Why Are Lesbian/Bi Teens Punished More Harshly Than Hets? Has This Happened to You?

Queer teenage girls experience 50 percent more police stops and twice the risk of school expulsion, arrest, or conviction than their straight peers with similar misdemeanors, according to a study published Monday in Pediatrics, a medical journal.

The study, which was conducted by Yale University researchers Kathryn Himmelstein and Hannah Bruckner, also found that gay and lesbian teenagers receive harsher punishments at school and in court than straight teens do, despite less illegal behaviour, and that they are more vulnerable to health risks such as addiction, bullying, and familial abuse. That last piece of information is old news, but the rest of it is pretty new.

Himmelstein and Bruckner used data from over 15,000 elementary and high school students — 14% of the women and 6% of men self-identified as something other than 100% het. 17% of women said they were attracted to the same sex and 6 percent said they’d had a romantic same-sex relationship. 76% of the total participants had committed minor offenses such as shoplifting or underage drinking. 41% per cent said they’d engaged in violent behaviour.

However, those who did not identify as straight were 1.25 to 3 times more likely to be punished than straight participants with the same offenses. They were also less likely to have been violent.

Lesbian, gay, and bisexual students were “slightly more” likely than their heterosexual counterparts to report that they’d done small stuff like drinking and shoplifting but they were less likely to have engaged in serious crimes like burglary, drug dealing and weapon possession.

So what the hell is going on?

Is the discrimination conscious? In Business Week, Himmelstein said the reasons schools and courts are harsher on queer teens wasn’t clear from the results of the study, but that sexual orientation may be intentionally or unintentionally related.

The authors suggest several possible explanations, including how likely it is that officials consider mitigating factors such as self-defense when queer teens are involved; homophobia in health care and child welfare systems resulting in punishment for risky behaviours that might have received help and support if committed by straight teens; and unknown missing data (which they dismiss as unlikely).

In the Washington Post, Himmelstein said:

“It may very well be not intentional. I think most people who work with youth want to do the best they can for young people and treat them fairly, but our findings show that’s not happening.”

The juvenile-justice system also has a history of policing female sexuality, and a history of being antagonistic towards girls with “aggressive” or “masculine” gender presentations. In the New York Times, Betsy Pursell, a vice president for the Human Rights Campaign, said that stepping outside “normal” gender roles can be perceived as being more difficult by authorities, depending on behaviour. She also said:

I think adults who work with young people, for better or worse, tend to quickly categorize kids. They may not be categorizing them as LGBT but as mainstream or out of mainstream, a potential troublemaker or not a potential troublemaker.”

Whether discrimination is intentional or not, what is certain is that gay rights and gender equality are still not things that can be expected or taken for granted. In May of last year, the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which was meant to prohibit discrimination and harassment due to gender or sexual orientation in public schools, was introduced to the Senate.  It’s not looking like it’s going to get any attention in the near future but you can urge it along by signing this from the ACLU. In November, Senator Al Franken, who introduced the Act, urged Congress to pass it at a joint press conference with Tammy Aaberg, the mother of Justin Aaberg, who committed suicide in July as a result of anti-gay bullying. .

Himmelstein and Bruckner wrap up their study with an urgent call for “all child-serving professionals to reflect on strategies to reduce the criminalization of nonheterosexual youth as they navigate adolescence in an often hostile society.” This, like Franken’s bill and New Jersey’s bill and other similar legislation (which there really isn’t a lot of), is not asking administrators and officials to become one with the power of the clam. It’s just asking that they recognize that they might be accidentally (or purposefully) biased. And that they ought to do something about it.

Have you seen this happen in your own life, at your school or in the legal system? Why do you think this is happening? Tell us your feelings.

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Ryan Yates

Ryan Yates was the NSFW Editor (2013–2018) and Literary Editor for Autostraddle.com, with bylines in Nylon, Refinery29, The Toast, Bitch, The Daily Beast, Jezebel, and elsewhere. They live in Los Angeles and also on twitter and instagram.

Ryan has written 1142 articles for us.


  1. Yes, I have seen this happen – not to me as much as to my brother, who self-identifies as queer and doesn’t exactly act like a guy is “supposed” to act. Both of us were targeted by our junior high school vice principal for no readily apparent reason, but he bore the brunt of it. The worst part was when he was attacked by another kid in the hallway between classes. He was shoved into some lockers, and he shoved back in self-defense. Originally they were going to suspend only him, but my mother raised such a stink that they “compromised” and suspended the other kid, too.

