Along with being more likely to be bullied by their classmates, a new study by Yale University researchers finds teens who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) are about 40 percent more likely than their straight peers to be punished by school authorities, police and the courts.
Published in the January 2011 issue of the journal Pediatrics, this is the first study to document excessive punishment of LGB youth nationwide.
"We found that virtually all types of punishment -- including school expulsions, arrests, juvenile convictions, adult convictions and especially police stops -- were more frequently meted out to LGB youth," said lead author Kathryn Himmelstein, who initiated the study while she was a Yale undergraduate.
The research was supervised by Hannah Brueckner, professor of sociology and co-director of the Center for Research on Inequalities and the Life Course at Yale.
The study was based on the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) and included about 15,000 middle and high school students who were followed for seven years into early adulthood.
The study collected details on participants' sexuality, including feelings of sexual attraction, sexual relationships and self-labeling as LGB.
Add Health also surveyed participants about how frequently they engaged in a variety of misbehaviors, ranging in severity from lying to parents, to using a weapon.
The survey also included detailed questions about school expulsions and contacts with the criminal justice system.
Himmelstein, who now teaches math at a public high school in New York City, said LGB teens were about 50 percent more likely to be stopped by police than other teenagers.
Teens who reported feelings of attraction to members of the same sex, regardless of their self-identification, were more likely than other teens to be expelled from school or convicted of crimes as adults.
Himmelstein said girls who identified as lesbian or bisexual were especially at risk for unequal treatment.
"They reported experiencing twice as many police stops, arrests and convictions as other girls who had engaged in similar behavior," said Himmelstein.
The study did not explore the experiences of transgender youth, but Himmelstein said anecdotal reports suggest that they are similarly at risk for excessive punishment.
The study also showed that these disparities in punishments are not explained by differences in the rates of misbehavior.
In fact, according to the study's findings, LGB adolescents actually engaged in less violence than their peers.
"The painful, even lethal bullying that LGB youth suffer at the hands of their peers has been highlighted by recent tragic events," said Himmelstein.
"Our numbers suggest that school officials, police and judges, who should be protecting LGB youth, are instead singling them out for punishment based on their sexual orientation. LGB teens can't thrive if adults single them out for punishment because of their sexual orientation."
This study is the first and only to provide national estimates for over-representation of LGB youth in the criminal justice system. And according to the authors, additional studies are needed.
"We need more research on the processes that lead to this to help us identify ways to make our institutions more equitable with respect to policing all youth, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation," said Brueckner.