Teenage first offenders are more likely to be sexual minorities, according to a new study in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, recruited some 423 first offenders ages 12 to 18 from a juvenile court in the Northeast. Of them 133, or 31.4 percent, said they questioned their sexual orientation, were attracted to or sexually active with their own or both genders or were discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or gender expression. (Two participants identified as a gender different than the one assigned at birth.)
That compares to the 11.2% of American high schoolers who identified as LGBTQ in a 2015 government survey.
Adolescents processed through the judicial system are more likely to face issues like depression, alcohol/drug abuse and HIV. “And adolescents who are sexual minorities — in behavior, orientation or gender expression — are also at risk for a lot of these same behaviors,” the study’s lead author, forensic psychiatrist Matt Hirschtritt, told ABC News. “So when you combine these two vulnerabilities, does this confer greater individual risk?”
But Hirschtritt doesn’t want people thinking that means sexual-minority youth are more immoral. Instead, trouble with the law is “more a product of their marginalization,” he explains. “We’re seeing a dually vulnerable group that’s subjected to stressors of court but also have historically marginalized identity.” Sexual minorities were twice as likely to have used drugs and alcohol than straight offenders, more than twice as likely to have witnessed violence against a parent, and four times as likely to have engaged in self-harm. They also reported increased anxiety, hyperactivity and social withdrawal.
“Factors like peer rejection and family discord may contribute to impaired support networks and engagement in risky behavior,” said Hirschtritt. “Intake and community supervision staff should query for high-risk behaviors. Additionally, one-on-one support, group counseling and peer support may meet the needs of these adolescents without further stigmatizing them.”
A separate 2017 study from the Williams Institute found that LGBTQ adults were also overrepresented in the prison population. Once incarcerated, they were more likely to experience mistreatment, solitary confinement and sexual victimization.
Sexual minorities — defined as people who self-identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, or who reported a same-sex sexual experience — represented 9.3% of men in prison, 6.2% of men in jail, 42.1% of women in prison and 35.7% of women in jail.