    Luckily my brother was able to get into the district’s alternative junior high the next year – I can’t imagine how much shit he would have dealt with if he had been stuck there for another two years. Thankfully I only went to the school for a year too – we’d just moved when I was in ninth grade, so the next year I was at the high school.

  2. I’ve seen this happen, too. I remember in my senior year English class I sat next to the only out lesbian in my school, we would pass notes during class and she was *always* the one who would get yelled at. I get that our teacher wasn’t pleased with our note passing, but I always thought it was odd that nothing was said to me and that the teacher was always so nasty in the way she spoke to her, like she was oblivious of the fact that everyone in our class picked on her, too. I don’t know if it was my grades or the fact that I looked more feminine that spared me, but either reason is suspect.

  3. Yeah, this is totally true. I live in a small town in Georgia, and I’ve got short hair and whatnot so naturally I’m always getting names thrown at me. I was hanging out with a gay guy friend and a bisexual femme from school. She was shoplifting and we all got put in jail. I was harassed by the police in jail, while the femme girl (who did all the actual stealing) was treated nicely, given a blanket, etc. The gay guy that was with us was also harassed and left in a contaminated cell for at least 4 hours after his cellmate complained about “being stuck with a faggot” and cut his own forearm. At court the judge treated the girl in a fatherly sort of manner and barely gave her a slap on the wrist. He blamed me and the other boy for the crime. Luckily I had a lawyer and the case against me was dropped since I didn’t do anything except have poor choice in friends. But I know if I’d have had to go to trial, I would have been in more trouble than the actual shoplifter just because of how I look.

      • I know, tell me about it! The judge was talking to her and literally said “I think you just have a case of bad-friend-itis” when she was the one who took everything. It was so stupid, I felt like screaming!

  4. maybe straight girls can get out of speeding tickets by flirting so it’s not that gay girls are punished MORE but that straight girls are often punished LESS. or they have comradery with a straight guy. i mean gay girls can flirt too, i guess, if they pass for straight. mostly i’m basing this off anecdotal evidence mostly culled from TV shows.

    • You fucking bet your ass.

      Oh, and for those of you that pull this shit: it comes at a price. Know it.

      • This makes sense from a lot of standpoints. She can flirt, or play the dumb pretty girl routine. Plus many men like to protect or help out girls. I for one would rather just take my ticket.

    • no, it’s absolutely a thing. my friend flirted her way out of a speeding ticket while i sat in the passenger seat gaping. once she started hitting on the cop, he seemed to be doing everything in his power to *not* give her a ticket or a hard time and ask her what she was doing that weekend.

      i also notice that if there are random searches going on in any capacity anywhere, you had better believe i am getting stopped and searched or asked to present some kind of identification.

  5. I think gay people tend to dress and look less conservative…the study showed that gay GIRLS actually got the worst of it…which doesn’t surprise me…since gay girls often go for a more masculine presentation and that is the type of look that is considered “tough” or “like a punk” or something by authority.

    I was always, always singled out in school/on the street for being “defiant” to authority when I was like the most compliant, normal, studious, quiet person ever. I was never out as a lesbian to these authority figures so I think it had to do 100% with the way I dressed…to this day I prefer leather jackets to peacoats, and yeah, and that’s gonna make me look more criminal. Idk why but that’s just how it is. If you’re not a neat little girl you’re a troublemaker…

  6. In high school in the 1990s, my girlfriend presented as more masculine than I, even though we both had shorter hair. I tended to wear sundresses while she preferred jeans. We were both very outspokenly lesbian and gender-aware: I grew up in an area that was accepting and tolerant and even protective of people’s right to be who they are.
    When all was said and done, however, we were still in a heteronormative world. We got in trouble for PDA for holding hands right beside a straight couple who were making out. The punishing administrator made it abundantly clear that she was corrupting me, that there was hope for me to alrer my course and to make sure I had the time to do it he put my “dykey friend” in detention for 3 weeks.
    Joke’s on him, though… I was her first and only girlfriend. She still wears jeans to protests with her husband and I still sport dresses and embrace her support.

  7. that why i dont put rainbow stickers on my car, instead i put jesus stickers, i havnt been pulled over since.

  8. Yes. I think punishing queer kids more harshly is 1) a way of people in power expressing their disapproval when they can’t punish the homosexuality directly and 2) a way of strong arming queer kids into conformity.

