A study published in the American Journal of Public Health has been getting a lot of press for confirming an old stereotype—which has masked its more troubling implications. The study seems to indicate that gay men are somewhat slimmer than their straight counterparts, while lesbians are heavier than straight women. But the more important finding is a shared and unfortunate quality: gays, lesbians and bisexuals all face greater health risks than straight people of either gender.
The researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard Medical School, and John Snow Inc., used a behavioral risk factor survey involving 67,000 Massachusetts residents, aged 18 to 64 and surveyed between 2001 and 2008. Here's the much-vaunted weight difference that they found: 21 percent of straight men are obese, according to the survey, versus 14 percent of gay men; 26 percent of lesbians, on the other hand, are obese, versus 17 percent of straight women. But we should look at the rest of the study's rather grimmer findings. The researchers found that gays and lesbians (who formed 2 percent of their sample) and bisexuals (who formed 1 percent) were, they write, "more likely to report activity limitation, tension or worry, smoking, drug use, asthma, lifetime sexual victimization, and HIV testing."
Unlike previous studies that focused primarily on sexually transmitted diseases and mental health issues in the gay community, this study included measures of general health and chronic illness. And in these areas, things are not good: gay men smoke more, and are less likely to get prostate-specific antigen tests. Lesbians also smoke more, and have increased risk of heart disease. Bisexual men and women have the most troubling health profile, with the least access to health care, increased risk of suicide, and elevated heart disease risk. Overall, the LGBT community is at elevated health risk, a fact that the media focus on weight differences fails to capture.
The study's lead author, Kerith Conron of Northeastern University and the Harvard School of Public Health, suggested that, “This may mean that we in the public health community need to come up with more tailored messages to reach these groups, just as car dealers do when they want to reach a specific target audience." The choice of metaphor is perhaps unfortunate, but the idea is sound: a public health agenda that takes seriously the gay community's specific needs.