More gay and bisexual teens expelled and jailed

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Many teens act out, but those with a history of homosexual feelings or relationships are more likely to be punished for it, a new study finds.

“We’re seeing that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are more likely to be expelled from school, or stopped by the police or whatever sanction we’re looking at,” researcher Kathryn Himmelstein told Reuters Health.

Specifically, they found that when all teens committed the same amount of bad behavior, those with a history of homosexual feelings or relationships were between 30 and 50 percent more likely to be stopped by the police, 40 percent more likely to be convicted of a crime as adults and more likely to be expelled from school.

Teens who self-identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual were also more likely to be arrested and convicted of a crime as juveniles.

“Lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are being singled out for punishment and there needs to be intentional steps taken to address this disparity,” Himmelstein said in an interview. For instance, adults who mete out punishments should receive training in the needs and challenges of non-heterosexual youth, she suggested. “It may not even be intentional on the part of the people making these decisions.”

Meanwhile, parents of these teenagers can try to minimize the bias by sticking up for their children, Himmelstein noted. “To the best of their ability, parents can be advocates for their children with other adults,” including school administrators, police and judges.

The teenage years can be tough for people who have homosexual feelings or relationships. Previous research has found that one-quarter of these teenagers leave home because of their sexual orientation and even more suffer family violence or are harassed by their peers.

As a result, many experience depression, commit suicide or become homeless. They are also more likely to carry weapons and engage in petty crimes, presumably for survival on the streets.

To investigate how lesbian, gay and bisexual young people are treated when they get in trouble, Himmelstein and her co-author Dr. Hannah Brückner of Yale University reviewed data collected from more than 15,000 teens in grades 7 through 12 during the 1994-1995 school year. The interviews were conducted in teens’ homes, during which they could answer sensitive questions about sexuality and bad behavior anonymously, by entering their responses into a computer. Seven years later, participants were re-contacted and asked about their behaviors and punishments as adults.

Brückner and Himmelstein, now based at the New York City Department of Education, measured non-heterosexuality by including teens who said they had either experienced same-sex attraction, had a same-sex relationship or identified themselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual.

Most participants said they’d engaged in some type of bad behavior -- three-quarters admitted to minor transgressions, such as running away, graffiti or shoplifting. Thirty percent said they’d committed more serious acts, such as selling drugs or stealing. More than 40 percent admitted to violent behavior, such as fighting or hurting someone.

The result of this bad behavior differed between the groups, however. Reporting in the journal Pediatrics, the authors found that nearly 10 percent of participants who said they’d been attracted to someone of the same sex had been expelled from school, versus 7 percent of those with only heterosexual feelings. Twenty-six percent of participants who’d had a same-sex relationship said they’d been stopped by the police, but only 21 percent of those with no history of same-sex relationships said the same.

When the researchers used statistical tools to equalize the rates of bad behavior among heterosexual and non-heterosexual teens, they found that those with homosexual feelings or relationships were significantly more likely to be punished for their behavior.

Why non-heterosexual young people are being singled out, however, is unclear, Himmelstein noted. “We just showed these disparities exist.”

“I wish I could say that their results are surprising but unfortunately they are not,” Dr. Karine Igartua, co-founder and co-medical director of the McGill University Sexual Identity Centre, told Reuters Health. Anti-homosexual bias can occur anywhere, she noted, such as in the police officer who lets go a teenaged boy and girl for making out in a park, but charges two teenaged boys with public indecency. But she agreed that often, authority figures aren’t being consciously biased.

“Authority figures ill-at-ease with homosexuality may feel that the non-exclusively heterosexual youth’s transgression may be more indicative of the youth being ‘out of control’ since they consider that his/her sexuality is also a transgression,” Igartua said in an e-mail. “In this case, they may feel that more sanctions are needed to attempt to steer the youth ‘back’ to more ‘normal’ behaviors.”

SOURCE: Pediatrics, online December 6, 2010.