    In junior high my guidance counselor told my Mom I was anti-social and maybe doing drugs. She also called my best friend’s Mom to tell her I was a bad influence.

    I don’t think it was because I was gay per se. It was because my typical wardrobe was a denim jacket, a flannel shirt or t shirt, jeans, sneakers and a baseball hat or trucker hat. And my three friends and I typically steered clear of other kids because we believed them to be judgmental assholes. I guess that is sort of anti-social, but we weren’t doing anything more illicit than listening to a small boom box which were forbidden on school grounds.

    We were watched more closely, but then we laughed because we knew of several popular girls who were sexually active and doing drugs. Chalk it up to profiling fail.

    In high school I would get in trouble for defending myself from bullying. I think there’s this idea that if queer kids are humiliated enough, it’ll force them to change. Like some law of the jungle: conform if you want to survive. And when they resist, they get punished.

    • This is my life. When I was at high school I wanted to go on an exchange, my school said no as I would ‘ruin my education’. This just doesn’t make sense.

      I still went for the exchange and when they found out they put me into counselling and made me ‘have meetings’ with the vice-principal were he would tell me I was going down a bad path and I would end up like this girl who used to cut herself behind the art room and was failing almost everything.

      He made me read all these books (which was fine, a book’s a book) and ‘discuss them’ with him.

      Later I saw other people I know going on exchanges. Maybe they did it in a ‘gap year’ but they didn’t have to sign a leavers form and officially leave school because ‘those were the rules, and you have to learn to follow the rules’.

  9. This definitely happened to me in high school—I remember really well this one PE teacher would harass me all the time—and was super sweet to my obvs straight BFF–what the hell??? A PE teacher !! That is just SO wrong–

    Of course NOW I understand….she was so closeted, must’ve been painful–I was not OUT-out but not hiding it either…

    Ok, now have to call said BFF and discuss–hmmmmm…

    • Your point is moronic, but I like that article because it shows the stupidest people in the world.

  10. I don’t want to act like this was that big of a deal, but it still pissed me off: I am dating a woman for the first time. We go to college together and we were in her car in the parking lot, just kissing, when a university police officer knocked on the window and asked if everything was alright. He insisted on looking in the car and told us if we’d “gone any farther” we might have had to go to jail. Pretty sure, if it had been a guy and a girl instead of two girls, he wouldn’t have looked twice…

  11. This does happen. However when my ex-girlfriend and I commited our misdemeanor we got off prrretTy easy…our solicitor was a lezzylady. sweet.

