Same crime, unequal time

Why are there so many gay kids in the court system?

That real-life question sent Kathryn Himmelstein '09 on an academic quest. At her journey's end: a Pediatrics article that examined data from 15,000 teenagers and concluded, in Himmelstein's words, that "lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth receive harsher punishments than their straight peers."

During a semester off from Yale, Himmelstein worked for a justice advocacy group. She was struck by how many of the "court-involved young people" identified themselves as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.

Once back in school, Himmelstein tested her hunch by sifting data from an existing survey. She measured the rates of six different types of punishment, ranging from school expulsions to police stops to adult convictions, for teens who reported different sexual attractions, relationships, and self-identification. The results, she says, were "quite consistent and striking." By most measures of orientation, and in most categories of punishment, non-heterosexual teens were sanctioned more often.

The trend was more pronounced among girls: "Lesbian and bisexual girls were two to three times more likely to be punished," Himmelstein observes. However, some gay and bisexual boys also suffered disproportionately.

Although gay and lesbian kids were not more violent, they committed more of what the study categorizes as minor and moderate transgressions. But "we controlled for that," says Himmelstein's coauthor, Yale sociology professor Hannah Brückner. And even at similar levels of misbehavior, the odds of being punished are between 40 and 200 percent more likely than for their heterosexual peers.

Some of those differences were small enough that they could have occurred by chance—as a letter to Pediatrics emphasized. But "the patterns we saw are incredibly consistent," Himmelstein says. That consistency, she argues, raises the likelihood that, consciously or not, adults discriminate against gay and lesbian teens.  


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