Sunday, February 26, 2017

Mark Regnerus doesn't like the teen suicide study

Mark Regnerus
On Friday sociologist Mark Regnerus offers: “Can Same-Sex Marriage Really Reduce Teen Suicide?” at the orthodox Catholic Witherspoon Institute's blog. The subtitle of Regnerus' polemic reads:
The legalization of same-sex marriage may be associated with a short-term emotional bump for youth who identify as sexual minorities, but it is not a robust, long-term panacea for the emotional struggles of teenagers.
The reality is that the Raifman study1 is peer reviewed and published to a prestigious scholarly journal. Regnerus offers assumptions at a conservative Catholic outlet. That and his history cause me to be skeptical that Regnerus is writing as a social scientist. Rather, I strongly suspect that he has written this piece as a conservative Catholic who began, not with a scientific hypothesis, but with a presumption that he then sought to validate using selective observation if necessary.

I lack the erudition to critique Regnerus, the sociologist. However, I can assess the logic. Regnerus writes:
The skeptic in me balks at the idea that a public policy shift on (adult) marriage access would have anything to do with how the average teenager grapples with feelings of depression and self-worth. Still, I’m willing to believe that it could have a positive impact on sexual minorities—at least for a short while—given the symbolic status of the 2015 Obergefell decision. Unlike attitude shifts in public opinion polls, such a legal victory is a seismic and tangible event—a mountaintop experience for their supporters. And yet for teenagers these remain largely symbolic victories, since we live in a country where marriage in general is retreating rapidly and where those who eventually marry do so at older ages than ever before.
That is somewhat contradictory — by design. In the first sentence “the average teen” seemingly refers to the fact that the study data demonstrates that straight teens also had a decline in suicide attempts in the states that advanced marriage equality prior to Obergefell. The study's authors seem quite clear that they are not trying to explain the result as much as they seek to publish the data (including the inherent weaknesses in the methodology) which I explained here.

Rather than formulating hypotheses to possibly explain the data, Regnerus is attacking it. I am a rank amateur but I can formulate several explanations. One of these is the fact that sexual orientation is not binary. It is a continuum and some of the teens who identify as straight might be questioning their sexuality and this broad acceptance reduces their stress and offers a more positive outlook.

Regnerus' second sentence suggest the possibility of a short term benefit. The third sentence says probably not because marriage is in decline. Again, I am not a sociologist but actually being able to marry might be less important than the statement of equal worth that same-sex marriage provides. Marriage equality means that society has officially approved of gay people which, by the way, presents a far greater problem for the Catholic Church (and probably Regnerys) than actual marriage.

The Church shouts at every opportunity that gay people are “objectively disordered.” Some kids, and their parents, actually believe that nonsense. Regnerus presumably believes that nonsense. Conservative Protestants and some orthodox Jews believe it in a different form but the end result is the same. Gay people are not worth as much as straight people. A sense of self-worth develops, in part, from society's appraisal. Change the appraisal and you change the self-worth.

The depression that Regnerus referred to earlier is really an expression of self-directed anger. How is that affected when one's estimate of their own value improves? Common sense suggests that marriage equality had a significant effect on how gay teens saw their prospects for the future. Parts of society (and the Church) would like these kids to believe that they will lead a lonely life of perverted, sinful and meaningless sex. Same-sex marriage says otherwise.

There is someone who was far more eloquent than I could ever be. That person what 17-year-old James Neiley. That terrific kid, testifying before a legislative committee in Vermont was my hero that day. I was furious when Porno Pete LaBarbera attacked James. LaBarbera actually attacked a teen for wanting some of the same things that his straight peers enjoyed.

