Queer youth in the United States face alarmingly high rates of incarceration compared to their heterosexual peers. And once within the system, they’re often the victims of sexual assault, violence, and other abuses, according to a study recently published by the Williams Institute at UCLA.
This study, Disproportionality and Disparities Among Sexual Minority Youth in Custody (by researchers Bianca D.M. Wilson, Ph.D., Sid P. Jordan, J.D., Ilan H. Meyer, Ph.D., Andrew R. Flores, Ph.D., Lara Stemple, J.D., and Jody L. Herman, Ph.D.), relies heavily on a nationally representative federal agency survey conducted in 2012, but also pulls in data from several other sources.
It paints a vivid—and grim—picture of life for gay and bi young people in jail or prison. (Researchers decided against counting transgender youth in the study, citing “major methodological challenges.”)
Of the roughly 54,000 young people in either state-run or privately contracted juvenile correction facilities in the U.S, approximately 12% are sexual minorities. Given that only 6–8% of all young people identify as gay or bi, that’s almost twice what we should see.
The vast majority (84%) of incarcerated youth are born male, 3.2% of whom identify as gay or bisexual, while another 3.9% checked the “mostly straight” box. While there are far fewer females in juvenile detention, nearly 40% are lesbian or bisexual, and another 18.5% who identify as “mostly straight.”
When you break down the population of incarcerated LGB youth by race, there are some interesting implications: Gay/bi boys are far more likely to be white, compared to straights who are less likely to be white. According to the researchers, this “raises questions about the ways in which ‘queerness’ may become a signifier for deviance from social and masculinity norms” for boys who “have otherwise been protected by white and male privilege.”
Queer girls, meanwhile, in such facilities are much more likely to identify as Latina. This highly disproportionate representation in the juvenile detention system mirrors the statistics of adults in jails and prisons, and, according to the Williams Institute study, “may reflect similar experiences and structural biases across the lifespan leading to incarceration, or that juvenile detention represents an influential pathway to adult incarceration pathways, or both.”
Now that we have a pretty clear snapshot of what queer incarcerated youths in the United States look like, let’s examine the horrors these kids experience once they are on the other side.
Though few young Americans are incarcerated for more than 12 months, gay/bi youth are often sentenced two or three times longer than their heterosexual peers. And LGB youths experience disturbingly high rates of sexual abuse in the juvenile corrections system. Young gay and bisexual men have it the worst: More than 15% report being sexually victimized by members of the staff, while 20.6% are forcibly raped by other incarcerated youth. That’s more than a fifth of all queer boys in juvenile detention, compared to just 1.9% of straight boys who report being victimized.
Staff biases, cultures of discipline, and structural homophobia in correctional facilities often mean that sexual minorities are forced to endure environments that “endorse or condone homophobic targeting while repressing consensual sexual expression,” the report maintains. They are frequently singled out for administrative punishment, are the recipients of excessive force, and are more likely to have their medical issues neglected. It should then come as no surprise, then, that queer youth are more likely to report traumatic stress, depression, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts or attempts.
LGB youth who endure rape and abuse will carry those scars with them for the rest of their lives. And, when they get out, many find themselves in a foster care system or homeless—both environments where LGBT people are highly overrepresented, and where the patterns of victimization, trauma, and substance abuse are likely to be perpetuated.
Given that the ostensible goal of juvenile detention is to rehabilitate young offenders and prepare them for reentry into the world, the reality becomes a horrifyingly absurd, Kafkaesque joke upon thousands and thousands of kids.