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VOICES

With No Where to Turn, LGBT Youth More Likely to Call Juvenile Prisons Home

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New research demonstrates that LGBT youth are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system, comprising as much as 15 percent of the general population due to the institutional and family pressures that leave them more vulnerable to homelessness, prostitution, and violence.

Aisha Moodie-Mills, the moderator of the event and an LGBT Policy and Racial Justice Advisor at the Center for American Progress, presented the research on behalf of Dr. Anglea Irvine.

LGBT youth are twice as likely to become homeless as their straight peers, generally because they can't find acceptance among their family members and either voluntarily leave or are forced out. According to Irvine, those who are left to fend for themselves participate in underground, illegal economies and sometime resort to prostitution, or what Dr. Irvine called “survival sex.” Due to these desperate situations, LGBT boys are more likely to commit violent offenses compared to their heterosexual counterparts.

Often school can act as a safe haven for many children who deal with hardship at home, but for LGBT youth who face bullying not only from their peers, but from insensitive staff and teachers too, attending school regularly and staying focused on getting good grades come second to survival. Marie Williams of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network said that her organization has documented significant "school pushout of LGBT kids" because of an inhospitable environment. GLSEN’s most recent National School Climate Study found that nearly one-third of LGBT students had missed at least one day of school in the last month because they felt unsafe.

Zero-tolerance policies at schools also turn a blind eye to homophobic-induced confrontations LGBT youth face at schools; penalizing all parties involved, including those who defend themselves from bullies. 40 percent of LGBT youth reported being physically harassed and 19 percent reported being physically assaulted at school in the last year.

Once in the juvenile justice system, unique issues that face the young LGBT community are exacerbated. Left isolated and without a support system or advocates, the system tends to treat them much harsher than their cisgender counterparts. Sometimes when LGBT youth find themselves in prison, they are put into solitary confinement because prisons don’t know how to integrate them into the general prison population.

The panel concluded that the struggle to keep LGBT youth from being disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system starts with changing societal attitudes toward the LGBT community so that LGBT kids are accepted rather than pushed out into desperate situations that can lead them to participate illegal activities for survival. The battle comes down to fighting the notions that gender non-conforming behavior needs to be corrected, that people who identify as LGBT are somehow predatory or deviant, and that an LGBT identity is “wrong.” With full acceptance and equal treatment in the eyes of society and the law, the particular problems that face LGBT youth interacting with the criminal justice system can be minimized.

Eric Murphy is a journalism intern with Campus Progress.

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