Unequal Justice, Gay and Transgender Youth in the Juvenile Justice System

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

-Center of American Progress, 2012

He sat on the cold bench in the county jail, holding back the tears from the river that grew inside him with every passing minute. “Move over you fuckin faggot”, said a youth who had recently been put into the already filled jail cell. His anxious heart was beating loudly, he wondered if the pounding would irritate the others and drive them to want to attack him. His stomach growled with the fury of a lion charging towards his prey, it had been a week since he had anything substantial to eat. The layer of dirt that covered him from head to toe spoke about the months he had spent living in a large trash bin miles away from the home he grew up in, trying to escape the cruel and unmerciful streets of the city. Throughout the night he noticed how the sheriff would come to the cell, call out a name, and a youth would leave with him one at a time and they would never come back. Later, he overheard a conversation between two other youth where one youth was telling the other about how their parents were going to be so pissed off at him as soon as they come to get him out of jail. The one youth assured the other youth that eventually they would all be released from custody under the supervision of their parents. At that moment he felt a pit of despair growing in his stomach as he realized that his father would never come to claim his “homo” son. Eventually, he was the only one left in the jail cell, and with the stark realization that he has no one on his side. He could no longer contain the overflow of tears that was contained in his body for too long. He thought to himself, “I was so hungry, I have no money, it was a hot dog from 7-Eleven. Why does a hot dog have more value then me?” He sat in the corner of the cell, his body folded into himself like a deflated balloon, weeping. In time a new group of youth would be brought in and the cycle would repeat itself; homophobic harassment from other youth and sometimes officers, and the reinforcement that he had no one but himself. Eventually, he would spend weeks in jail separated from the other youth for his “own safety” waiting for the county to place him in a foster or group home placement.

Gay and transgender youth are pipelined into the juvenile justice system at disproportion­ate rates, often stripped of their basic dignity and civil rights, and treated in a harmful and discriminatory manner once in the system. The current policies and practices of schools and the juvenile justice system overlook gay and transgender youth and perpetuate stigma and bias that can lead to their unwarranted criminalization and unfair treatment

-Center of American Progress, 2012

Alejandra Luna LCSW, Mental Health Therapist/LGBTQ+ Specialist