Given the high rate of torment suffered by LGBT youth in custody, activists applauded last week’s finalizing of a landmark law that took nine years to get from adoption to implementation.
Last Monday, the federal Department of Justice finalized a set of guidelines under the Prison Rape Elimination Act that could help stem the risks of the already at-risk LGBT population that is incarcerated, including minors.
“We were already working on this issue while PREA was being passed, but this raises awareness,” said Sarah Schriber, senior policy analyst with the Chicago-based Health and Medicine Policy Research group and community convener for the Illinois Court Involved LGBTQ Youth Task Force.
According to Schriber, few juvenile detention center personnel even knew what the existing anti-harassment rules were. “A much harder part is making those policies meaningful on the ground,” she said. “We’re really lagging in education.”
Along with anti-harassment policy, the new regulations create federal requirements for employee training and place limits on cross-gender searches and screenings, ensuring they only happen behind closed doors with a licensed medical practitioner.
Much of this work was already underway in Illinois, due in part to a coalition of researchers, lawyers and justice department personnel. In 2010, the Illinois Court Involved LGBTQ Youth Task Force was established to draft better policy for the Illinois juvenile justice system and lead employee trainings.
Two years later, the task force has led trainings for nearly every Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center employee who works directly with youth, educating personnel on policy and broader issues and on definitions related to sexual orientation and gender identity.
Similar workshops are being held for juvenile prisons, run by the State of Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, as well as Cook County juvenile probation employees.
The issues facing LGBTQ youth in custody are often invisible to juvenile justice personnel and policy makers, because many young people choose not to self-identify, said Mykel Selph, director of the Office of Girls and Gender at Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.
But a 2010 study by Angela Irvine, director of research at the Oakland-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency, found 13 percent to 15 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system consider themselves gay or gender non-conforming. In the overall population, 5 percent to 7 percent of youth identify this way.
According to a recent report by the Center for American Progress, LGBTQ youth are more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system, likely due to higher rates of bullying and harassment and lower social support at home.
Once in custody, research suggests gay and transgender youth may be more likely to experience sexual assault and harassment.
Research from 2007 by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found 67 percent of gay or gender non-conforming men reported sexual assault by other inmates, a rate 15 times higher than among heterosexual, non-transgender male inmates.
Some sexual abuse and harassment stems from housing gender non-conforming youth with members of their biological sex. In the nation’s juvenile justice centers, a young transgender woman must still live among young men.
“People assume if you put a transgender female in a female unit, that person will assault others,” Schriber said. “Often it is the other way around.”
In Chicago, Cook County Jail has begun housing transgender women with other women, but Schriber said the policy is harder to change for youth facilities.
“People don’t understand that gender identity is pretty well established early on,” she said. “They think it’s a phase.”
The PREA guidelines mandate that “in deciding whether to assign a transgender or intersex resident to a facility for male or female residents, the agency shall consider on a case-by-case basis whether a placement would ensure the resident’s health and safety.”
But there are smaller changes detention centers can make to create a safer environment, Selph said.
Allowing transgender boys to wear boxers or having every youth in custody wear the same clothing, instead of blue and pink t-shirts, can go a long way in helping a transgender youth’s mental wellbeing, Selph said.
“Homophobia can happen in a very subtle, unintentional way,” Selph said, during a recent gathering of experts and practitioners hosted by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. “When we talk about safety, emotional safety is implied but not focused on in a deliberate [way.] It is emotional safety that is of the utmost importance.”
Christie Thompson is a reporter with the Chicago Bureau
Photo by Advancing Transgender Equality
Moments after officially getting his name changed from his female birth name at the county courthouse, he noticed a woman looking back at him in the parking lot. With every step he took toward his car, recalls Newton, the woman sped up, all the while frantically twisting her head in his direction. It took a moment for it to register, but he soon realized that she had incorrectly assumed that he was following her to her car. The incident, he says, in many ways marred an important milestone in his transgender transition into life as a male. He insists, however, that he now embraces the experience as another important lesson learned. It’s a sobering reminder of the double discrimination that many transgender people of color often face in society, contends Newton.
