A Yale University study was recently published on punishment of queer youth in schools and in the juvenile justice system. The usual caveats about studies of queer people apply (more on that after the jump), but just take it in broad strokes as an indication of a problem:
The results showed that, for similar misconduct, gay adolescents were roughly 1.25 to 3 times more likely to be sanctioned than their straight peers.
The sexual-orientation disparity was greatest for girls. Girls who identified themselves as lesbian or bisexual experienced 50 percent more police stops and reported more than twice as many juvenile arrests and convictions as other teen girls in similar trouble, the study said.
Those who conducted the study think that the problem might have more to do with gender than sexuality, that students who identify as lesbian and bisexual are more butch and therefore get more punishment from authorities. There is a link between the masculinization of women and increased punishment which prosecutors and media have exploited and there's no reason to think that juvenile criminal justice systems aren't susceptible to the same stereotypes.
But it's also useful to look at a few of the caveats that came with that study. The first question that should be asked about any study that says "X queer people do Y" is "Where did they get their queers?" The Washington Post explains it with this:
Using data from more than 15,000 middle school and high school students who were followed into early adulthood as part of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, researchers compared categories of misconduct against six punishments. The interviews used for the study started in 1994-95 and continued until 2001-02, but researchers said they expect the findings would be similar today because the institutions involved have not dramatically changed.
Nearly 1,500 of the participants in the study identified themselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual, but more than 2,300 reported having felt a same-sex attraction at some point in their lives. More than 800 were in a same-sex relationship.
I'm going to assume that the researchers controlled for race and class, or at least that the questionnaires were sent out to a diverse set of schools to get representative numbers.
Still, there is a difference between 800, 2300, and 1500. The study went on to use the 1500 number and look at those students as its queers, but that doesn't really mean that they were a representative sample of the people who would identify as LGB, say, 20 years later.
Self-identification is a complicated thing, especially for adolescents. Some of them may fill in the bisexual bubble at that point in their lives and a few years later identify as straight. Some of them might say that they're straight and accept their sexuality a few years later, a sexuality that may have already been influencing their gender expression. And there are plenty of teens, especially girls, who identify as gay in high school and then don't several years later. (If I was at home I could refer to a specific study that followed teen girls and just asked them how they identified and showed a lot of people switching around because those are just volatile years, but I'm not).
But one thing that we do know about teens that identify as LGB, that are willing to take that step while they're still in school (and the data used in this study goes back to 1994), is that they are more likely to feel like loners. I'm wondering if that plays a role in how adults view these kids, who aren't the most popular and who may not be developing social skills as quickly as their peers, social skills that are useful in talking one's way into a lesser punishment. School teachers and administrators are usually at least subconsciously aware of teen social structures and I wouldn't be surprised if they were influenced by the same things that separate these teens from their peers.
Anyway, it's an interesting study that points away from "anti-gay bullying" being the main/only problem affecting queer teens. While gays who today have an out-sized voice in the movement may remember bullying as being the biggest problem they faced, there are other, more subtle problems that are harder to fit into neat little stories to tell the grandkids.