“Was the gunman at Pulse Orlando gay?” I haven’t heard someone generate so much speculation about their sexual orientation since Jodie Foster or Anderson Cooper.
It sounds like middle school gossip, but the question has far greater implications. We’re really asking: did someone murder LGBT people because he hated himself? The FBI announced there’s no conclusive evidence the gunman who opened fired at Pulse Orlando last month was gay. I, as a lesbian woman, should be thrilled. But it’s not that simple.
The Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University linked rejection to LGBT teen suicide and lower self-esteem. While the gunman may not have been gay, self-hatred in the LGBT community can lead to violence against oneself or others. Amidst discussing the harm of permitting assault weapons, we must discuss the harm of criminalizing queerness, especially through statutory rape laws. We rarely discuss statutory rape laws in the context of anti-LGBT discrimination.
The most notable example was the 2013 case of Kaitlyn Hunt, an 18-year-old charged with statutory rape in Florida for having sex with her 14-year-old girlfriend. Hunt’s mom told Raw Story the parents of Hunt’s girlfriend saw “being gay as a sin and wrong,” or in other words, homophobia led to Hunt’s arrest. In 2013, when my fellow LGBT rights activists circulated petitions to free Hunt, I argued Hunt’s case wasn’t different from cases involving straight teens. As a lesbian sexual assault survivor still trying to come to terms with my assault, it was too easy to identify with Hunt’s “victim.”
As I argued in a Facebook post, “There is no such thing as ‘consensual sex’ between an adult and a minor in Florida. It’s that simple.” However, statutory rape laws aren’t equally applied to straight and LGBT teens like I assumed they were. Hunt’s case actually highlights how statutory rape laws are used to call LGBT teens dangerous, adding to a long history of conflating queerness and sexual deviancy. Take Florida’s “Romeo and Juliet” statute, which allows courts to grant teens convicted of statutory rape exemptions from registering as sex offenders if they’re close in age to their partners. Sounds useful, right? Well, one study of 167 voter-eligible adults found 47 percent of those presented with the case of a gay 16-year-old who had sex with his 14-year-old partner thought he should register as a sex offender online. In contrast, only 24 percent of those presented with the case of a straight 16-year-old thought he should register online.
Maybe Florida’s statute isn’t that useful for Romeo and Romeo after all. Anti-LGBT discrimination also carries over to arrests. One survey evaluated all statutory rape reports made in 35 states and Washington D.C. from 2003-2010 involving two teenagers within four years apart in age. It found gay boys were four times more likely and lesbian girls were 16 times more likely than straight boys to be arrested for the statutory rape of a partner. There’s little conversation about why the criminal justice system disproportionately targets lesbian girls. Initially, the discrepancy between arrests for lesbian girls and gay boys appears at odds with the widespread popularity of lesbian porn. If lesbian porn—however high-heel-filled and made for straight male consumption—is so popular, how can lesbian girls, even including girls like Hunt who conform to mainstream (white, feminine) representations of female queerness, be so threatening?
Maybe LGBT girls are punished because of our general condemnation of female sexuality. Then again, the 2003-2010 survey found straight girls were less likely than straight boys to be arrested for statutory rape. Perhaps, then, the answer lies in the idea that girls belong to men; lesbian girls like Hunt could thus be criminalized for being explicitly unavailable. The discrepancy certainly merits further discussion. The discriminatory application of statutory rape laws has drastic consequences. Often teens convicted of statutory rape must go through sex offender treatment. The National Institute of Justice explains teen sex offender treatments include Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy to address “the irrational thoughts and beliefs of offenders that led them to engage in antisocial behaviors.”
The quality of this therapy varies. According to a March 14 article in The New Yorker, one manual asks teens to masturbate while thinking about something “deviant,” then about something they detest like “Brussels Sprouts.” Putting aside that this may lead to vegetable-focused Fifty Shades of Grey spinoffs, anything intended to change healthy same-sex attraction sounds like conversion therapy, a practice outlawed against minors in many states—and potentially against foster children in Florida soon thanks to a proposal by the Florida Department of Children and Family Services—because it’s harmful and can lead to the level of self-hatred we feared the Pulse Orlando gunman felt. Why are we allowing this to occur daily in juvenile detention centers? Honestly, my 2013 self was tremendously privileged in being able to ignore how statutory rape laws target LGBT teens. But now, I wonder when we’ll fully address how our criminalization of queerness can lead to violence.
Decriminalizing consensual sex between teens close in age is a small step in combating homophobia and transphobia, but it’s a crucial start.
Amelia Roskin-Frazee is the Founder & President of The Make It Safe Project, serves on the National Advisory Council for The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, and was one of The Advocate’s Forty Under 40 LGBT Activists in 2012. Her writing has previously been published in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and Feministing.