Alex Blaze

Queer kids face more punishment in school

Filed By Alex Blaze | December 06, 2010 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: bisexual, criminal justice system, education policy, lesbian, punishment, queer youth, school

A Yale University study was recently published on punishment of 2 Queer Youth Advocacy Day.jpgqueer 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.

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.

It's so reassuring to see someone who's addressing the disparity in the statistical prevalence of altersexual (GLB) youth punishment. Also it brings into question whether non-normative sexuality or gender, or even both, are contributing factors. With stereotypes abound, it's hard to dismiss the notion of vulnerability amongst youth who already feel alienated by their own peers. Thanks for shedding some light on these issues. Perhaps once the "anti-gay bullying" news trend passes, we'll see better studies conducted in the area of self-identification.

Alternative lifestyles are not exaclty a "hot" popularity topic in our schools today. Let's face it, understanding other people is not on top of the list when blackops shooting games suggest we shoot everyone in the head. Nasty words fly in those games, as an example, which teach kids the wrong directions in life.

Being gay is not wrong , right and wrong are just words, so I hope none of the kids really suffer in years to come as we change our perceptions.

Bonnie Smith
COO/Director FXP

@bonnie: "Alternative lifestyles" ??!!

What does that have to do with queer/trans youth?

Alex, you just described my teenage self in your second to last paragraph. ;)

Although, I would still connect it to anti-gay bullying for me since the only reason I ever got in trouble in the first place was directly related to getting bullied.

For example, there were these girls that would constantly get in my face and threaten me at lunch time. I would stay seated and try to ignore them until they got inches from my face. I'd make eye contact with the monitors, one of which was even a guidance counselor. But they wouldn't do anything until I reacted, so of course I got in trouble.

I really couldn't tell you what the adults were thinking. I've wondered if they assumed I was the aggressor because I was masculine, that I'd done something previously to have deserved getting ganged up on. Or was it that I could take care of myself because I was like a boy, and they were more like girls. I never hit them though, because weirdly I felt it was akin to a boy hitting a girl.

In another example there were classes where the boys would call me dyke and harass me--openly in the middle of class discussions. Some days I just didn't want to deal with it and skipped those classes. A few times I walked out in the middle of class in protest of the teacher not doing anything. And so, I got in trouble for skipping class.

Finally, my senior year, a new Vice Principle was able to determine that the reason I was skipping class was because I was being sexually harassed in class, which was against school policy. I think most people think of sexual harassment as pretty girls receiving unwanted advances. Really, any school that has a policy on sexual harassment already has a policy on harassment related to sexuality.

But, yeah, from 5th grade on various teachers labeled me as an anti-social trouble maker and suspected me of using drugs. I think my style of dress came off as punk/metalhead. I don't think most teachers know what the hell butch is. They may see "masculine" subconsciously, but consciously they're thinking "punk" and someone being intentionally nonconformist. I was poor, so I'm sure there was some classism going on there. When you're poor, you have fewer clothing options.

In hindsight I blame the teachers and guidance counselors more than other kids.

That kind of treatment can happen to anyone who is bullied. Regardless of sexual orientation.

People just watch and don't intervene when the taunting and the provoking happens. Or they just don't see it. Then the second the bullied person reacts or fights back, they suddenly notice and the actual victim is punished for not wanting to put up with it anymore.

Sure, Steve it can, but the name of the game is disparity. Do you dispute the study?

No, of course not. I was talking about that specific situation. Guardians/supervisors just watching and mostly punishing the victims. That doesn't deny other negative treatment of queer kids.

On the one hand we know that queer kids get bullied more often. On the other hand there are studies that show queer kids face more punishment in school, particularly if they're a masculine presenting lesbian. I'm all those things. And I was trying to show, through personal example, how those things are interrelated and that there's some intersectionality going on.

Why do you say you don't dispute the studies and then dismiss my experience as not having anything to do with my identity? Are you suggesting that even though I was a queer, masculine female teenager, that somehow I'm not part of the statistics? And if so, why? Numbers represent people.

Marja Erwin | December 6, 2010 6:27 PM

In my experience, there wasn't much difference between harassment/bullying from teachers and administrators and bullying from other students. Of course, the former could get me shunted to another school, labelled, etc. while the latter could get me beaten up. But it's all bullying. It's the administrators who make clear who students can bully with impunity and who they can't. It's the administrators who make clear who will get punished for either fighting back or not fighting back - both were punishable - and who will be supported for it.

Marja Erwin | December 6, 2010 6:31 PM

Of course there were a lot more reasons than queerness. I was short, weak, borderline face-blind, and was encouraged to question authoritae at home which invited trouble at school.

Marja Erwin | December 6, 2010 6:35 PM

Of course, questioning authority is an important virtue. I'm glad my parents encouraged it. I'm just pointing out that the schools punished me for it, even when I was just writing essays on my values for an assignment...

Whenever someone appears to be different for whatever reason in the eyes of their peers, they may be subjected to bullying and/or harassment.

Having attended high school in the 1960's, it is disturbing to hear that bullying is still occurring.
Yes, the past is the past but this should not be permitted.

In addition, there were adults who clearly knew what was going on and allowed this to continue.
There were times when in my attempts to stop the bullying, my actions got me into trouble at school.

Thanks Alex for acknowledging that butch gender presentation and the consequent policing of transgressing gender roles is a big bias here.

I'd just suggest that not all "students who identify as lesbian and bisexual are more butch". There are definitely a lot more young femmes coming out in high schools, even tho they can pass and don't threaten the binary/male privilege.
But young butch/masculine-presenting kids generally don't have much choice about coming out, they are outed by how they present (and their perceived gender transgression and sexuality are tangled up together in the minds of the bigots & bullies.)

Pastor Scott | December 7, 2010 8:56 PM

thanks everyone for this conversation. My memory banks have been lighting up wildly. When I was in eighth grade, this one tough-boy kid, would constantly harass me in gymn class. He'd wait until the coach was looking the other way and then punch me and call me a faggot under his breath. We were learning wrestling and one day and this kid just wouldn't let up. When the coach turned away he punched me in the arm. I had had it so I yelled "Knock that shit off, dude!" The coach spun around and said, what's your problem IMLER. "Nothing sir, except this little fuck won't leave me alone." And sure enough I got sent off to the principal's office for abusive language. It was a relief. St least I was out of class. As luck would have it though me and my nemesis drew lots as each others opponents in the wrestling test. I was petrified. so I studied the text book about wrestling looking for the quickest most deft possible moves from both the top and bottom positions. As luck would have it, at least for that wrestling match, I drew the top stop. I figured I'd need to act fast once the whistle blew, so from starting top position I used a left to left half-nelson, lean my weight into him, half nelson cum reverse head-lock, flipping him on his back, and dropped my full weight on his chest. One, two, three - PIN in 13 seconds. That kid never fucked with me again. Moral of the story: If you don't stand up for yourself, even amid the longest of odds, who else will.?"