Where Are Our Queer Youth?
The answer to this query may shock you. New research out of the left-of-center D.C.-based think-tank, the Center for American Progress (CAP), confirms what many in the LGBTQ community have known for years: that queer youth — particularly transgender and gender nonconforming youth — are disproportionately represented in our nation’s juvenile justice system. Jerome Hunt and Aisha C. Moodie-Mills summarize the findings of their brief as follows:
Gay, transgender, and gender nonconforming youth are significantly over-represented in the juvenile justice system—approximately 300,000 gay and transgender youth are arrested and/or detained each year, of which more than 60 percent are black or Latino. Though gay and transgender youth represent just 5 percent to 7 percent of the nation’s overall youth population, they compose 13 percent to 15 percent of those currently in the juvenile justice system.
While many researchers and journalists have worked to bring the harmful racial disparities of the school-to-prison pipeline to the public’s attention over the past several years, far fewer are working to expose the affects over-criminalization of disciplinary procedures and widespread discrimination have on queer youth, specifically. This particular social group often goes unnoticed by society-at-large.
Yet, they are increasingly implicated in a school-to-prison pipeline that criminalizes minor infractions rather than advocate on the side of restorative justice practices. Queer youth are often driven from their homes early on, abandoned by their communities, and driven to homelessness, criminal behavior, and incarceration. Once incarcerated, queer youth fare no better; in fact, they are often abused by other inmates, subjected to harmful psychological treatment, and isolated by poorly-trained corrections officers. What we have, then, is nothing short of a war on queer youth perpetuated — both indirectly and directly — by an unsure public, bigoted families, and an out-of-touch justice system.
Queer youth are often forced into the juvenile justice system vis-à-vis homelessness and unfair school disciplinary processes. Research and lived experience confirms that many queer youth are either kicked out of their homes by parents who refuse to accept their children’s gender and sexual identities. In many cases, they are left emotionally, physically, and financially destitute and forced into the streets. Unfortunately, they are likely to find company there: “Gay and transgender youth represent up to 40 percent of the homeless youth population even though they only compose 5 percent to 7 percent of the youth population overall, and 30 percent of homeless gay and transgender youth report being involved in the juvenile justice system at some level.”
Within school environments (here limited to the data available on public schools) disciplinary practices do nothing to improve the lives of queer students. Expanding upon research from the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network which confirmed that, “84 percent of gay and transgender students report being verbally harassed,” this brief forces us to address the extent to which school policies reinforce heterosexism. Unfortunately, the zero-tolerance policies long deplored for their disproportionate implementation against youth of color are also harmful to queer youth resented by their counselors, principals, and disciplinary officers for their gender expression, mannerisms, and general nonconformity. Rather than work to address school environments which harm youth, administrators often penalize queer youth for defending themselves against harassment.
This drives many queer youth to refrain from ever reporting instances of abuse or harassment, believing — in some cases correctly — that authority figures will do nothing to combat bigotry. The oppositional nature of this relationship of students to teachers, administrators, and “resource officers” can contribute to an individual’s processing within the juvenile justice system.
If and when queer youth make it to the juvenile justice system, they are faced that can mildly be described as oppressive. To begin, queer youth “are more likely to be prosecuted for age-appropriate consensual sexual activity” than straight peers which can label them sex offenders in the eyes of the law, a devastating consequence for anyone’s life — even post-incarceration.
Other abandoned queer youth can be detained by the criminal justice system for extended time periods as they await placement in foster or group homes. Things do not get easier for queer youth in the juvenile justice system when it comes to placement facilities. While many transgender youth are wrongly housed with members of their birth sex rather than facilities which respect their gender identity, other youth are left in solitary confinement for their “own safety.” Queer youth also confront a criminal justice system poorly-trained to address their needs.
In desperation, many administrators end up requiring that queer youth undergo therapy — at times reparative or conversion therapy — despite exhortations by the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry that such practices are harmful. Perhaps most disgustingly, many queer youth are sexually abused within the juvenile justice system at rates unparalleled in cases of straight inmates. Shockingly, “A 2007 study by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations found an astonishing 67 percent of gay or transgender men have been sexually assaulted by another inmate — a rate 15 times higher than the overall inmate population.”
The findings of CAP’s brief on the plight of homeless, abandoned, and incarcerated queer youth should stun us. They should force us as an LGBTQ community to come to terms with an element of our political struggle that we often shun in favor of the “fad” of flashy marriage equality campaigns.
Indeed, the hateful circumstances that lead queer youth into the streets, disproportionately target them in school disciplinary practices, and lead to their abuse within the juvenile justice system constitute a crisis which demands a moral response.
While we must work at the institutional level to combat the affects of the school-to-prison pipeline on all students — including queer youth — we also must continue to work towards a culture of inclusivity that discourages families from abandoning their youth in times of their greatest need. The LGBTQ movement as well as concerned queer folks across the country ought to draw attention to the policies within their own school systems, “corrections” facilities, and community centers that affect queer youth. By working to pass the Student Nondiscrimination Act, encourage family interventions early on in the process, as well as providing training for resource and corrections officers, we can affect incremental change to protect our queer youth. It is clear that queer youth need protection, and we ought to have their backs.
Support the work of the Equity Project, one of the only nonprofits in the U.S. working to protect our queer youth.
Erik Lampmann is a queer campus organizer at the University of Richmond studying political theory and French. He enjoys chill-wave, veggie food, and Magritte.
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