Recently, he talked to JJIE.org’s Chandra R. Thomas about his transgender journey.
JJIE: So you were born a female but transitioned into life as a male in 2008. What’s been the biggest surprise?
NEWTON: It’s interesting because to some degree there’s male privilege, but the other side of that is being a black man and often being perceived as a threat by others. It wasn’t something that I had experienced when living as a black woman or even a black lesbian woman. I’m 5 “9 and pretty muscular and I have a shaved head and I am heavily tattooed. So I don’t know, maybe I just look threatening in general. Now I get people grabbing their purses and choosing to take the stairs rather than ride the elevator with me. To be quite honest, it was kind of difficult to deal with at first. It’s just a reminder of how much more work needs to be done in society in regards to acceptance.
JJIE: Any other challenges you feel that you now face living as an African-American man?
NEWTON: Yes. There are certain things I simply cannot do when I get pulled over by a cop without being perceived as threatening. I have to be pretty observant and aware of my surroundings. It’s just different. I don’t remember being perceived as a threat when I was living as a woman. I don’t remember getting followed around in stores. I have two little brothers and that makes me wonder about the stuff they will have to deal with as they get older. Knowing some of the challenges they, too, will face in society makes me sad. It makes me want to protect them from it.
JJIE: Describe your transgender journey.
NEWTON: I lived as a female until I was about 25. I even lived as a lesbian for many years and realized that it just wasn’t fitting. So I decided to explore what it really meant to be transgender. You never really get to see the regular side of being transgender; only the Jerry Springer version. In 2008, I started with the hormone therapy. Over the course of seven months my voice got deeper. I was still living as a woman at work so it was funny because as my voice got lower and lower people would ask, ‘do you have a cold?’ Eventually I was able to transition fully into being a male at work. I was surprised that I was able to do it. I work in the criminal justice system and in the court system so it was a gamble, but it worked out in the end.
JJIE: How has your family reacted to the change?
NEWTON: In terms of my family I got a lot of, ‘why don’t you just be a girl? Why don’t you just be a lesbian? It’s so much harder to live the way you’re living.’ My dad has been slow to accept it. My mom has been more supportive of why I needed to do this. My dad is really old school so it’s understandable I guess.
JJIE: What do you want people to know about you and other transgender people?
NEWTON: Trans people want to be like everybody else. I just want happiness and to find someone to settle down with; not that Jerry Springer life that they show on TV. I’m just this little nerdy guy. Transgender people are like everyone else. We just want to live our lives and just be happy.
It is estimated that approximately 260,000 youth are in the foster care system in the United States at any given time, according to the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Additionally, it is estimated that up to 18 percent of children in foster care are LGBTQ youth. These youth are falling through the cracks and are more at risk of becoming runaways, homeless, suicidal and harassed by peers.
According to the research conducted for the American Bar Association’s Opening Doors Project, judges and lawyers who work with youth in foster care acknowledge they don’t have the knowledge or resources to help LGBT foster kids. It is essential that professionals working with LGBT foster youth be educated on the issues and knowledgeable about community programs.
We all need to pledge to make our communities safer for LGBTQ foster kids.
LGBTQ youth are over-represented in the foster care system due in part to the discrimination, harassment and abuse many face at home with their families as well as at school by their peers. According to Opening Doors Project, 30 percent of LGBTQ youth reported physical violence by their family after coming out, while 80 percent reported verbal harassment at school with 70percent of the students feeling unsafe and 28 percent dropping out. Many run away and feel more safe on the streets than at home.
An estimated 20 percent to 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Considering that 3 percent to 5 percent of the U.S. population identifies as LGBT, the homeless rate for LGBT youth is grossly disproportionate. They leave home in response to the physical, sexual, emotional and verbal abuse they receive. Twenty-six percent of gay teens who came out to their parents were told to leave home. These homeless teens are more likely to use drugs, engage in sex work and attempt suicide.
