested gay and lesbian teens get bullied two to three times more than their heterosexual peers), and some of them may take their lives because of it. But there's little evidence that gay teens have a dramatically higher rate of suicide than heterosexual teens.
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Benjamin Radford is managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. He wrote about dubious statistics in political causes in his book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us. His Web site is www.RadfordBooks.com.