Regnerus reminds us that Dr. Mark L. Hatzenbuehler (Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University) wrote a concurring editorial in the same issue of JAMA Pediatrics. Furthermore, in 2013 Hatzenbuehler published a highly respected paper with comparable results (from the negative perspective). The highlights of that research are:
  • Living in high prejudice areas increased risk of mortality for sexual minorities.
  • Results were independent of individual and community-level risk factors.
  • Results were not due to HIV/AIDS-related causes of death.
  • Results suggest a broadening of the consequences of prejudice to premature death.
So, of course, to attack the Raifman Study Regnerus attacks Hatzenbuehler's 2013 research:
But consider this: the key finding in Hatzenbuehler’s popular study about the deleterious effects of stigma on the premature mortality of sexual minorities is one that cannot be replicated. I should know—I tried to do it. And that’s not the only snag Hatzenbuehler has hit of late. My research team recently informed him that his 2014 American Journal of Public Health study isn’t entirely replicable, either.
Well that settles it. Failure to replicate could not possibly be related to the ineptitude of Regnerus and his “research team.” Now could it? I suspect that Dr. Hatzenbuehler is not overly concerned with the communique from Regnerus' Igor. the very fact that Regnerus needs to attack Hatzenbuehler in order to attempt to delegitimatize the Raifman study is telling. What's next? The peer review panel at JAMA? Just how desperate is Regnerus to justify discrimination? He hedges his bets:
Social stigma is real; of that I have no doubt. But I suspect it’s being overused as a convenient explanation for the gaps—the differences—between the experiences of heterosexual Americans and those of sexual minorities. Indeed, in a recent study of Swedish married couples, those in same-sex marriages continue to display elevated risk of suicide, when contrasted with persons in opposite-sex marriages. It’s hard to be more tolerant than Sweden. Something more than stigma may be at work here.
I have actually corresponded with the author of that Swedish study (I wonder if Regnerus has). According to Charlotte Björkenstam:
In the study you refer to we only studied men (and women) who had entered marriage (same- or different-sex) and we can hence, not say anything about the whole population gay men (or lesbians).
Currently the most well-established theory that explains these differences is the “Minority Stress Model” (Meyer). Meyer’s model states that the experience of prejudice events, expectations of rejection, hiding and concealing of one’s sexual identity, internalized homophobia, and ameliorative coping processes are associated with the increased levels of mental ill health and suicidal behavior among sexual minorities.

It is well-established that sexual minority individuals are at higher risks for mental ill health including anxiety and depression, and depression is a main risk factor for suicide, so the association we found is not too surprising. However, it is still urgent with more research, and especially research that aims at finding solutions as how to best prevent suicides among LGBT people but also how to prevent mental ill health and discrimination.
I think that contradicts Regnerus and is consistent with both Raifman and Hatzenbuehler.

Enough. I am going to jump to Regnerus' conclusion:
It is not easy being a teenager in 2017 in America. And it’s certainly more complicated for those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, despite the fact that tolerant attitudes are more common in the general population than in decades past. Same-sex marriage signifies many things to its fans and its foes. And now it appears associated with a short-term emotional bump for sexual minority youth in America. But is it a robust, long-term panacea for the emotional struggles of teenagers? My concerns about the fragility of this new study, together with the evidence from tolerant Sweden, suggest the answer is “unlikely.”
This is intellectually dishonest. No one claimed that it was a panacea and the Swedish study explains the effects of minority stress. Moreover, the idea that this is a short-term bump is ill-defined. Short-term for the individual or short-term after the onset of marriage equality? We only need to get teens through a couple of stressful years. So allow me to ask some very unscientific questions:
  • Is marriage equality more likely to improve or deteriorate the outlook for gay teens?
  • If you answered improve to the question above. Is an improved outlook for gay teens more likely to increase, decrease or have no impact on gay teen suicide?
  • Regnerus is a Sociologist. What solutions has he posed?
  • Does it appear that Dr. Regnerus is more concerned with the Church's teachings on marriage and the disapproval of gay people or, in the alternative, the welfare of gay children?
Sure. Those are rhetorical and I am guilty of begging the question. However, Mark Regnerus keeps coming up with excuses to justify marriage discrimination and the continuing abuse of gay people.

It is hard to forget that in 2013 Regnerus, funded by Witherspoon (the same organization that now serves as the outlet for his editorials), published research on same-sex parenting. It was intended, by Witherspoon and Regnerus, to upend the Supreme Court's deliberations on United States v. Windsor. The methodology of that study was so fundamentally flawed that Regnerus' own professional association demolished it in an amicus brief. Now, Regnerus presumes to have the credibility to attack research that confirms some of the benefits of marriage equality.

It has that all too familiar odor of bovine waste.

— — —
1 Julia Goldberg Raifman was the lead investigator for the teen suicide study. Dr. Raifman is a professor in the Epidemiology Department, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

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