Suicide and the textbooks

Posted: May 30, 2006 12:05 AM

The California State Senate recently passed the "Bias-Free Curriculum Act," requiring textbooks in California to include the contributions of gays and lesbians. While Governor Schwarzenneger has said he will veto the bill, it is worth examining the justifications its sponsors offer, because the arguments will be back.

Openly lesbian State Senator Sheila Kuehl, says gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students face violence and harassment and this "places them at greater risk for suicide, skipping school, drug and alcohol abuse and other risk-taking behavior." Citing studies that "show a bias-free and LGBT-inclusive curriculum fosters tolerance, resulting in greater feelings of student safety and less bullying of students who are perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender," she leaves the impression that her bill will reduce the suicide rate for gay teens.

The sound-bites are appealing: gay students are suffering. Mean straight kids are to blame. But the facts don’t support these claims.

Studies do show that gay and lesbian teens have higher rates of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. But studies don’t show that this is because of being bullied, harassed or otherwise victimized by straights. Repeating assertions do not constitute proof.

Equality California, an organization supporting SB 1437, cites a study on its website, called "A Safe Place to Learn." Among the five authors are the Executive Director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network and the Deputy Director of Public Policy for the ACLU of Southern California.

This report presents the alarmist findings which presumably motivated Senator Kuehl:
• "7.5% of California students reported being harassed on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation....

• Compared with students who are not harassed, students harassed based on actual or perceived sexual orientation are more than twice as likely to report seriously considering suicide and more than twice as likely to report making a plan for suicide."

This number tickled my memory, but something about it wasn’t quite right. So, I opened my filing cabinet and found what I was looking for: gay teens are two to three times more likely to report suicidal thoughts and attempts. Comparing students who report anti-gay harassment with those who do not, is pretty much the same thing as comparing gay students with straight students. This is not proof that victimization causes suicidal thoughts. This is just substituting one variable (having been harassed for sexual orientation) for another (sexual orientation).

By this logic, we could ask whether people regularly read gay newspapers. When we find those who do have twice the rate of suicidal thoughts those who don’t, we could conclude that reading The Blade or The Advocate makes people suicidal.

I checked the footnotes to the section of the report called, "Research on LGBT youth, risk, and the school environment." Some were reports from groups like Safe Schools Coalition of Washington, and the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, a group that organizes Gay Straight Alliance Clubs on high school campuses. One of the key recommendations of all these reports is, "Identify and eliminate barriers to the formation of Gay Straight Alliances and other student anti-bias clubs, and support their formation on every campus." In other words, these reports are marketing documents for GLSEN, and should be taken with a grain of salt.

I found six of the seven academic articles cited. Not a single one proved that harassment causes students to become suicidal. Some didn’t even address the question of whether discrimination was to blame. Of the ones that did address the question, none came near showing a significant causal link. Most simply documented the higher rates of suicidal thoughts and plans and attempts among gay studentz. It is actually an open question whether the rates of actual suicide, as opposed to suicide attempts or fantasy, are greater for gay teens than for straight.

You might think the advocates of changing all the textbooks for all the students in California would report the best evidence they have. If this is their best shot, it isn’t very good.

A policy that wanted to help a group that is afflicted with suicidal thoughts, would focus on men. Three-quarters of all completed suicides are committed by males. And if textbooks are appropriate vehicles for making an oppressed group feel better about themselves, we ought to add a section on the contributions of divorced fathers. They have twice the suicide rate as married men. Many of them wanted to keep their marriages together, were divorced against their will, and are cut off from contact with their children. I somehow doubt that male disadvantage carries much weight with Senator Kuehl and her allies.

Even though the governor has said he will veto the "Bias-Free Curriculum Act," the ideas behind it still deserve to be refuted. You may be sure these factoids will be recycled for use in another round of guerilla political warfare. But they won’t be any more true the next time they are repeated.