In 2010, Mother Jones reported that out of 246 foster families surveyed, only 21 would accept an LGBT teen. In addition, LGBT parents continue to have difficulties in adopting and providing care for foster children. Some states including Arkansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska and Utah even prohibit same-sex or unmarried couples from adopting. These laws and other policies present obstacles for LGBT parents to become the much needed foster parents to provide care for those seriously in need.
LGBT youth are more likely than their heterosexual peers to be placed in group homes. An overwhelming majority of the youth in group homes has been a victim of violence and all have been victims of verbal abuse based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. The ABA’s Opening Doors Project highlights the following statistics: 70 percent of LGBTQ youth in group homes reported violence based on LGBT status; 100 percent reported verbal harassment; and 78 percent of youth were removed or ran away from placement due to hostility toward their LGBTQ status.
All foster youth have constitutional rights that provide for equal protection as well as freedom of speech and expression. A group home facility has a duty to protect LGBTQ youth from harassment and discrimination.
Although federal and state law is largely silent on explicit protections for transgender youth in foster care, the federal constitution protects the right of transgender youth to dress in accordance with his/her identity while living in a group home. In addition, the practice of placing LGBT youth in isolation for their own protection from their abusers violates their rights, in which group homes could face liability.
Many states have passed a foster children bill of rights. LGBT youth may not be specifically referenced to but are certainly included in the generic terms “foster children” and “youth in foster care.” The rights recognized in these laws -- including an expectation of privacy, personal possessions, respect and space -- are applicable to all foster children.
Take a stand against the perpetual harassment and discrimination LGBT foster youth experience. Ensure that lawyers and judges will be educated on issues facing LGBT foster youth so they can help in providing the appropriate resources to protect our youth. Sign the Opening Doors’ petition and pledge to make your community safer for LGBTQ foster kids.
Just don't use pronouns in public. That's what C.G. usually tells his mother before they go out. Just call me by my nickname.
G. is not obsessed with grammar, but being born a female now living as a male, makes common pronouns like “he” and “she” a complicated issue. The transgender distinction is one that even the most shunned of the gay and lesbian community will often agree has the hardest plight of the oft-embattled LGBT community.
“Being transgender confuses people; it’s harder for people to grasp,” insists G., a 24-year-old from Atlanta, who prefers to be referred to by male pronouns. “People can more easily grasp the concept of gay or lesbian – being sexually attracted to someone of the same sex – but transgender is often an abstract concept to many people.”
Em Elliott, a field organizer for Georgia Equality and the Georgia Safe Schools Coalition -- Atlanta-based non-profit organizations that played an integral role in helping get critical school bullying legislation passed in the state Legislature last year -- says popular culture plays a major role.
“Transgender people have a lot more stigma working against them,” she says. “Over the years there’s been a lot more gay and lesbian characters on TV and in movies, but transgender people are rarely shown, and when they are they’re not usually shown in a positive light. People are afraid of it and they don’t want to know more about transgender people.”
Anneliese Singh, a University of Georgia (UGA) researcher who specializes in transgender issues, says gender identity and sexual orientation are often confused.
“Gender identity is how you identify your gender, versus gender expression which is how you express that gender,” she explains.
G.’s story is typical of others who identify as transgender, an estimated 700,000 people in the United States, according to a recent UCLA study. (C.G. requested that only his initials be used.)
G. first noticed an attraction to females at the age of 15, when a close friendship with a female classmate two years older evolved into a romantic attraction.
“I was kind of like, ‘this is pretty interesting and strange; maybe I’m gay,’” recalls G., then living as a female in rural Richmond Hill, Ga., a small town about a 30-minute drive from Savannah.
It didn’t take long for G.’s parents to catch on. When they confronted her about the relationship, he confirmed being romantically linked to the friend. The news didn’t go over well with them, both die-hard military brass living in a small town.
