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Lesbian/Gay/Bi Teens Punished More

Study Shows LGB Teens, Particularly Girls, Punished More for Same Behavior as Straight Teens
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Dec. 6, 2010 -- Lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) teens and young adults -- particularly females -- are more often punished by school and criminal authorities than are straight youths, a new study suggests.

The increased punishment can't be explained by more rule-breaking or law-breaking behavior, find Yale researchers Kathryn Himmelstein and Hanna Bruckner.

"LGB kids are being punished more often than heterosexual kids by police, courts, and school officials -- and that is not because they are misbehaving more," Himmelstein tells WebMD. "We controlled for what kids were doing to elicit punishment, and we found that LGB youth were excessively punished."

Himmelstein and Bruckner analyzed data from a nationally representative sample of teens in grades 7 through 12 in 1994 to 1995. More than 15,000 participants were interviewed again in 2001-2002, when they were 18 to 26 years old.

The youths were asked whether they were ever expelled from school, stopped by police, arrested before or after turning 18, or convicted in juvenile or adult court. They answered a battery of questions about their own rule- and law-breaking behavior.

They also were asked whether they were attracted to members of the same sex, whether they had a same-sex relationship, and whether they identified themselves as anything other than 100% heterosexual (in which case they were counted as LGB).

The result: Overall, non-heterosexual teens were between 25% and 300% more likely than their heterosexual peers to have experienced punishment.

"The differences are most striking for non-heterosexual girls, who are about two to three times more likely to be punished," Himmelstein says. "We don't have a clear idea of why, but the juvenile justice system has historically played a role in policing girls' sexuality."

"This study adds to our understanding of the increased risks to their health and well-being that LGB youths face," Tumaini Coker, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California, Los Angeles, tells WebMD. Coker has studied the special health challenges of LGB teens. She was not involved in the Himmelstein study.

LGB health researcher Caitlin Ryan, PhD, LCSW, director of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, notes that the Himmelstein study mixes together youths who are questioning their sexuality with those who are fully LGB-identified.

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