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The Lonely Journey: LGBT Youth in the Justice System

by Christine Malcom
Contributor
Saturday Dec 1, 2012
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Chicago grassroots organizations and community members gathered for a discussion co-sponsored by Project NIA and the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation entitled "LBGTQ Youth in the Juvenile Justice System." This marked the fifth of six discussions held in connection with Juvenile-in-Justice, a photography exhibition by Richard Ross, which runs through December 15 at Roosevelt University’s Gage Gallery.

According to a June 2012 brief by the Center for American Progress, LGBTQ youth represent 15 percent of those in the juvenile justice system, though they make up just 5-7 percent of the U.S. youth population, and queer youth of color are disproportionately represented among those arrested and detained each year.

"[Statistics like these] reflect a surveillance culture that polices youth and pathologizes queer youth in particular," said Gender Justice United for Societal Transformation Policy Director Yasmin Nair.

Jason Tompkins, also of Gender JUST, presented further data from the New Orleans-based partner organization BreakOUT! that show the problem runs even deeper.

"Fifty percent of nonviolent LGBTQ offenders are sent to jail before adjudication. This is true for only 10 percent of straight youth," said Tompkins.

Once involved in the juvenile justice system, LGBTQ youth face unique issues. Many are denied access to basic health care and receive no information or support for HIV/AIDS prevention. Transgender youth are often denied hormone therapies and are subject to insensitive and rigid policies related to gender-segregated facilities.

"Depending on jurisdiction, they may also be subject to mandated sexual identity counseling or other rehabilitation efforts that promote conformity," added Tompkins.

As minors, youth in general must depend on their parents to secure and interact with legal counsel for them. This also results in unique problems for LGBTQ youth, who are very often alienated from their biological family.

"They are at the mercy of dysfunctional family courts with no appreciation of their fractured family structures and a lack of respect for their created families. [The courts] have no ability to recognize non-biological parenting," said Tompkins.

Queer youth also face particular barriers when emerging from the juvenile justice system and re-entering society.

"Society criminalizes queer sex. Many queer youth enter [the juvenile justice system] while engaged in survival sex work and find themselves required to register as sex offenders," noted Tompkins.


Although these issues faced by queer youth in juvenile justice are serious and well documented, both Tompkins and Nair warned against accepting common narratives of queer youth at face value.

"There’s a common statistic that 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ. These are numbers from social service workers and there is reason to believe they are ramped up to reinforce a particular narrative of racialized homophobia that hides societal issues like the normative culture of schools and the unequal distribution of resources," said Nair. "[Many queer youth] consider themselves to be ’home-free.’ There’s a lack of appreciation for the totality of queer youth lives."

As a case in point, Nair noted that, in Chicago, the response to a series of local media stories outing queer youth in neighborhoods was questions raised by residents at Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy meetings about whether police now intended to "go after" queer youth.

"The answer was ’yes’," said Nair.

Such narratives have led organizations like Gender JUST, Project NIA, and BreakOUT! to distance themselves from reform-oriented organizations and move into the areas of restorative justice and prison abolition work. They emphasize the importance of understanding the totality of the lives of queer youth through first-person narratives, rather than received knowledge from nonprofits and social services agencies in pursuit of scarce funding.

"At Gender JUST, we’ve opted out of ’going after the money’ in favor of participatory research. We don’t see youth as a ’funding category,’" explained Nair.

Tompkins stressed the importance of the "radical imagination" and critical resistance when engaging with reformist organizations.

"These are our institutions. These 501(c)3 entities were created to serve the people, yet they have no open board meetings. It’s appropriate to ask ’Are you or are you not fulfilling the mission?’" he noted.

Mariame Kaba, founding director of Project NIA, emphasized the importance of grassroots efforts to build trust to maintain community control, particularly as "restorative justice" becomes an increasingly popular buzzword.

"It’s been a nightmare. [Law schools and schools of social work] have appropriated our methods and there’s a push for credentializing. We need to remain committed to dissolving disputes before they get to the courts, to justice based outcomes, and to affirming communities as a whole," said Kaba. "We’re of the opinion that institutions cannot transform."

"We have to maintain the critique and push for a more perfect situation. [In evaluating abolition work] we ask ourselves ’Does this extend the reach of the Prison-Industrial Complex?’" said Tompkins.


Christine Malcom is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Roosevelt University and Adjunct Faculty in Liberal Arts and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a physical anthropologist, theater geek, and all-around pop culture enthusiast.

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