June 8, 2018 at 9:57 am PST | by Christopher Kane
America, how do you sleep at night?

A Human Rights Campaign protest against the Department of Education. (Photo courtesy HRC)

It was intended as a wake up call. The Human Rights Campaign and artist Robin Bell projected LED-illuminated messages onto the U.S. Department of Education’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.: “Betsy DeVos, how do you sleep at night when 95 percent of LGBTQ youth struggle to?”

Several projected messages that May 24 evening continued the refrain with statistics pulled from an HRC-University of Connecticut survey released earlier that month: “Betsy DeVos, how do you sleep at night when only 26 percent of LGBTQ youth always feel safe in class?”

It was the second time in a week that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos came under fire for her record regarding the department’s policies on LGBT youth. Before a House Committee on May 22, DeVos fielded questions from Democrats concerning whether and how the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights will protect LGBT students from harassment and discrimination.

Under President Obama, the Justice and Education Departments issued a guidance that explained transgender students are protected under Title IX, a federal law that bans sex discrimination. The guidance included recommendations for fostering an inclusive, affirming, and supportive environment for young transgender people—including such policies as allowing students to use restrooms/locker rooms that match their gender identity.

One of the first actions DeVos took after she assumed the office last year was rescinding that Obama-era guideline. Then, she announced the Education Department would not investigate complaints from transgender students who were barred from accessing the bathrooms of their choice. Despite recent case law that suggests otherwise, DeVos reaffirmed to the House committee her position that transgender students are not eligible for the protections afforded other groups by the Civil Rights Act.

The HRC protest and the House hearing arrive on the heels of several reports, including the survey published by HRC, that indicate LGBT youth face higher rates of mental health disorders, bullying and suicide, as well as over-discipline and incarceration in juvenile-justice facilities. However, the Trump-Pence administration has curtailed (or sought to curtail) federally administered research concerning the treatment, health, and wellbeing of LGBT students, as well as the policies and procedures designed to protect them. 

The evidence of a range of anti-LGBT bias and bullying is great. A study by Joel Mittleman, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Princeton University (posted Feb. 20 on the Princeton website), for instance, reported that, “teen girls who are attracted to other girls are far more likely than other students to be suspended or expelled from school.”

Using data from the Fragile Families and Childhood Wellbeing Study, the only longitudinal study of this kind in which participants were asked about their sexual orientation, Mittleman found that girls with same-sex attraction are 95 percent likelier than their heterosexual peers to face discipline in schools. And because LGBTQ girls, especially LGBTQ girls of color, are punished more often and more severely, they account for a disproportionate share of youth who are funneled into the criminal justice system.

“The results suggest that sexual orientation itself may shape teens’ experiences in very different ways for girls versus boys,” Mittleman said. “My results are consistent, for example, with recent research showing that sexual minority girls are dramatically overrepresented in the juvenile justice system in a way that sexual minority boys are not.”

In his research, Mittleman considered a myriad of factors, including what many consider the greatest predictor of over-discipline: race. Black youth account for 15 percent of all students enrolled in the 2015-2016 school year, but 31 percent of arrests, according to an April 2018 analysis by The Washington Post.

Mittleman’s findings—along with data from a series of other studies that date back over many years—raise several red flags.

From suspensions and expulsions to arrests and incarceration in juvenile-justice facilities, the disproportionality across lines of race, gender identity, and sexual orientation is staggering.

A study commissioned in 2015 by the University of Arizona offers a glimpse into how LGBTQ girls of color experience, disproportionately, discipline that is motivated by bias against their sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, and race. Perceived gender nonconformity—such as wearing clothes that are stereotypically masculine, or outspokenness in the classroom—results in “extreme scrutiny in schools,” the study found.

“They looked at me like I was the bad Chola,” said a youth respondent, “the Mexican lesbian bitch. So no one messed with me any more at school, but the administration, they were always watching me.” Another middle school student explained she and her friends were suspected of selling marijuana because they dressed like boys.

