Is anyone really surprised by the news that LGB youth are about 40% more likely to be punished by school authorities, police and the courts than heterosexual kids who do the same things? Just as driving while Black or flying while Muslim result in people being targeted for more intense scrutiny and harassment, people who don’t fit neatly into the stereotypical gender norms (which require heterosexuality) find themselves being bullied by peers and punished by those who have control over them.
Kathryn E. W. Himmelstein and Hannah Brückner’s study, Criminal-Justice and School Sanctions Against Nonheterosexual Youth: A National Longitudinal Study looked at the data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which followed a nationally representative sample of adolescents who were in grades 7 through 12 in 1994–1995. They looked at data from the 1994–1995 survey and the 2001–2002 follow-up. And what they found was that being “non-heterosexual” was consistently a predictor for higher risk of sanctions from authorities, including being stopped by the police school expulsion, juvenile arrest and conviction, and adult conviction. Girls were at particularly high risk. And these difference are not because LGB youth were engaging in illegal or transgressive behaviors more than heterosexual youth.
It’s not clear from this study whether the adults who punish queer youth disproportionately are aware of their actions. I can easily imagine that they don’t realize that they treat queer kids and straight kids differently. Heterosexually-identified men who experience arousal when watching gay male porn score higher on the Index of Homophobia than heterosexual men who don’t experience arousal from the same movies. That helps explain, in part, why so many high-profile politicians can rave against queers during the day and have sex with them at night. Or in highway rest stops.
There’s often a cognitive dissonance around sexuality and one way people deal with that is by attacking what they perceive as the source of the discomfort. Rather than looking inwards and figuring out why they feel such hostility and shame, they turn their anger outward and it’s often done without awareness.
And of course, there’s the possibility that these adults are quite aware of what they’re doing and are choosing to punish LGB kids, simply because they can. Bullies attack those who are weaker than them because they can.
Gender norms are among the most deeply held and unexamined set of beliefs that most people hold. Queer youth, especially those who are out of the closet and expressive about their sexual identities, challenge those norms. And queer women experience both orientation-based stereotypes and good old sexism at the same time.
Queers have always been singled out for police harassment and intimidation. They’ve always been the targets of violence and sexual assault. And queer youth have always been more likely to be bullied, kicked out of their homes, and commit suicide. So being targeted by school officials, police and the courts fits right into that pattern.
What’ll it take to change this? Groups like the Gay-Straight Alliance. Organizations like the Lavender Youth Recreation & Information Center (LYRIC) and Parents & Friends of Lesbians & Gays (PFLAG). And parents and communities need to take a stand and protect kids from the bullies. Both the other kids and the adults who have power over them.