  12. I’ve always been picked on at school but my mom backed me up every time and complained to administration. Mostly it was because of my intellgence. After I came out at school I was actually bullied less by my peers. I do cross-dress unconventionally, I had a goth phase and a few colored hair phases, also a mohawk (which got me in a load of trouble at my conservative southern school). Teachers at first would give me that look and attitude that says “I know you’re a trouble maker, don’t try to mess up my class,”. But they’d soon realize that I was one of or the best student in class. I’m always quiet and do my work, usually teachers get over their shock and grown to love me. There were a few times though that I think my orientation had an effect on their treatment of me. In my sophomore PE class, I met a girl who I really liked. If there wasn’t a mandatory game we’d sit in the corner with a few other kids just being quiet, reading. Sometimes we’d hold hands, usually if we were outside walking around the field. There would be other kids holding hands, some kids would disappear and do who knows what. But whenever we passed them they’d yell at us to split up, that we were “too close”. Another time was my junior year, there were always kids making out in the halls and at lunch. My girlfriend at the time had a different lunch than I did and I only got to see her once a day when she was going to class after my lunch break. I hugged her and kept my arms around her. We talked for a minute, then she gave me a peck goodbye but I didn’t want to leave so, I pulled her close and kissed her, closed mouth. When I turned to walk away someone yelled at us. It was the security guard, of all people. He made us follow him to an administrator’s office, even though I needed to get on the bus to go to my afternoon class. He told the admin that we were “practically having sex”. I was undeniably livid, to say the least. Admin told us that PDA wasn’t allowed, and asked for our names. She checked the computer and saw that neither of us had been in trouble so far that year. She told us that because it was a first offence she couldn’t punish us but if we were caught again parents would be called and it might mean suspension. I protested, told her that there are so many kids who do way more inappropriate things at lunch and in the halls and in the bathrooms. She said that they get in trouble too. I told her that not all of them did, considering I’d seen at least four PDA’s on the way to lunch and that they were all guy-girl couples; and there had been teachers in the halls as well who were supposed to report them. She faltered, gave me a lame excuse. I told her I knew we were there because we were both girls and that I would file a complaint and have my mom call the school, that it was harrassment and discrimination. She told me that I was just making it worse by being difficult, “couldn’t I accept the consequences and leave it be”? I stood up and she glared at me. I was going to tear her down with a rebuttal about suppression. But when I looked back at my girlfriend she was next to tears. I remember what she’d whispered shakily to me in the hall when I said I was going to fight. “Don’t say anything, please, I can’t get in trouble. They’ll call my mom.” She was in the closet. So, I swallowed my pride said “I’m sorry. Yes, ma’m.” Waited for the lecture to end and walked out. Also, I want to say that I had a guidance counselor tell me that I made trouble for myself by trying to be different, that if I didn’t dress how I dressed and have piercings (which were against the dress code) the administrators wouldn’t bother me; what did I expect when I set out to break the rules? I cried, because at this point in my life I was so unstable and insecure, I was just trying to feel better about myself. I told her that school is about finding who you are and that all of these restrictions and codes were telling kids that who they are isn’t ok, that we can only be what they’ve drawn out for us, and that is not what school should be about. A friend’s mom, who had conflicting feelings about me (sometimes I think she hated me because she thought I was trying to turn her daughter but other times she was cool and seemed to love me), asked me if I was going to junior prom. I flat out told her “no, why would I go to a dance full of people I don’t like in clothes I’m not confortable in with a date I don’t even like?” She looked up at me confused. “I can’t wear a tux and it’s not like I can go with a girl. They won’t sell you tickets if you’re buying for a same-sex date. All of the gay kids I’ve heard that are going are signing up with opposite sex dates and meeting up after they get there.” She scoffed at me. My senior prom is this year, and I have no intention of going because of those reasons. Regardless of whether or not I like dancing, crowds or have a date. Because if I could go with my date (assuming I had one) I’d be much more inclined to participate in this “teenage experience of a lifetime”.

  13. I originally misread the title of this article as, “Why Are Lesbian/Bi Teens Punished More Harshly Than Pets?”

    I immediately pictured someone chasing around a teenage girl with a rolled up newspaper, and then a boy being squirted with water from a spray bottle. Then there was a shock collar. Shit got kinky from there on.

  14. Same shit happened in the schools I went to… The one thing that stands out to me is about a guy in my middle school who was rumored to be gay. He was one of the nicest kids in school and never started trouble with anyone. But he was walking down the hall one day and a guy started calling him a bunch of slurs and punched him in the face…

    Yeah, guess which guy wound up suspended and which one didn’t get punished at all. :/

  15. Perhaps its because of our alternative lifestyle haircuts.
    I was always a bit of a freak in high school, and that rubs certain people up the wrong way. While I didn’t have a sign that said “i’m a big dyke” on my forehead (though I did have a pride-flag badge that said ‘unfuck the world’ and got me into lots of trouble repeatedly) the fact that I didn’t conform in the way that most other students made me a target. You just stand out more with blue hair!

