LGB Teenagers Face Harsher Punishments Says Study

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.

Photo used under the Creative Commons Attribution License, with thanks to John Steven Fernandez.


Mac R.
Mac R7 years ago

I have to agree with Fred H and Morgan G that several of the "findings" don't even make sense. I mean, I'm gay and have been deeply invovled in gay rights struggles all of my adult life, living in many different cities from New Orleans to as far west as Honolulu.

But Morgan, cops don't need gaydar in their cars. What they are referring to is the fact that in gay neighborhoods people are walking around a lot more as the bars and restaurants are usually concentrated, so the cops can stop and harass at will as well as pull cars over and figure they'll be stopping gay people. For many homophobic cops this is virtually entertainment. I've seen it in action and been a victim of it more than once, and virtually every gay person I've known who did go out and socialize has had some kind of interaction with cops over the years. Harassment by cops AND straight people at random is EXPECTED by gay people in neighborhoods. Only when it gets overwhelming does the community raise hell and get the official harassment dialed back--- never erased, just dialed back to a tolerable level. If you're out in public in a gay neighborhood, you can expect trouble at some point. Sure, not everyone has been harassed, but it's safe to say that a big majority of gay people have been at least once.

Past Member 7 years ago

i too am questioning how anyone knows who is gay, especially the cops just stopping a car??? something has to be going on here that is not coming out in this study...but to believe it is all due to sexual orientation may be correct....i'm just wondering how anyone knows...and most judges i've seen in courts do not want to hear about it unless it's relevant to the particular issues of the case...so something else is showing up here... and i'm surprised that the original researcher didn't ask this question...and Morgan...if you ever find out how police, judges, social workers, attorneys or whoever are finding out..i'd love to know too...thanks...

Barbara Erdman
Barbara Erdman7 years ago

Thanx for the post

jane richmond
jane richmond7 years ago

All students should be punished uniformly for misbehavior.No one should be treated differently.

Emily P.
Emily M7 years ago

Why weren't transgender teens included in this study? I think many teens who are perceived as gay/lesbian or effeminate/masculine are really transgender. Counting them as gay or lesbian isn't right.

Loo Samantha
Loo sam7 years ago

poor souls, thanks for the article.

Norma V.
Norma Villarreal7 years ago

How do I discriminate? Let me count the ways....

Doug D.
Doug D7 years ago

Disturbing. Apparently we need to educate society more.

Morgan G.
Morgan Getham7 years ago

Traffic stops? TRAFFIC STOPS?

Are squad cars coming equipped with gaydar now in addition to their radar units? How in the heck does a police officer in a major city (where, face it, the concentration of LGB youth is likely to be slightly higher than elsewhere) know that the person is gay? Seems very unlikely that they will know them personally under those circumstances. Maybe if they are sporting overt bumper stickers or something that might make sense, but a lot of these people, particularly drivers in their late teens and 20-somethings, have not fully "come out" enough to do that.

As a statistician I'd like to take a really close look at THOSE particular numbers and see just what the heck is going on.

And frankly, the finding about women being preferentially targeted surprises me, because there does seem to be an increasing acceptance of casual bisexual behavior in women (MUCH more so than in men, who tend to be stigmatized as homosexual if they have any homosexual contact whatsoever) in our society today. At least that's what I'm noticing as a sixty-something observing the generations in their 20's, 30's and 40's and how they seem to be relating to one another.

Jenn Z.
Jenn Z.7 years ago

Excuse me, but you're forgetting the Transgendered community.