In an interview with a researcher investigating how LGBTQ youth are disciplined at school, a California teenager recounted the story of two of her bisexual friends getting into trouble at school by their vice principal.
“He would always see the straight kids holding hands and making out in the halls,” the unnamed girl said, according to the 2015 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Research, “and one day after school [her bisexual friends] were holding hands and the vice principal dragged them into his office and suspended my friend Elisabeth for a week and gave my friend Jenna detention for three days and later called their parents and outed them.”
The teen’s account of her friends’ experiences was one of several in that study which highlighted how queer youth may be disproportionately punished for PDA and/or violating gender norms. Continuing that conversation, a new study in Educational Researcher looked into whether sexual minority youth still face higher rates of suspension and expulsion. Prior to this study, the only nationally representative data on sexual orientation and school discipline reflected high school experiences from two decades ago.
The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a new source of data by Princeton and Columbia universities, has followed a sample of children born in 20 US cities between 1998 and 2000 for 15 years. For the purposes of this study, Joel Mittleman, a Princeton doctoral candidate and sociologist, focused on the latest set of data. In a sample of 3,394 teens he assessed sexual orientation using their survey answers on attraction, and looked at how their primary caregivers responded to questions about school discipline. The study is not representative of the entire US population, but gives some insight into the disciplinary experience of a population-based sample of teenage girls.
While the results don’t offer causal evidence that queer students get into trouble at school necessarily because of their sexual orientation, they do suggest “sexual orientation may have a different meaning for boys versus girls,” Mittleman writes. According to his findings, teens who reported being attracted to the same sex had 29 percent higher odds of getting suspended or expelled. But girls who reported being attracted to other girls were 95 percent more likely to get suspended or expelled compared to girls who said they were only attracted to boys. Boys attracted to other boys, on the other hand, faced no greater risk for discipline, though Mittleman notes that their limited representation in the sample (65 out of 1,743 males) made it difficult to draw clear conclusions.
Because of these differences, he writes, “gender-neutral homophobic treatment” may not easily explain why queer students are disproportionately punished in schools. “Instead,” he writes, “internally felt sexual orientation may primarily shape students’ treatment in schools insofar as it manifests in publicly observed gender nonconformity, the consequences of which may be asymmetric for boys and girls.”
It’s possible, he continues, that school authorities come down harder on girls who don’t conform to the gender expectations they place upon them—it’s not unlike how researchers speculate girls of color are treated more harshly because they don’t conform to white norms of femininity.
Yet, despite facing the risk of being targeted by school officials, more teens are coming forward to identify as gender non-conforming. In California, for example, more than a quarter of adolescents don’t feel like they need to choose one gender over another.
“Today's LGBTQ youth are coming out at younger ages,” Mittleman tells Broadly, “making it especially important for schools to think about how to create safe, supportive environments for all of their students.” As an example, he points to research that suggests lesbian and gay teens are less likely to report suicide attempts in counties where schools have LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying policies.
“Even though progress on LGBT rights may not be possible at the federal level right now,” Mittleman continues, “state and local leaders can still make a critical difference for LGBTQ youth.”
He adds: “For any LGBTQ youth who come across the study, I just want you to know that we hear you. Your stories matter. Don't let anyone make you feel like you don't belong in your school.”