Some people head to their local gayborhood just for the night, looking for a little love. These so-called gayborhoods—such as Seattle’s Capitol Hill or New York City’s West Village—are mostly centers of the queer nightlife. Other people, however, don’t just frequent these neighborhoods. They live there—often in search of safety and protection from a society that hasn’t learned to fully accept them just yet.
What they don’t realize, however, is that their environment may be hurting them.
A study published in the Social Science & Medicine journal’s October 2017 issue found that, nationwide, same-sex partners suffer greater cancer and respiratory risks from hazardous air pollutants, mostly on-road mobile air pollutants like vehicles and roadways. These partners have a 12.3 percent greater cancer risk and 23.8 percent greater respiratory risk than heterosexual partners do. Men in same-sex couples appear to experience the worst of it, with rates higher than their women counterparts. The study showed both that same-sex couples see higher risks, and that living in enclaves with higher numbers of gay couples is itself associated with greater risks. It also noted that the problem remains even as gentrification pushes LGBTQ people out of historically gay neighborhoods.
The research, undertaken by University of Texas at El Paso geography professor Timothy Collins, sociology professor Sara Grineski, and postdoctoral fellow Danielle Morales, follows up on a study they conducted focusing specifically on Houston. Published in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers journal last year, it similarly concluded that neighborhoods with a high number of same-sex partner households demonstrate higher cancer and respiratory risk.
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Rewire called up Collins to get the inside story about why he decided to investigate this issue—and what the findings may mean for the future of environmental justice, which has historically looked at race and class, not sexuality.
Rewire: What made you begin examining this?
Timothy Collins: My original interest in environmental research is environmental justice and social vulnerability to hazards and disasters. That’s the background I came from. The environmental justice literature started with its race and class emphasis, but as people have expanded the focus to other populations (like studying female heads of households), people have seemed to find these patterns of inequality with each group studied.
I had a hunch, but I wasn’t sure what I would find. I wasn’t that familiar with the literature on the development of gay enclaves in the United States. Processes of social marginalization have led to the establishment of gay enclaves that are both empowering, but also in response to stigmatization and marginalization. In cities, when you have that sort of process happening, the environmental justice literature would lead me to believe that there are environmental risks associated with the problem of stigmatization and marginalization.
Rewire: What was the most alarming finding you made?
TC: In our analyses, we included variables that have traditionally been examined in environmental justice research, like the composition of racial ethnic minorities in the neighborhood and socioeconomic status. The most alarming thing for me was how powerfully predictive the same-sex partner household variable was in predicting risk, even while accounting for the racial ethnic status of these neighborhoods.
Even accounting for the proportion of Black or Latino residents, the same-sex partner variable still is a powerful predictor. In the presence of these other variables known to predict air pollution at the neighborhood level, you still had this effect come through.
Rewire: What about the study’s greatest weakness?
TC: Trying to explain how these unjust exposures for same-sex partners came to be. That’s a limitation.
If you’re going to analyze quantitatively, you would try to get data from multiple time periods and try to examine how the pattern evolved, but we just analyze relationships for one point in time. We combine 2011 data on air pollution with 2010 Census data. With that, you really can’t interpret how things came to be.
What’s interesting though is that a lot of people, based on reading the literature, have argued that gay neighborhoods are becoming increasingly mixed and that “sexual minority,” or LGBTQ, populations are dispersing across urban space as they’re gaining greater acceptance in the larger society. And so they would expect that this pattern to have weakened since, say, 2000. Especially with gentrification occurring in and around some historically gay neighborhoods, which may make neighborhoods cleaner and lead to lower air pollution.
We found that neither of those processes—gentrification or sexual minority dispersal—eliminates the unequal exposure. Things may have been worse before dispersal and gentrification, but there is still this pattern whereby same-sex partner households experience greater exposure to harmful air pollution.
I can only, however, speculate as to how that unfolded. We can’t really explain that based on the data we’re analyzing.
Rewire: What does this mean for how we define environmental justice?
TC: In the United States, there’s been a particular historical context whereby race is so intimately connected with inequality in the country, so environmental justice takes on a very, very strong race dimension in the United States—and rightly so. But I try to think generally about processes that might lead to environmental injustice. And I tend to think that nearly any axis of social difference—be it gender, race, class, age, sexuality—might be an axis upon which that translates to environmental injustice.
This history of social discrimination, marginalization, stigmatization, and then communities forming spatially in response to those processes (like the development of gay enclaves), are the types of processes that a lot of environmental injustice is predicated on.
Rewire: What’s next for your research on this topic?
TC: I do anticipate in the next year or so trying to conduct a study on the individual level. I use Census data for this study, but I think it would be interesting to get data that has a little bit more detail about sexual orientation and on the individual.
There are several nationally representative surveys out there that people have analyzed in terms of LGBTQ health disparities. They haven’t focused on the environment, though. My study would examine the role of residential, environmental pollution at the individual level in LGBTQ health disparities.
No one is looking at the role of environmental exposures in LGBTQ health issues like cancer and asthma. Well, no one except my team and me.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.