While deep-seeded emotions of anger, resentment and denial were simmering at home among her parents, the predicament at school reached all-out inferno status. Her secret got out and she was unwittingly shoved out of the proverbial closet for all to see. Many LGBT people describe “coming out” to family and friends as an arduous ordeal, but being the first openly lesbian student at her high school in the Deep South was especially agonizing, insists G.
“People would walk by my desk and purposely hit me in the head with books and none of the teachers did anything to stop it,” recalls G. “One time somebody carved the words dyke and faggot into my car door with keys. It was horrible. I was depressed and suicidal all throughout high school.”
G. contends that his experience was just one example of how transgender people are disproportionately victims of discrimination, violence and hate crimes. Young people are particularly vulnerable in schools nationwide, he says.
A 2009 national school climate survey of 7,261 LGBT middle and high school students youth conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a national LGBT advocacy group, supports that view. It found that:
- 63 percent reported hearing negative remarks about gender expression (such as not acting “masculine enough” or “feminine enough”) frequently or often at school.
- 61 percent felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation; 40 percent because of how they expressed their gender.
- 85 percent reported being verbally harassed (e.g., called names or threatened) at school because of their sexual orientation; 64 percent felt it was due to their gender expression.\
- 40 percent said they were physically harassed at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation; compared to 27 percent because of their gender expression.
Georgia statistics are similar. Of the 175 LGBT student poll respondents, many reported having experienced physical harassment and physical assault:
- 9 out of 10 reported being physically harassed because of the way they expressed their gender; about 2 in 3 reported being physically assaulted (e.g., punched, kicked or injured with a weapon) because of their sexual orientation.
Singh, the UGA researcher, agrees with G.
“There are considerably less resources available for transgender people in schools and that can make it an especially difficult experience for them,” Singh says. “Fortunately, along with the many challenges they also have a lot of resilience; that resilience keeps them bouncing back. We need to do more in schools to support them.”
It got to a point, G. says, that for safety reasons he arrived at school early and left late in hopes of thwarting further confrontations and harassment.
“I didn’t feel safe,” remembers G. “There was no GSA (gay student alliance) at my school and only one teacher offered any kind of support.”
For these reasons, G. is an ardent supporter of Georgia’s new anti-bullying law passed by the state Legislature in 2010. Starting in August, schools must begin notifying parents when their child is bullied or bullies another. The current policies in local school districts don’t require notification in every case.
Elliot, the field organizer for the non-profits, says the measure is a huge success for Georgia students, particularly those who are LGBT.
“This goes a long way to promote a safe environment in schools,” she says. “This legislation was inspired by the suicide of DeKalb County [Georgia] student Jaheem Herrera, who was relentlessly teased and called gay at his school. That case put a lot of pressure on the state Legislature to address this issue. The bullying policies had not been updated since the 1980s. Jaheem’s ordeal gave us the push that we needed to get it passed.”
The new law:
- Defines bullying more broadly than before.
- Requires local school systems to adopt policies on dealing with bullying.
- Expands the policies to include elementary school students, particularly kindergarten.
- Requires parents to be notified any time their child is bullied or bullies someone else.
- Mandates students who bully in grades six through 12 be placed in an alternative school after the third offense.
G. says having such a law in place during his school days could have made a huge difference.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth across America are facing a crisis in the juvenile justice system as a result of harmful discrimination in their homes, schools and communities. Recent studies demonstrate that continued harassment of LGBT youth in their schools place them at a higher risk for involvement with the system. LGBT youth are more likely to skip school to avoid victimization and in the process face truancy charges. Additionally, other LGBT students end up in the system on assault or disorderly conduct charges after they try to defend themselves against bullying by their classmates. In other instances, LGBT youth are disproportionately targeted by school officials for punishment, often referring them to juvenile court for conduct that is more appropriately handled in school. These experiences unnecessarily prolong the involvement of LGBT youths in the juvenile justice system and often expose them to more restrictive dispositions. In an effort to reduce the number of LGBT youth in the juvenile justice system, more must be done to combat discrimination and harassment in schools.
