'Gay Rights' and Advocacy Research: When a Political Agenda Drives 'Objective' Scholarship

In the “gay rights” policy arena, we often see headlines about what may best be termed “advocacy research.” Advocacy research includes academic studies, conducted by supposedly objective scholars, which either try to draw politically relevant conclusions based on mediocre methodology or which, being funded by politically motivated advocacy organizations, focus so narrowly on politically relevant results that they miss the broader implications of their research.

A study published a few weeks ago in the journal Pediatrics, and reported on by Education Week, about the rate of teen suicide attempts among gay, lesbian and bisexual teenagers in Oregon provides a good example.

Both the study and the news article focused on the result that gay, lesbian and bisexual teenagers living in “unsupportive” (termed “politically conservative” by Education Week) communities in Oregon, as measured by an index of political, policy and social characteristics, were 20 percent more likely to attempt suicide than similar teens living in “supportive” (politically liberal) communities. The rate of attempted suicides in unsupportive/conservative communities was 25 percent, versus 20 percent in supportive/liberal communities. The average rate for the whole study sample was 21.5 percent.

Both the study and the news article focused on the result that attempted-suicide rates were 20 percent higher in conservative communities, as defined by the study’s authors. That’s a sensible focus if the point is to push a political agenda.

But if the purpose of the study is to understand the relatively high rates of attempted suicide among gay, lesbian and bisexual teens (21.5 percent versus 4.2 percent for heterosexual teens), isn’t it a more significant finding that 80 percent of gay, lesbian and bisexual teen suicide attempts in conservative communities seem to be occurring regardless of the political/social environment? Similarly, isn’t it more significant that the attempted-suicide rate for gay, lesbian and bisexual teens in liberal communities is only 7 percent lower than the sample as a whole?

In other words, from the perspective of the health of Oregon’s gay, lesbian and bisexual teenagers, it appears that the most significant conclusion from the study is that the vast majority of those who attempt suicide seem to do so regardless of the cultural/political environment in which they live!

Encouraging the health and well-being of teenagers is a laudable goal. That’s why advocacy research like this is such a travesty: It focuses on the most politically relevant results while setting aside the most useful and medically relevant findings.