A lesbian relationship between two high school students is making national headlines as Kaitlyn Hunt, now eighteen, has been charged with two counts of lewd and lascivious battery of a child age 12 to 16. The younger girl’s parents notified authorities after Kaitlyn turned eighteen. Kaitlyn was also expelled from her high school. You can read the story here.
The outcry is a result of the obvious bigotry on the part of the younger girl’s parents who plainly do not approve of their daughter’s lesbian relationship and blame Kaitlyn for it. The bigotry of the younger girl’s parents is tragic, and they are undoubtedly doing enormous damage to their daughter through this process. That is an injustice and a reminder that as the LGBT community gains ground, there are still many LGBT and questioning youth who face enormous challenges in the journey to discovering who they are.
However, in the emotional response to the anti-LGiBT sentiments expressed in reporting the relationship to the police, many seem to want to ignore the reality of the law. That the young girl’s parents are bigots does not change the letter of the law. It is illegal in the state of Florida for anyone over the age of 18 to engage in a sexual relationship with a child age 12-16. The law doesn’t address sexuality, even though sexual bigotry was involved in the reason for the reporting. Regardless of public sentiment over why the charges were brought, it doesn’t change the validity of the charges or the state attorney prosecuting them. Now, if there is precedent for the state attorney not proceeding with charges in similar situations involving heterosexual high school couples, then the allegations of bigotry in the criminal process are valid. If not, it’s their job to prosecute crimes under state and local laws when violations are brought to their attention.
Obviously the issues of teenagers dating, maturity, development and sex has a long and difficult history. Parental approval, legislation designed to prevent developing teenagers from being taken advantage, sexual pressure, sexual predators and exploring sexuality make for a difficult world for teens, parents and the law to navigate.
We also have a somewhat intrinsic, and likely sexist, application in our public perception of adolescent/adult relationships. A relationship between an eighteen-year-old male and a fifteen-year-old female is likely to meet with more disapproval than an eighteen-year-old female with a fifteen-year-old male. I can’t help but picture Matthew McConaughey rattling off his infamous Dazed and Confused quote and creepily ending it with ” they stay the same age,” when discussing older guys dating younger girls. The perceived inequality has a visual element that enhances it as typically the male is larger than the female.
We collectively seem to view teacher/student relationships similarly. Female teachers sleeping with students have a vaguely Mrs. Robinson quality whereas male teachers sleeping with students are unequivocally viewed as child molester/rapists.
There is a commonly held belief, though I have no basis for the science of it, that girls mature faster in high school than boys. The empirical evidence of my personal experience suggests this to be true in mental maturity, if not in sexual maturity. It is the lack of equality in sexual maturity, as opposed to sexual development, that is part of the reason laws like this one in Florida are enforced across significant parts of the country regardless of the consent involved in the relationship. Adolescents are not fully formed adults, and in many cases their bodies arrive there before there mental processes and emotional development do. As a result, adults have created legislation to protect them from themselves, over their objection if need be.
The murky nature of this specific incident is that there are fewer examples and considerations for the inequity in age development in same-sex relationships. Many of the issues the legal statutes are designed to address are the result of gender development differences. Thus, part of the issue here, beyond the bigotry, is what are the differences between heterosexual relationships with adolescents of different ages and homosexual relationships with the same age differences. In reality, there are likely differences that should be considered, just as there are differences between adult heterosexual and homosexual relationships.
That being the case, then the issue here is really about what the laws are. Because the law is still very clear in its application to this situation. Yes, there are some ludicrous aspects to consider that any relationship, heterosexual or homosexual, could become a crime overnight because one party has a birthday. There should be allowance for mitigating circumstances, and they should be applied to both heterosexual and homosexual scenarios. A year-long relationship should not become a crime from one day to the next. There is likely an argument to be made for an “older than eighteen and/or graduated from high school” qualification that would ensure that students don’t encounter being in a relationship that is suddenly illegal three months before graduation. However, we do also have to continue to vigilantly protect adolescents from situations where they can be taken advantage of, even if they don’t see it that way.
The first tragedy here is the way exemplary student Kaitlyn has been treated. The second is the horrifying way the younger girl’s parents chose to end a relationship they did not approve of and the deep homophobia they are directing at their own daughter in the process. The third is our willingness to be righteously indignant and ignorant of the law and its application. If we would apply it to an eighteen-year-old boy, it has to be applied to an eighteen-year-old girl – lesbian or not. If the law is the issue, which behind the anger at the bigoted parents, it is, then working to craft better and more accurate legislation to allow for the variety of scenarios that can occur in a high school is an important part of this social media outcry – to ensure that another student like Kaitlyn – gay, straight, male or female – isn’t able to be called a criminal without due consideration of the surrounding circumstances.