Why Are There so Many LGBT Youth in Prison?


For the thousands of LGBT youth in the American juvenile justice system, bullying is just the beginning. That’s because, while lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming (GNC) youth makeup five to seven percent of young people in America, they are 15 percent of young people in the juvenile justice system.

Low-income youth and youth of color are also particularly affected: a shocking 60 percent of the LGBT youth arrested and/or detained each year are Black or Latino. Factors ranging from family rejection to school discipline to homelessness—each exacerbating the other—increase LGBT and gender nonconforming youth’s risk of being funneled into the juvenile justice system.

Once there, bullying and harassment, discrimination, and harsh punishment conspire to keep kids in a vicious cycle, as harassment and excessive discipline leads to trauma, missed school, and potentially higher rates of recidivism.

“All of what we would consider feeders into the juvenile justice system, queer and trans youth are disproportionately represented in,”Wesley C. Ware, Co-Director of BreakOUT! told ATTN. The New Orleans-based organization is dedicated to fighting the criminalization of LGBT youth at a grassroots level.

Too often, LGBT kids are criminalized for being victimized, for expressing themselves, or for just being teens.

“In general, the juvenile justice system criminalizes normal adolescent behavior, period, and I think that amplifies for LGBT [teens],” said Christina Gilbert, Director of the Equity Project, an initiative examining issues affecting LGBT youth in delinquency court.

Keeping LGBT kids out of the juvenile justice system requires considering their lives in context and supporting, rather than stigmatizing, their identities.


For many LGBT and gender nonconforming kids in the juvenile justice system, lack of support begins at home.

One study found that 45 percent of parents felt angry or disgusted about their child’s sexual orientation, while another found that 30 percent of LGBT young people experienced anti-LGBT familial physical abuse. Families upset by their child’s gender identity or sexual orientation may have the youth charged with “ungovernability,” or “incorrigibility,” claiming that the child has become impossible to control just because they are LGBT.

For children already in the system, they may be subject to family members’ anti-LGBT rules as a condition of probation or parole.

“One of the number one problems that LGBT youth have is that when they’re home, or on probation, they have some conditions of release; one of the conditions is to obey home rules,” Vickie Henry, Youth Initiative Director and Senior Staff Attorney at Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), told ATTN.

What happens when parents order that their transfeminine child (someone assigned male at birth but identifies as female) should only wear boys' clothes? Then that child’s act of self-expression becomes a potential parole violation.

“The parents can think whatever they want, but the system shouldn’t enforce that prejudice,” Henry said. “They should not say, 'We’re going to revoke your release or your probation because you haven’t respected the rules that your parents have set down 'if those rules violate the youth’s sexual orientation.”

Family rejection often translates to LGBT youth getting kicked out or running away from home—the greatest predictor of LGBT youth involvement in the juvenile justice system.

Many LGBT and gender non-conforming young people are thus forced onto the streets, with little to no access to shelters, where nonviolent “survival crimes” like petty theft and sex work lead them into the juvenile justice system.

“They’re kicked out, and then commit crimes to support themselves,” Henry said.

To continue reading about the LGBT Youth and the School-to-Prison Pipeline click here: Why Are There so Many LGBT Youth in Prison?