Gay and lesbian teens are punished more at school, by police, study says

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 6, 2010; 12:05 AM

Gay and lesbian teens in the United States are about 40 percent more likely than their straight peers to be punished by schools, police and the courts, according to a study published Monday, which finds that girls are especially at risk for unequal treatment.

The research, described as the first national look at sexual orientation and teen punishment, comes as a spate of high-profile bullying and suicide cases across the country have focused attention on the sometimes hidden cruelties of teen life.

The study, from Yale University, adds another layer, finding substantial disparities between gay and straight teens in school expulsions, arrests, convictions and police stops. The harsher approach is not explained by differences in misconduct, the study says.

"The most striking difference was for lesbian and bisexual girls, and they were two to three times as likely as girls with similar behavior to be punished," said Kathryn Himmelstein, lead author of the study, published in the journal Pediatrics.

Why the punishment gap exists is less clear.

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.

"I find it tragic, " said Clara McCreery, 18, co-president of the Gay-Straight Alliance at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. "I wonder if some people misinterpret the way some gay girls choose to dress as a sign of aggression."

Stacey Horn, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, called the study important and compared the findings to racial disparities in criminal sentencing. "To me, it is saying there is some kind of internal bias that adults are not aware of that is impacting the punishment of this group," she said.

The study brings punishment differences for gay teens into focus at a time when public concern about torment and bullying is heightened. In September, an 18-year-old Rutgers University student jumped off a bridge to his death after his gay sexual encounter was allegedly filmed by a roommate on a webcam and announced on Twitter.

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