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Gay teens get harsher punishments than straight, study finds
Probing the consequences of teen misconduct, the new study examines behaviors that include lying to parents, drinking, shoplifting and vandalizing, as well as more serious offenses such as burglary, drug sales and physical violence.
Using data from more than 15,000 middle school and high school students who were followed into early adulthood as part of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, researchers compared categories of misconduct against six punishments. The interviews used for the study started in 1994-95 and continued until 2001-02, but researchers said they expect the findings would be similar today because the institutions involved have not dramatically changed.
Nearly 1,500 of the participants in the study identified themselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual, but more than 2,300 reported having felt a same-sex attraction at some point in their lives. More than 800 were in a same-sex relationship.
The results showed that, for similar misconduct, gay adolescents were roughly 1.25 to 3 times more likely to be sanctioned than their straight peers.
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.
Andrew Barnett, executive director of the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League, which serves 300 teens a year in Washington, said he was not surprised by the findings.
"This is a symptom of school administrators, teachers, court officials, police officers - anyone who works with youth - not necessarily being equipped to handle the challenges" faced by the teens in their care, he said. "It's much easier to punish the youth than to work with them and figure out why they may keep getting in fights and what is leading to this behavior."
Hien Le, 17, president of the Gay-Straight Alliance at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, said she sees no tendency to punish gay students in her school. But she and other teens said parents often become more punitive when they disapprove of a son or daughter's sexual orientation.
"Your parents are the ones who are supposed to be supportive, but it isn't always that way," she said.
"I think it happens more than people think," said Caroline Callahan, 16, president of the Gay-Straight Alliance at Langley High School in McLean.
The study's data set was not large enough to allow for an additional analysis by race, but Himmelstein and others said that was an important area for further study.
Jody Marksamer, a staff attorney and youth project director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco, said the study brings data to what advocates have seen for years: that biases, overt and subtle, often play out in courts, in schools and with police.
Gay youths are often grappling with family tensions and harassment by peers and sometimes with depression or homelessness, he said. Harsher punishments can make for "a cascade of effects" that can "move them from the schools to the criminal justice system."
Joseph Kosciw, senior director of research and strategic initiatives of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, said that more needs to be done in schools. "I think it really calls for professional development about how to address" issues related to sexual orientation, he said, "and how to address bullying and harassment when they happen."