The Gay and Bisexual Male Attempted Suicide Problem: 1930-1995

Dead GLB people don't talk, but GLB survivors of a suicide attempt may tell us their story. The first scientific study to suggest/reveal that GLB people have been at higher risk that heterosexual people for having had a suicide attempt problem was carried out by Bell & Weinberg(1978) on the basis of white(W) / black(B), male(M) / female(F), predominantly homosexual(H) / predominantly heterosexual (HT) samples of adult individuals. Most participants ranged in age between 18 and 55, and the average age of white males was about 36.5 years. Therefore, the data producing attempted suicide rates (given as a percentage of the sampled population to a certain age) reflects what the GLB youth attempted suicide rates were in the San Francisco Bay Area between about 1930 to 1970, the averaged results best representing the situation existing around 1950.3

The result of the Bell & Weinberg(1978) study are often noted in research papers and articles, usually by stating that gay males are six-times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual males, and that lesbian are two-times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual females. Occasionally, it is mentioned that the risk for suicide attempts is highest during adolescence, but the risk is not quantified. Figures 1-3 show the attempted suicide rates to the ages of 17, 20, and 25, respectively, for all groups studied, yielding the conclusion that, to the age of

          17                  20                25
predominantly homosexual males were
          16 TIMES            13 TIMES          6 TIMES
more likely to have attempted suicide than their heterosexual counterparts randomly chosen and matched on the basis of age and education level.

The Bell & Weinberg data therefore suggests that, to a significant degree, predominantly gay males have been over-represented in the population of male suicide attempters from 1930 to 1970, and that the proportion varies depending on the estimate for predominantly homosexual males in the male population. For example, to the age of 25, homosexual males would account for 40%, 25%, or 14% of male suicide attempters if these males are assumed to form 10%, 5%, or 2.5% respectively of the male population; 56%, 41%, or 26% of male suicide attempters to the age of 20, and 64%, 46%, or 29% of male suicide attempters to the age of 17 depending on the same percentage of population estimates. For reasons noted in Appendix A, it is estimated that about 5% of the male population is predominantly homosexual and it is therefore concluded, on the basis of the Bell & Weinberg data, that predominantly homosexual males have formed 46% (to the age of 17), 41% (to the age of 20), and 25% (to the age of 25) of males who have attempted suicide.4

Since 1970, a number of studies of gay and bisexual male youth (23-33, 36-37), with or without lesbian and bisexual females, have consistently reported high attempted suicide rates ranging from 20 to 50 percent (Table 1, 2, 3, and 4) for these youth. As a rule, the samples were community based, thus representing some of the North American GLB youth who have made a direct connection with GLB communities and related services. Therefore, as it was emphasized by Savin-Williams(1994), "[s]ocial science research does not allow us to generalize these findings to all bisexual, gay males, and lesbian youth, primarily because most of these youths are not 'out' to themselves and to others."(35:367)

This caveat is important, and the same has been said about the Bell & Weinberg(1978) study. In this case, however, the total volunteer sample [The "biased" samples referred to by Moscicki, 1995(14:32)] of white male homosexuals was large, from which a smaller sample of 575 white males was selected(23:11). Many facts were taken into considerations in this process, including the reality that the gay community was (and still is) very cellular in nature. I was therefore able to conclude, on the basis of my own extensive knowledge of gay communities, that their sample was probably the most representative one ever taken of a large gay community.

Many problems have been noted with respect to all research results on GLB people, ranging from the representative nature of samples studied to their actual percentage of the population. These problems, however, should not be an issue for all professionals working with youth such as teachers, school counsellors, mental health professionals, pediatricians, or other professionals working in youth problem prevention/intervention fields such as drug and alcohol abuse and suicide. Beyond any doubt, it is a fact that GLB youth (and adults) exist, although their exact percentage of the total population remains to be determined (Appendix A).

Many GLB youth do attempt suicide, and some succeed. Like heterosexual youth with suicide problems, GLB youth also have elevated rates of substance abuse problems, but with a difference. The recurring single most important factor implicated in GLB youth problems (including drug and alcohol abuse) is the acknowledgement of their homosexual desires/nature/orientation and the multiple problems predictably resulting from this, and from also "coming out" to others, because they have grown up and are living in a traditionally homophobic, homohating, and homo-punitive society.5

In spite of having such information, researcher of youth suicide problems have always avoided obtaining sexual desire/behaviour/ orientation data from samples of youth studied, even when all the cumulating research, especially with respect to attempted suicides, has strongly suggested that GLB youth are at high risk for having suicide problems. The same indifference has also existed in most suicide prevention programs which have typically excluded any mention of GLB youth and what is known about them. This knowledge is now available in books, articles, and research papers largely written by professionals who have worked with these often highly distressed and suicidal youth. Therefore, it would appear that factors other than scientific principles are implicated in Suicidology's general indifference to GLB youth.

In the final analysis, it would seem that most suicidologists will continue to ignore sexual orientation issues for as long as it is believed that GLB youth are not at higher risk for suicide attempts and suicide, compared to heterosexual youth. So what percentage of the attempted suicide problems will it take before suicide prevention experts begin to note, in a comprehensive manner, in their papers and books,6 and in booklets and pamphlets written for youth and their parents,7 that homosexual orientation is a factor in the youth suicide problem? 10%? 20%? 30%? 40%? 50%?

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25 Nov 1995