Attention Peter Jensen: homosexuality doesn’t kill, but homophobia can

Archbishop Peter Jensen believes “homosexual lifestyles” are dangerous. He’s wrong. ABC TV

Some people are ignorant. There are no cases, however, of ignorance being listed as the cause of death on someone’s death certificate.

On the ABC’s Q&A program on Monday night, Archbishop Jensen agreed with disingenuous comments made by the Australian Christian Lobby’s Jim Wallace that the “lifestyle” of homosexuals kills them at a faster rate than smoking kills people who smoke. The comments were made during a debate on whether or not gay people should be afforded equal citizenship rights to marry.

Wallace and Jensen never quite articulate what they mean by the phrase “homosexual lifestyle” although apparently they know it when they see it. When the former ACT Education Minister opened an anti-homophobia art display, Wallace characterised it as “promoting” such a lifestyle, simply because Andrew Barr is an openly gay man. By this measure, all gay and lesbian people are promoters of a homosexual lifestyle simply for living. But circular logic is not informed debate.

Australian Christian Lobby head Jim Wallace at the University of Tasmania. Mr Wallace claimed the lifestyle created by gay marriage could be less healthy than smoking. AAP Image/David Beniuk

Gay and lesbian people are 3.5 to 14 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general community in part because of homophobia, bullying and intolerance. To fail to recognise the mental harm engendered by homophobia or to blame the victims for it is offensive.

Jensen shrugged off acknowledgement on Q&A that the strident vocalising of his views contributes to the suicide of gay and lesbian people – on World Suicide Prevention Day no less. This year’s theme was in part about “instilling hope”, yet what possible message of hope is there in Jensen’s constant implication that “practising homosexuals” are less than equal and unworthy of a life most heterosexuals take for granted?

Who exactly is a “practising homosexual”? What do they practise? Drivers practise driving their car when they are first learning to drive. Golfers choose to practise their golf swing to improve how they play the game. People don’t choose or practise their sexuality to learn it, or improve it. But they may explore it. Is this what Jensen is afraid of?

Why do Jensen and Wallace never refer to “practising heterosexuals” or the “heterosexual lifestyle”? Because of the tacit recognition that there is no one such mass of people, but rather a diversity of human beings who have children, or don’t; live in the suburbs or the city or the bush; hold down jobs, care for their parents, make love or don’t and contribute to our secular society. Much like queer folk.

We make sense of the world through language. Every time Jensen uses language to divide us, he communicates: “there is something wrong with gay people”.

There are a number of reasons Jensen prefers to focus on whether people are playing nicely with each other in the sandpit of public discourse, rather than the substance of what those who disagree with him have to say.

By focusing on speaking calmly, re-iterating that he wants to “look at the facts” (despite failing to refer to any empirical evidence at all), he casts himself as a reasonable, vulnerable elder statesman. For those who disagree with him, sometimes angrily and emotionally, he reacts with feigned disbelief to invoke sympathy for his bigotry.

Why wouldn’t gay people be angry at such a fundamental repudiation of them? In Jensen’s view, gay people are the problem he wants to fix, solution-oriented chap that he is, by stopping them from having sex, getting married, raising children or otherwise expressing themselves as human beings.

The “evidence” that Wallace referred to as fact, affirmed by Jensen, was a single complaint from a queer Canadian-based organisation against two health agencies for discriminating against gay and lesbian people by failing to fund dedicated research into the health of queer Canadians. The complaint references a book which uses 25 year old HIV data to estimate gay/bisexual men have a life expectancy 20 years younger than the average Canadian man; the authors then clarify this is a “suggestion”. Hardly rigorous data on which to base “facts”.

Interestingly, neither Wallace or Jensen mention the estimated economic cost of homophobia in Canada ($8 billion) referred to in the complaint or a far more recent literature review (2003) which estimated “5,481 gay, lesbian and bisexual Canadians die prematurely each year as a direct result of homophobia.

Acknowledging that homophobia is harmful and can lead to health problems and premature death, would have exposed the fallacy of the "homosexual lifestyle”.

Although people are multifaceted, Jensen only defines gay people in relation to their sexuality – refusing to see who they are by focusing on who they sleep with. He does not do this for heterosexuals. Would you ever think it reasonable to equate heterosexuality, with a so-called lifestyle akin to death? Imagine waking up every day and enduring this sort of bigoted drivel simply because you’re straight. It would weigh you down and combined with other forms of homophobia might contribute to reduced life expectancy.

Despite the ignorance and insensitivity displayed by Jensen and Wallace, being gay won’t kill you. Like ignorance, “gay” has never been listed as a cause of death.