Teen romance is tough enough when you’re not accused of breaking the law.
But that’s exactly the predicament Kaitlyn Hunt, a high school senior from Sebastian, Fla., finds herself in. Hunt, 18, was arrested Feb. 16 for dating her girlfriend, who was 14 when the alleged crime was committed. She’s charged with lewd and lascivious battery on a victim aged 12 to 16 by a person over the age of 18, a second-degree felony that carries a possible prison term of 15 years per count.
The case has generated a good bit of Internet buzz for understandable reasons. There’s sex involved — and underage, lesbian sex at that — along with loud cries of injustice from the family of Kaitlyn Hunt.
Whether or not the charges are fueled by homophobia, of course, is difficult to prove. That may be why gay rights organizations are keeping their distance. In what appears to convey uneasiness over the age difference between the two girls, advocacy groups that are typically quick to jump up and defend presumed offenses aimed at the gay community are keeping quiet. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force did not respond to requests for interviews, and the American Civil Liberties Union declined comment.
For her part, Hunt, a cheerleader and basketball player, isn’t denying their relationship, but she and her family are convinced the severity of the charges are a reflection of anti-gay bias. Her father has taken to the Internet in a search for sympathy, posting a petition on Change.org calling on Assistant State Attorney Brian Workman to “stop the prosecution of an 18-year-old girl in a same-sex relationship.”
More than 300,000 people have signed the petition, one of Change.org’s most popular. In it, Steven Hunt writes:
Kaitlyn’s girlfriend’s parents are pressing charges because they are against the same-sex relationship, even though their daughter has stated that this is a consensual relationship.
…[S]he’s been expelled from school and is facing serious felonies — all because she is in love. If convicted, she could end up in jail or live under house arrest, will have to register as a sex offender, and live her life as a convicted felon.
For their part, the family of Kaitlyn’s ex-girlfriend — the judge ordered no contact between the girls after the arrest — dismisses any connection between the charges and the fact that the couple was in a lesbian relationship. “The controversy is misguided,” says Charles Sullivan Jr., the family’s attorney, in State v. Hunt. “It’s totally irrelevant. When Kaitlyn was 18, she had sex with a 14-year-old minor. She has admitted to that. If an adult has sex with a minor, it’s breaking the law.”
States vary widely when it comes to cracking down on under-age relationships. Florida’s law is at the strict end of the spectrum: if you’re under 16, you can’t technically consent to sex. Other states, like Georgia, consider sex between two consenting teens to be a misdemeanor.
On Friday, Kaitlyn Hunt turned down a plea deal that would have sentenced her to two years of house arrest in exchange for admitting to two counts of felony child abuse. The plea would have meant she could go out only to attend school or go to work. No grocery store trips unless previously scheduled and greenlighted, and she would have been subject to lie detector tests, sex offender evaluations and other checks on her freedom. “It’s just ridiculous,” says her lawyer, Julia Graves. “She did not want to accept the fact that she’d have a felony record.”
Along those lines, the case raises interesting questions of how much teens are expected to know about which relationships are above board and which could land them in jail. Hunt had no idea that she was doing anything wrong, says Graves. “Now she knows that she violated the law, but then it was just a romantic relationship between two girls attending high school together,” she says.
Graves also points out that similar cases between boys and girls seem to have netted more lenient charges. “It’s hard to believe she’s been treated fairly,” says Graves. “We don’t have actual proof but we believe we haven’t been able to work it out because the other parents were unhappy with the relationship.”
What does seem clear is that for both girls, the court battle is an unsavory end to a romance that took root on the basketball court. Kaitlyn Hunt is attending an alternative school. Her college plans are on hold. And she’s barred by court order from seeing her former girlfriend. If nothing else, her situation has likely raised awareness among Florida teens of what relationships are appropriate — and which ones are better to avoid, regardless of sexual orientation.