Schools should be a safe haven for all students as well as a welcoming environment where opportunities are not limited by a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity. However, recent events, including an agreement between a California middle school and the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education (OCR) and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ), demonstrate that not enough is being done to protect LGBT youth in schools. The agreement between the California middle school and the government agencies followed a complaint from a parent whose 13 year-old gay son committed suicide following chronic sex-based harassment by his peers. The agreement requires the school to research, develop and implement policies that educate students and staff regarding the harmful effects of harassment, as well as educate staff regarding the proper investigation and means of eliminating such harassment. While the result of this agreement is commendable, it raises several disturbing issues relating to the treatment of LGBT youth in schools.
First, while school districts should already be engaged in creating a positive school climate where all students are afforded equal educational opportunities, some are not. Second, as OCR and DOJ made clear in the agreement, they do not have the power to investigate and make recommendations to prohibit harassment or discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The government is limited by statute to addressing only sex discrimination, as there is no federal statute prohibiting harassment or discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. As a result, while an enforcement mechanism exists to regulate harassment and discrimination in schools, it is not explicit about doing so to protect LGBT youth. Consequently, LGBT youth continue to be at risk for harassment and discrimination in school, which subsequently increases their risk of entering the juvenile justice system. This devastating chain of events can be stopped if federal legislation, such as the Student Non-Discrimination Act, is passed.
The Student Non-Discrimination Act, which is pending in the House and Senate, would prohibit schools from discriminating against students based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Additionally, it would prevent discrimination against any public school student because of the actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of a person with whom a student associates or has associated. With passage of this legislation, government organizations such as OCR and DOJ would have the authority to investigate and make recommendations to prohibit harassment or discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Such tools would make a significant contribution to ending harassment and bullying of LGBT youth in schools and could ultimately help reduce the number of LGBT youth that find themselves in the juvenile justice system.
Enjoy the opinion? Check out JJIE's series on LGBT issues:
["Accepting Me: LGBT Stories of Struggles, Discoveries and Triumphs"]
When my editor, John Fleming, informed me that I would be writing a series about LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender) young people in metro Atlanta and the issues they often face, honestly I did not know what to expect.
At the least, I knew it would be interesting. Ultimately the very personal accounts shared by Brian, Amber and Connor were far more than that. I found their accounts to be engaging, enlightening and, quite frankly, educational. Interviewing these dynamic individuals really offered me some insight into the real challenges many people face just trying to express who they feel they are deep inside.
It also reminded me why I still love journalism to this day. I don’t take the privilege of asking all of the hard questions that most people want to ask but are too polite or shy to do so, lightly.
Being African-American is a huge part of how I identify myself in society (those who regularly mistake me for a Latina will laugh on cue at that fact). After hearing these stories, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if I had to conceal my ethnicity from my family, friends, loved ones and co-workers on a regular basis.
Similarly, my interview subjects have felt the need to do so in the past in regards to their sexual orientation and gender identity. That would be a heavy burden, to be sure. I definitely learned a lot of technical details, like the fact that a “trans man” refers to female-to-male transgender people and that “trans woman” refers to a male who transitions to female, how much pronouns matter to transgender people and that there’s a disproportionate number of homeless LGBT youth in this country.
However, one central theme rang true in all their experiences. Brian, Amber and Connor drove home for me the value in embracing who you are and living life on your own terms. I guess it boils down to taking responsibility for your life and, more importantly, your personal happiness. No matter where you stand on the LGBT issue, I think that’s a message we all can relate to.
["The Other Side of the Rainbow: Young, Gay and Homeless in Metro Atlanta" is part 1 of a 3 part series on LGBT issues. Bookmark this page for updates.]
In April 2008, Brian Dixon was 18-years-old and homeless. Being gay, he says, only exacerbated his predicament.
After allegedly enduring years of mental and physical abuse, at age 14 Dixon left home to live with his grandparents. Within a year, they placed him in Georgia’s foster care system. From there he bounced around to several group homes. He’d quit high school, but earned a GED before officially “aging out” of the foster care system.
