I use gay obituaries to explore history.
Paul Cameron uses gay obituaries to tell lies.
From thirteen years of obituaries found in gay publications across the U.S., Cameron claims that homosexuals have shorter lifespans than heterosexuals, typically living only into their 40s. Obituaries in mainstream dailies served as his control sample, showing that on average heterosexuals live past 80.
Cameron’s assessment found its way into social sciences scholarship with an article entitled, “The Longevity of Homosexuals: Before and After the AIDS Epidemic,” co-authored by William L. Playfair and Stephen Wellum and published in the multidisciplinary Omega: Journal of Death and Dying in 1994.
He made similar claims in “Does Homosexual Activity Shorten Life?” written with Playfair and Cameron’s son Kirk (not to be confused with the actor Kirk Cameron, known for the sit-com Growing Pains and for his recent forays into evangelical Christian cinema; the actor Kirk Cameron has called homosexuality “unnatural”). The follow-up article appeared in Psychological Reports in 1998.
Alas, despite his Ph.D. in psychology, Paul Cameron has little credibility as a legitimate expert.
The country’s foremost professional organizations in psychology and sociology have long decried Cameron’s reckless ethics and misrepresentations.
The American Psychological Association revoked his membership in 1983 for violating its ethical standards. Two years later, the American Sociological Association formally proclaimed that Cameron had “consistently misinterpreted and misrepresented sociological research on sexuality, homosexuality, and lesbianism.”
Gregory Herek, professor emeritus of psychology at UC, Davis, has tracked Cameron’s career and has done a methodical takedown of his obituary “study.” Harek was an expert witness in the Proposition 8 trial that considered the constitutionality of California’s ban on same-sex marriage. He finds Cameron’s assertions about homosexual lifespans to be inherently flawed because they presume that obits in gay papers were comparable to obits in mainstream dailies.
According to Herek, Cameron’s methodology completely misses significant portions of the gay and lesbian population, including those without ample community involvement, those who remained closeted, and those whose survivors did not know to or care to alert a local gay publication.
I might add that Cameron also seems clueless to the possibility that some people with obits in mainstream papers in the 1980s and early 1990s, married or not, might have been gay.
If Cameron overlooks the secretiveness that has governed so many LGBTQ lives, if he fails to take into account the particular character and limitations of the gay press, if he ignores the shame with which many families dealt with queer love-ones, he begins with a distorted understanding of the population he seeks to investigate.
Almost any lay person who is even remotely intimate with LGBTQ life, either as a participant or ally, would rightly question both Cameron’s results and the route he took to conjure them. An insider would suspect Cameron of not only playing loose with the data, but of producing data that would best be described as bogus.
Part of the process of coming out is the discovery of other LGBTQ people in all their complexity and diversity. Over time, entrée into a vast LGBTQ world unveils so many hidden lives that only insiders are privy to.
I began to understand how big and varied the gay world is on my first scared visit to the State Bar in Flint in 1981, when my friend Mary and I got kicked out for being underage (too naïve to know not to try to order anything ourselves).
My understanding grew when I found myself in a packed room of smart queer twenty-somethings at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center (as it was then called) in New York in the early 1990s. Did that young African American lesbian sitting next to me just say she worked for the Wall Street Journal? How cool is that?
And after I photographed more than half a million attendees from the catwalk in front of the main stage of the 1993 March on Washington, I could never again think of LGBTQ people as small in number or narrow in makeup.
My ongoing research into Michigan’s LGBTQ past as a data-hound historian is helped by my status as a member of the community. From an insider’s vantage point, I know that LGBTQ worlds still often operate with a notable degree of guardedness, cautious of enemy outsiders who would misrepresent us.
In the end, Cameron’s status as an outsider is not at issue. His enemy status is.
He believes that homosexuality is inherently evil and harmful to society. Furthermore, he continues to use his credentials and expert façade to try to influence public policy.
While his conjured “studies” and distorted findings get little traction in the U.S. beyond the media apparatus of the religious right, he has found a welcome audience overseas.
He was recently embraced by some Russian academics. And just last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center warned that Cameron’s “junk science” was influencing nationalist, right-wing politicians in Poland.
Paul Cameron, who, by the way, taught at Wayne State University for two years in the late 1960s, culls statistics from gay obituaries to misrepresent the longevity of gay lives.
Yet the actual value of gay obits is in how they can show LGBTQ lives in all their richness.
Every name you see on Michigan LGBTQ Remember is intended to combat Cameron’s lies.