Gay, lesbian and bisexual American teens are more likely to experience school and criminal-justice sanctions even though they do not commit significantly more offenses than their heterosexual counterparts, a new study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics suggests. Particularly vulnerable, says the study, are female nonheterosexuals.
The study, to be featured in the print edition of the January 2011 Pediatrics journal, made use of data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and analyzed data from the 1994–1995 survey and the 2001–2002 follow-up.
“Three measures were used to assess nonheterosexuality,” says an overview of the study on the Pediatrics website, “same-sex attraction, same-sex romantic relationships, and lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) self-identification. Six outcomes were assessed: school expulsion; police stops; juvenile arrest; juvenile conviction; adult arrest; and adult conviction. Multivariate analyses controlled for adolescents’ sociodemographics and behaviors, including illegal conduct.”
A little background on the study from The New York Times:
“Gay, lesbian and bisexual kids are being punished by police, courts and by school officials, and it’s not because they’re misbehaving more,’’ said Kathryn Himmelstein, the study’s lead author, who initiated the research while an undergraduate student at Yale University.
Ms. Himmelstein, now a high school math teacher in New York City, began the study after spending time working in the juvenile justice system during a leave of absence from college. She noticed a disproportionate number of gay and lesbian teens in juvenile court but could find no studies in the scientific literature evaluating whether gay teens were more likely to be involved in criminal activity or to be more severely punished.
As a result, she began conducting her own study for her senior thesis at Yale University. She used data collected between 1994 and 2002 for the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, an ongoing survey tracking the behavior and health issues of middle and high school students.
Based on this national sample, the study found that self-identifying gay, lesbian and bisexual teens were 40 percent more likely to be convicted of a non-violent crime even though they were only slightly more likely to be involved in misbehaviors like running away, lying to parents or shoplifting, when compared to their straight peers. They were also more likely to be expelled from school.
However, researchers found that LGBs were actually less likely to engage in serious crimes and violence than their heterosexual counterparts.
The study indicates that LGBs are between 30–50 percent more likely to be stopped by the police as adults.
The group most affected by this disparity appears to be self-identifying female bisexuals and lesbians, who reported experiencing 50 percent more police stops and double the risk of arrest and conviction for the same or similar offenses committed by their straight peers.
What is the Reason Behind this Disparity?
While the Yale University study was designed to determine if there was in fact a difference in how heterosexuals and nonheterosexuals are penalized, the study could not asses the reasons behind this disparity.
The researchers have ventured a guess that a degree of gender binary stereotyping may be at play – a reason why female non-heterosexuals are particularly prone to suffer under this disparity. Yet, while the study’s authors reason that a certain amount of institutionalized homophobia is likely be to blame for this difference, they recognize the limitations of the study and how this is most likely a multifaceted problem.
From The Washington Post (emphasis added):
It could be that lesbian, gay and bisexual teens who got in trouble didn’t get the same breaks as other teens – say, for youthful age or self-defense, Himmelstein said. Or it could be that girls in particular were punished more often because of discomfort with or bias toward some who don’t fit stereotypes of femininity.
“It’s definitely troubling to see such a disparity,” Himmelstein said.
“It may very well be not intentional,” she said. “I think most people who work with youth want to do the best they can for young people and treat them fairly, but our findings show that’s not happening.”
The punishments can be damaging, she said. Teens expelled from school have higher dropout rates, and involvement in the criminal justice system can affect a range of opportunities, including housing eligibility and college financial aid.
The sexual-orientation disparity was greatest for girls. Girls who identified themselves as lesbian or bisexual experienced 50 percent more police stops and reported more than twice as many juvenile arrests and convictions as other teen girls in similar trouble, the study said.
The study provides what is thought to be the only national estimates for over-representation of LGB youth in the criminal justice system, and given the recent and widely reported incidents of LGBT and perceived LGBT youth suicides due to anti-LGBT bullying, these figures seem particularly important in identifying the hardships and challenges that nonheterosexuals may face.
LGBT rights groups have suggested that this study reflects the fact that teens who identify as non-heterosexual, and teens that are also gender variant for that matter, can often be looked upon as instigators or “trouble causers”. Due to this, they may often be treated as problem cases without school administrators, court officials and law enforcement officials taking the time to investigate the reasons behind negative behavior, such as family trouble or issues of bullying at school.
The researchers hope to develop these findings in subsequent studies by factoring in additional research on race and other groups that are recognized as facing similar disparities.