Dixon, who was born in Fort Benning about 90 miles southwest of Atlanta, had dropped to his knees many nights, fervently praying to be granted an extension to remain in the foster care system a bit longer while he worked on his nursing degree from Georgia Perimeter College. His new caseworker, whom Dixon describes as a “devout Christian,” was not in support. She’d convinced her superiors that he was not “a good candidate” for that privilege. He thinks it’s because he’s gay. Within two weeks, Dixon was dropped off with his few belongings at a Southwest Atlanta homeless shelter.
“I was scared; I had nowhere else to go,” recalls Dixon. “That first night they sent me to Covenant House and I just could not handle it. I was still in the foster care mindset. It didn’t really register in my mind that I was actually homeless.”
Strict rules and a curfew at the facility for those aged 17-21, didn’t mesh well with Dixon’s school and work schedule. He tried traditional adult shelters briefly, but ultimately ended up living on the streets of Atlanta. That catapulted him onto a yearlong emotional and heart-wrenching odyssey of illegal drug use, prostitution and “couch-surfing” from one friend’s house to another. He claims in the summer of 2009, he even fell victim to a brutal roadside rape at the hands of two strangers.
Atlanta-based licensed counselor Tana Hall says Dixon’s experiences are common among displaced gay youth.
“A lot of young people in this predicament get sexually exploited because of their homeless situation,” says Hall, who counsels Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) youth at Atlanta-based non-profit, YouthPride. “A lot of young gay boys find themselves trading sex for basic necessities like food and shelter but they won’t tell you that. They’ll tell us, ‘I’m staying with this 45-year-old guy.’ They’re happy to have groceries and a place to stay, but they’re not admitting what’s really going on there.”
As Hall suggests, Dixon is among legions of LGBT teenagers and young adults kicked out of their homes and out of foster care homes primarily because of their sexual orientation. Many claim that the discrimination they face – often rooted in religious conviction – even extends to homeless shelters and into the foster care system. The ostracism, Dixon says, is magnified 10-fold for transgender youth whose androgynous appearance is often harder for others to embrace. Halls says she’s heard staffers at local Christian-based shelters make homophobic comments and it’s upsetting. She often tries to avoid sending her clientele there because she fears discrimination, but sometimes it’s the only option available.
“There’s a disproportionate number of homeless LGBTQ young people out there because of a lack of acceptance from their families and others around them,” says Hall, who also answers calls on YouthPride’s crisis hotline. She and other advocates however, often add an “I” and “Q” to the common acronym, in reference to “intersex,” persons born with both male and female genitalia and “questioning,” as in those questioning their sexual orientation.
“The majority of calls I get on our helpline are young people who have run away because they did not feel that they were accepted in their home,” Hall says. “The primary reason that these young people are homeless is not because of issues like substance abuse or mental illness; it’s due to a lack of acceptance about who they are [from others]. It’s a societal issue.”
Dixon claims the only facility he’s ever formally been kicked out of was one touted as a “Christian group home.” Upon arrival, he says, he was required to sign a form agreeing to never disclose his sexual orientation. He tried unsuccessfully to conceal his sexual identity there.
“People kept asking me about it and I wouldn’t answer them; once they found out I was gay, it was pretty much downhill from there,” recalls Dixon.
The April 24 incident has gotten national attention, in part because an employee shot a video of the incident and posted it online.
From the Associated Press:
Teonna Brown, 18, was indicted Monday on assault and hate crime charges in the attack on Chrissy Lee Polis at the restaurant last month. She is also charged with assaulting a customer and a McDonald’s employee who tried to intervene. A 14-year-old girl is facing the same charges in juvenile court. The Associated Press typically does not identify juveniles charged with crimes.
Much of the publicity about the attack has focused on the fact that some McDonald’s employees and customers simply watched while Chrissy Lee Polis was beaten, kicked in the head and dragged across the floor by her hair. An employee even laughed while shooting the video, and another worker tried to help the attackers to leave so they would not get caught.
The contents of this video contain disturbing images.