When It Comes to Punishment, Non-heterosexual Youths Face a Double Standard

Findings from a new report indicate that non-heterosexual youth are more likely than their peers to face punishments at school or by the justice system.

Not only are lesbian, gay and bisexual youth vulnerable to a variety of health risks, but anecdotal reports now suggest that they’re more likely than peers with similar behavior to be punished at school or in the criminal justice system, according to a study published in Pediatrics.

The report is the first of its kind to confirm these reports in a nationally representative, population-based sample of adolescents. It had previously been established that non-heterosexual youth are vulnerable to a variety of health risks—including addiction, bullying, and familial abuse, and that “they may be overrepresented among adolescents who have received a variety of institutional sanctions.”

In this study, Kathryn E. W. Himmelstein, and Hannah Brückner, PhD, of Yale University, sought to determine whether these youths also suffer disproportionate school and criminal-justice sanctions. Using the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, the researchers assessed school expulsion, police stops, arrests, and convictions among adolescents in grades 7 through 12 in 1994 and 1995, and reviewed 2001-2002 follow-up data.

Three measures were used to assess non-heterosexuality: same-sex attraction, same-sex romantic relationships, and lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) self-identification. Multivariate analyses controlled for adolescents’ sociodemographics and behaviors, including illegal conduct.

Himmelstein and Brückner found that non-heterosexual adolescents were 1.25 to 3 times more likely than other adolescents who committed similar offenses to be punished. “These findings suggest that non-heterosexual adolescents, particularly girls, suffer punishments by school and criminal-justice authorities that are disproportionate to their rates of transgressive behavior,” they wrote. This information “implicates not only schools, police, and courts but also other youth-serving health and welfare systems that often fail to meet the needs of non-heterosexual adolescents.”

According to the study, there are a number of potential explanations for these findings. For instance, institutional decision-makers may focus on non-heterosexual youth for punishment for sexual or other behaviors or be less likely to consider mitigating factors such as immaturity or self-defense, they wrote, adding that “Teachers often overlook harassment of non-heterosexual students by their peers, and youth who report such abuse are frequently ignored or blamed for their victimization. In addition, non-heterosexual youth sometimes encounter homophobia in health care and child welfare systems. Thus, non-heterosexual youth who are harassed or engage in risky behaviors may find that instead of support, therapy, or services, their behaviors elicit punishment.”

These results demonstrate an urgent need for all child-serving professionals to develop strategies to reduce the criminalization of non-heterosexual youth “as they navigate adolescence in an often hostile society.”

Based on their findings, Himmelstein and Brückner hypothesize that “understanding and addressing these disparities might reduce school expulsions, arrests, and incarceration and their dire social and health consequences.”

To read the Pediatrics study, click here.

What can physicians do to help address and reduce some of the disparities faced by non-heterosexual youths in terms of punishments?