  16. Oh yeah.
    All through high school until, well, NOW, my friends always joke that if we’re doing something wrong, I’ll get caught and punished for it.
    The most egregious example happened two summers ago, when my friends and I got caught with an open container on a saturday night by two Brooklyn cops in an unmarked car. My super-femme straight-girl best friend and my semi-femme gay little brother got away- their 40oz was hidden in her giant purse; when the cops pulled up, they just kept walking like they weren’t with us. Lucky for them, the two cops honed in on me (a boi-type w/ a mohawk) immediately.
    My other friend (another femme-y straight girl) stuck with me, but ultimately, I kind of wish she hadn’t- she’s also an NYU law student and started mouthing off to the cop about our rights and the ACLU and I was like *facepalm*…or I would have been if the cops hadn’t handcuffed me almost the second they got out of the car. I pulled one cop aside and explained that I was really sorry and that my friend was drunk, I didn’t realize brown-bagging was illegal, we’d never done it before, it wouldn’t happen again, etc. etc. Like I said, I’ve had run-ins with police before, so I was sucking up as hard as I could. The cop told me to shut up, what was done was done and we were gonna have to pay for it. Thinking quickly, I remembered to ask the cop if we were actually under arrest. He snapped, “Yeah” at me, and directed his partner to cuff my friend (I’d already been cuffed for about 10 minutes at that point). We were never mirandized.
    We were put in the back of the squad car and driven to the precinct. They took our stats and fingerprints, then to a room with a long metal bench adjacent to a holding cell. There were 3 or 4 people in the cell staring at us as the cop who my friend had been bitching at told us to sit down. He handcuffed my wrist to one arm of the bench, my friend’s to the other, and then used a new set of cuffs to link our free wrists together in the middle. Then he left to do some paperwork. I asked him how long we might be here and he said, “Long enough.” The gravity of the situation hit my friend and she started to cry. As best I could, I strained against my cuffs and leaned my head on her shoulder. She did the same. I heard snickering and an “oh, lord” and some words I couldn’t make out (I think I can guess) from the cell, but I was too scared to say anything back.
    We sat there like that for almost an hour before the cop came back and uncuffed me, but not my friend. He cuffed my wrists back together (they were really sore by this point) and brought me back into the main room of the station and the other cop (the one who’d first cuffed me and told me to shut up) was sitting behind a desk. He reached over and handed me a ticket. No, really. It was a citation for $25. I asked when my friend would be released, he said it’d be a while and I shouldn’t wait up. I said thank you and asked him how to get back to my street. He seemed shocked that I lived in his neighborhood. He pointed in the general direction of my apartment, paused, and said that he didn’t mind people like us living in that neighborhood, but that I should “tone it down a notch” because I’d have enough trouble “getting along” without actually breaking the law. He also told me to leave “girls like her [meaning my friend] out of it”. I said Yes Sir and left.
    I still can’t determine whether he had a problem with me presenting masculine or having a mohawk or being a drunk white girl in a predominantly black and latino neighborhood. I’m not sure what “it” is that I should be leaving my pretty feminine blonde friend “out of”. But I know how it felt.
    It felt like this guy wanted me to consider myself lucky I wasn’t locked up for being a Butch Dyke walking down the street with a hot, straight-looking girl. Like that he didn’t want someone like me in his neighborhood and I was tempting fate by doing anything to attract more attention to myself.
    It sucked. I could have gone after the city for not reading us our rights, but earlier that summer, a gay guy who some NYPD officers had sodomized with a police baton had lost his case, so I figured an incident as small as mine would get laughed out of court. It’s scary as a gay person and embarrassing as an American to know this kind of shit slides so nakedly. But what can you do? Be mad and keep paying to keep our streets safe from the threat of funny-looking teenage queers. How sad that the one group we can’t seem to adequately police is the police.

  17. When I was a freshman in high school, I was sitting on the steps by the front door with my girlfriend during our lunch period. I leaned down and kissed her and as soon as I did I heard some man yelling at us to stop or he will have to report us. It didn’t bother me much because I had seen a different faculty member say the say thing to other couples at school. However, I turned around and saw him just walk by a guy kissing his girlfriend goodbye. I was pissed. I’m a junior now and my ex and I have that teacher for algebra in the same class period. She is with a guy now and our teacher is totally fine with her but treats me like a jackass.

  18. Oh dude, yes. I was reading along and thinking no, this never happened to me, but then I remembered my best friend’s mom, who wouldn’t let her daughter talk on the phone to me after 6 in the evening and who was so worried about me being a lesbian (which, I’m bi but I hadn’t even realized yet) that she fairly shoved her daughter (14 at the time) at this 19-year old dude and it was NOT a good idea. Bad things happened. Whereas I was studious, quiet, never drank, and yet I was the bad influence.

  19. In sophomore year, I had bio with a bunch of homophobic dudebros. My school doesn’t have daily homeroom, but they do take ten minutes doing announcements after second period. My bio class fell during those ten minutes, and one time we got into a political argument during it that somehow warped into talking about gay rights. After a few minutes of intense debate, this one guy was telling me that I was disgusting and actually physically grabbed me because I had a rainbow pin on my bag. Later I told people that he was disgusting and homophobic and then he got really pissed and took it up with the dean. He’s apparently a delicate snowflake who can’t deal with the fact that he’s hateful. One day, the dean interrupted my class to pull me out and we went and sat in his office. He told me that the guy who had grabbed me was really angry and upset and hurt by what I had said and asked why I had said it. I was so fucking enraged by then that I just said “because he is.” I tried to tell him about how the guy had actually grabbed me, but before that, he gave me a week of detention and the other guy got no punishment at all.

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