An August 2016 study by the Center for American Progress and Movement Advancement Project (“Unjust: How the Broken Juvenile and Criminal Justice Systems Fail LGBTQ Youth”) reported that 91 percent of LGBTQ students who participated in a longitudinal study of 4,200 youth in Alabama, Texas, and California—a study that followed them from the fifth to the tenth grade—experienced bullying. Unsurprisingly, since they are likelier to face punishment from teachers and administrators based on their gender identity and sexual orientation, many feel they have no recourse or support from school officials. And compared to students who are not bullied, they face higher rates of school discipline, in addition to a variety of other challenges that–separately and collectively–increase the likelihood they will interact with the criminal justice system.

The CAP and MAP report found that while seven to nine percent of all minors nationwide are LGBTQ, they account for 14 percent of all boys and 40 percent of all girls in the criminal justice system. Of those youth, 85 percent are boys and girls of color. Overwhelmingly, they will encounter bias in pretrial release, court proceedings, and sentencing.

The nonprofit Campaign for Youth Justice claims 75 percent of the estimated 54,000 juvenile offenders currently held in residential placement (e.g. detention facilities, corrections facilities) were found guilty (adjudicated “delinquent”) for nonviolent offenses. The number of young LGBTQ people detained for nonviolent offenses is possibly even higher. A 2008 survey in California revealed that 40 percent of LGBTQ youth in detention facilities were placed there for running away from home (compared to 13 percent of straight youth).

Additionally, the CAP/MAP study reports LGBQ (non-trans) youth are likelier to be prosecuted for breaking laws that concern sex between minors, such as statutory rape, because teachers, parents, and educators are likelier to disapprove of behaviors they would tolerate between opposite-sex youth. In some cases, as in Texas, exceptions to statutory rape laws are made as long as the act is consensual and both parties are older than 14, no more than three years apart in age, and of the opposite sex. Furthermore, LGBTQ youth may be likelier to face criminal charges and detention in juvenile-justice facilities because they use drugs and alcohol more often than their straight and cisgender peers—often as a coping mechanism to deal with bullying, harassment, and family rejection.

About one of every ten youth held in state-run and privately owned detention facilities reports they were sexually victimized, by facility staff or another detainee, one or more times within the last year. That figure is twice as high for young LGBTQ people held in those facilities. Usually for nonviolent crimes, youth–and especially young LGBTQ people of color–are removed from their families, schools, jobs, and communities to be placed in detention centers where they are much likelier to encounter sexual and physical violence. Afterwards, they will encounter barriers to education, housing, healthcare, and employment–all of which raise the likelihood of recidivism.

Additional research is necessary to effectively combat the many challenges faced by LGBTQ youth, and especially by LGBTQ youth of color. Policies at the local, state, and federal level could help to mitigate existing problems in areas, say youth experts, including education, mental healthcare, policing, and both juvenile and adult justice/correctional systems.

So far, the Trump Administration has rolled back those efforts.

Data collection on crimes committed against LGBTQ youth may be severely curtailed, if the U. S. Department of Justice has its way. the Los Angeles Blade reported May 11. The department, whose Bureau of Justice Statistics administers the National Crime Victimization Survey, filed a request to restrict questions regarding gender identity and sexual orientation to only survey respondents who are 18 or older. California Attorney General Xavier Beccara subsequently announced he would submit a letter, signed by 10 other attorneys general, opposing the DOJ’s request.

Findings released last month by the Education Department’s Civil Rights Data Collection unit showed widening racial disparities between the frequency and severity of discipline administered at American public schools. At the same time, DeVos is considering “curbing the department’s role in investigating racial disparities in discipline,” according to The Washington Post.

By intentionally widening the gap of future opportunities based on race, gender, sexual orientation and gender expression — and considering what’s at stake for LGBT students, especially LGBT students of color — the Trump administration’s efforts to stymie research into existing inequalities while abrogating policies and programs designed to mitigate them does lead many to wonder: how do American adults sleep at night?

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