~ By Luca Maurer
Lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) youth face a variety of risks (including higher rates of attempted suicide, depression, unintended pregnancy, drug use, and cigarette smoking) which impact their health. New research sheds light on yet another dimension of risk for LGB youth, which has direct links to their health and well-being–the experience of being disproportionately sanctioned or punished by police, schools, and the criminal justice system. Criminal-Justice and School Sanctions Against Nonheterosexual Youth: A National Longitudinal Study provides the first documentation of this phenomenon using a national, population-based sample.
The research assesses six outcomes to determine whether disparities exist regarding:
- school expulsion
- police stops
- juvenile arrest
- juvenile conviction
- adult arrest
- adult conviction
Researchers found that nonheterosexual youth experience disproportionate rates of punishment, despite engaging no more frequently in illegal or transgressive behavior than their heterosexual peers. The study found they are:
- 1.25 to 3 times more likely to be punished in the schools, and in juvenile and criminal justice systems than their heterosexual peers for similar transgressions
- 30%–50% more likely to be stopped by the police than their heterosexual peers
- 40% more likely to be convicted of a crime as an adult
Elevated risk was found for youth who identified as LGB, as well as for those who did not but indicated same-sex attraction or same-sex relationships.
Girls were found to be at particularly elevated risk in experiencing school and criminal-justice punishments. In addition, lesbian and bisexual girls reported being stopped by police twice as many times as heterosexual girls.
The study’s researchers suggested several possibilities to account for these disparities, including the impact of homophobia in institutions (schools, child welfare, and criminal justice systems), and administrators and decision makers who may punish youth because of their sexuality or sexual behaviors, or overlook factors such as self-defense that may arise more frequently in LGB youth who have been bullied or victimized by peers. Thus youth in need of services, support, therapy, or other positive intervention may instead experience punishment.
Learning more about these types of disparities as well as concerted efforts to reduce them could do much to lessen the consequences that face LGB youth due to arrest, expulsion from school, and incarceration. This new research also emphasizes the important role of all youth-serving professionals and systems that may struggle to recognize or meet the needs of LGB youth and calls for them to “reflect on strategies to reduce the criminalization of nonheterosexual youth as they navigate adolescence in an often hostile society.”
And since the reactions and behaviors of parents can also greatly impact the health and well-being of their LGB children, parents must be informed about this unfortunate reality so that they can best prepare themselves and equip their children should they experience this risk firsthand. One resource for parents, The Family Acceptance Project, is explored in detail in the previous blog post Supporting the Families of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youth. Resources available for free download from the Family Acceptance Project include the booklet Supportive Families, Health Children: Helping Families with LGBT Children, and the video Always My Son.
Lis Maurer is the coordinator of the Center for LGBT Education, Outreach & Services at Ithaca College, and is on the Editorial Board of The Prevention Researcher.