It’s hard to believe that until recently, there were still laws on the books that made it illegal to be gay. Our legal system may no longer explicitly prohibit same-sex relationships, but we have found new ways to criminalize queer kids. We label them as sex offenders.
Across the country, children are put on sex-offense registries for behaviors that range from “playing doctor” to streaking to having consensual sex with peers a few years apart in age. The statistics are scary: out of 800,000 people on registries, one out of four — more than 200,000 — are under the age of 18. A child as young as 8 years old can be labeled as a “deviant.” Additionally, initial investigations show a disproportionate number of these youth are queer.
To be clear, kids do commit serious harm. Regardless of the behavior, though, two decades of research have shown that registration does not reduce recidivism or prevent harm in the first place. And the LGBTQ disparity isn’t a reflection of justice — or public safety. It’s an indication of the implicit and explicit bias woven throughout the legal and welfare systems and all the more reason to make eliminating the practice of registering youth a priority.
A report, called "Give the Kid a Break — But Only if He’s Straight," found that LGBTQ young people are given harsher punishments than their straight, gender-conforming counterparts. In the study, participants suggested disciplinary consequences for an older teenager having sex with a 14-year-old. A 16-year-old straight culprit was much less likely to end up on the registry than a gay 16-year-old.
Queer and gender-nonconforming youth are also more likely to get kicked out of their homes, run away, or be funneled into the child welfare system. Once in the welfare system, their lives are more closely watched and normative behavior that might have elicited a talking to from parents ends up reported to authorities. Nicole Pittman’s human rights report, "Raised on the Registry," found that 90 percent of the 500 youth on the registry she interviewed were in the child welfare system at the time of their arrest.
Even the laws themselves can be blatantly discriminatory. In the 2003 case Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court struck down state bans on same-sex sodomy; however, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion included this single negating phrase: “[the] present case does not involve minors, which this comment will refer to as “the minor exception.’” Kennedy was referring to adult-on-minor sexual conduct, but states have used it as a loophole. Texas law, for example, considers sexual contact with a minor under the age of 17 a felony, unless both participants are under 18, no more than three years apart, and they are of different sexes.
Once young people are on the registry, the trauma grows. Children are ostracized, socially isolated, and often physically banished from their homes and communities by child safety zones. Their life becomes a struggle for employment, and they must regularly check in with law enforcement; if they fail to report even a minor change in their lives, they can be sent to prison with a felony. LGBTQ youth in prison can also be both the targets of sexual abuse and homophobia. One out of five youth on the registry have attempted suicide. Queer youth already have high rates of suicide, so this adds to the risk.
The laws created to protect our children from harm have potential to be very harmful, potentially fatal, and definitely life-altering. Registering youth is contrary to public safety and a costly burden to law enforcement, but it is our LGBTQ youth who are paying the high prices. While they have shown great resilience and courage, this debt is not theirs to pay. As a society, we need to redress this miscalculation and eliminate youth registration laws.
TOM WAHL is chairman of the Liberty Education Forum and NICOLE PITTMAN is vice president of Impact Justice.