A disproportionate number of queer youth, particular lesbians and bisexual girls, end up in jail or prison in the United States, according to a study released today by researchers at UCLA. Worse, those youth are considerably more likely to be raped during their time in custody.
"The findings support calls by policymakers and advocates for the need to pay attention to the unique needs of LGBT youth in state systems," says Dr. Bianca D.M. Wilson, lead author on the report, released Tuesday by The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law.
The study worked on assumptions that 6 to 8 percent of youth and young adults in the general population qualify as sexual minorities, but found that almost 12 percent of youth in state-run and –contracted facilities fall under that same category. The report defines gender minorities as those who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual as well as those who “report sexual or romantic attractions to those of the same-sex but do not identify as LGB.”
The report found striking differences in the breakdown of incarcerated boys and girls identified as queer. A survey conducted for the report determined 39.4 percent of girls in juvenile corrections facilities identify as LGB, with an additional 18.5 percent identifying as “mostly straight,” compared to just 3.2 percent of boys who identify as gay or bisexual, with an additional 3.9 percent who self-identify as “mostly straight.” Boys make up a much higher percentage of incarcerated youths. In total, the study found 6.5 percent of all youth in custody identify as LGB, and the number jumps to 11.8 percent when those who describe themselves as “mostly straight” get added to that group.
A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests nearly 12 of high school girls are lesbian, gay or bisexual compared to 4.5 percent of boys.
Researchers elected not to include trans and gender nonconforming youth in the study due to “major methodological challenges” but the report acknowledges an overlap in the experiences of gender minorities as well.
The study discovered most youth, regardless of sexual orientation, remain in custody less than 12 months, but the chances of spending more time than that are two three times higher for sexual minority youth than for heterosexual youth.
And while in custody, LGB youth are more likely to be sexually victimized. “Reports of sexual victimization by staff were lower for girls than boys and varied from 2.2 percent for straight girls to 15.1 percent for gay/bisexual boys. Youth-perpetrated sexual assaults and injury were the most commonly victimization experienced across all population subgroups. Sexual victimization by other youth using force varied from 1.9 percent for straight boys to 20.6 percent for gay/bisexual boys.”
Social attitudes condoning homophobia could contribute to the likelihood queer youth will be victimized in custody. “These differences may be best understood within correctional environments in which staff biases, disciplinary cultures, and highly gendered programming may endorse or condone homophobic targeting while repressing consensual sexual expression.” Reports of victimization by peers were especially high for gay and bisexual males in the study.
Among sexual minority girls in custody, the study found a greater percentage of Latina inmates, while a greater number of queer boys in custody were white. “The highly disproportionate representation of sexual minority girls, the majority of whom are girls of color, highlights the urgency for explanatory theories, as well as policy and practices, that move beyond uni-dimensional ‘LGBT vs. straight’ frameworks for analyzing juvenile justice disparities. Importantly, these findings mirror those found among adults incarcerated in jails and prisons, which shows that sexual minority women are disproportionately incarcerated, especially sexual minority women of color. The similar findings among girls and women 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.”
Like all minority groups, law enforcement bias may contribute to overrepresentation, the report says. The study also shows being in a sexual minority can usurp being in an otherwise protected class. “The findings showing that sexual minority boys were far more likely to be white raises questions about the ways in which ‘queerness’ may become a signifier for deviance from social and masculinity norms for a group of youth who have otherwise been protected by white and male privilege,” the report reads.
The study also found that LGB youth remain at higher risk of “traumatic stress, depression, suicidal ideation and substance use” once in custody as well, and that prison staff may take less action to curb that. “Sexual minority youth may be particular targets for sexualized violence and administrative punishment while incarcerated,” the study reads. “Studies with juvenile justice practitioners document widespread misperceptions and negative attitudes toward sexual minority youth that produce and enable inequitable treatment, neglect of health and medical issues, excessive use of force, sexual and physical victimization, and unwillingness to offer protection. Further, scholars suggest that staff stereotypes of lesbian and bisexual girls as sexually predatory and aggressive may result in inequitable administrative sanctioning and further criminalization.”
Writers of the study conclude authorities must broaden their focus in correcting disproportionality of minority representation in jails and prisons. “Girls and sexual minority youth as independent social statuses comprise a relatively small proportion of all youth in custody, and yet sexual minority girls make up a substantial proportion of all girls in custody. This vast overrepresentation warrants future attention in public policy research. As the implementation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act continues to roll out, attention to the risks faced by LGB and other sexual minority youth in custody should receive particularly focused attention.”