Schools, courts and police need to be more vigilant about providing support for lesbian, gay and bisexual youth — and making sure they are not being singled out for punishment more than their heterosexual peers. That message comes from a study published today in the journal Pediatrics, led by Kathryn Himmelstein. A Yale undergraduate when she conducted the research, she’s now a high school math teacher in Brooklyn, New York — and has been a friend of mine since second grade.
Using data from a national adolescent health study, Kathryn looked at how likely adolescents were to have been arrested or convicted of a crime, stopped by police, or expelled from school based on answers they had given to questions related to their sexuality. What she found was that lesbian, gay and bisexual youth get punished more for the same behaviors compared to heterosexual youth, and that lesbian and bisexual girls and “questioning” adolescents were particularly at risk for punishment.
I used a dinner date in Union Square as an excuse to ask Kathryn a few questions about why gay, lesbian and bisexual youth are more likely to get punished, and what institutions and individuals can do to prevent discrimination from happening.
Genevra Pittman: Where did you get the motivation to do this study?
Kathryn Himmelstein: I was taking a leave of absence from college and I was working with young people involved in the court system, and I and a lot of my colleagues noticed there were a lot of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth involved in the court system. But when we looked at the literature, it hadn’t really been documented.
GP: Your paper suggests that even when they are engaging in the exact same behavior, non-heterosexual adolescents are more likely to get punished than heterosexuals. Why would this be the case?
KH: Our data show that this disparity exists, but don’t show why. But people who work in the system have observed that authorities may not take into account certain mitigating factors when dealing with lesbian, gay and bisexual youth — if they’re being harassed or acting in self-defense, for example.
GP: Can this be attributed to discrimination by schools, courts, and police?
KH: I think a key point is that we don’t know what’s going on in decision-makers’ heads. It may very well not be intentional.
GP: How do you explain the finding that “questioning” adolescents may be more at risk for punishment than others?
KH: Those findings are a little bit difficult to draw conclusions from. We’re not sure why, whether that’s due to questioning per se. To draw a full conclusion, we would need to look more at the behavior of these people. But it does show more punishment, and that’s a cause of concern.
GP: What do you hope will be the response to this study, and what will come out of it?
KH: The first step is training professionals who work with youth about the needs of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth. Beyond the individual-level training, institutions need to affirm their commitment to treating all youth fairly by enacting policies that explicitly prohibit discrimination.
GP: How does the study and the work you put into it factor into your daily life as a high school math teacher?
KH: I think it’s just made me more mindful of the struggles a lot of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are facing and how that might affect their behavior. And it’s made me more aware of my responsibility as an adult to support them through those challenges rather than punish them for their behavior.