The LGBT Health & Development Program

Youth Blog > Unfair Criminalization of LGBT Youth

Posted on January 14th, 2013 by rachel in Featured, Youth Blog. 1 Comment

Prison bars with hands holding LGBT rainbow flagLGBT youth make up 5-7% of the youth population. However, they make up about 15% of the juvenile justice population, according to the Human Rights Campaign. In this article, we highlight a few differences between the experiences of LGBT youth and heterosexual youth who come face-to-face with the juvenile justice system.

School-Based Discrimination

Schools can be unsafe places for LGBT youth. These students can face bullying from other youth, as well as unfair punishment from teachers and school administrators. A 2010 study in the scientific journal Pediatrics found that LGBT youth were up to three times more likely to be punished by teachers than their heterosexual peers.(1) In addition, LGBT youth were more likely than heterosexual youth to skip school because they felt unsafe.(2)

Homeless Youth and Crimes of Survival

According to a report from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, about 40% of the homeless population identifies as LGBT. Homeless youth have often been kicked out of their homes after coming out to their parents. To survive, some LGBT youth may engage in crimes of survival (e.g., breaking curfew, sex work) and are more likely to be detained for these crimes compared to other youth.(1) Transgender youth and youth of color are at higher risk for being arrested.(3)

Further Victimization within the Justice System

LGBT youth are at higher risk for victimization inside detention centers. A 2007 study by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found that 67% of gay men and transgender females (MTF) were sexually assaulted by another inmate.(4) This is 15 times higher than that of the general inmate population.

Juvenile detention centers and prisons can be unsafe and unaffirming of sexual orientation or gender identity. For example, transgender youth face the problem of being housed with the wrong gender, as detention centers and prisons often house people according to their birth sex, regardless of their presentation or identity. Also, there have been reports that social workers and the courts have attempted to change a person’s sexual orientation through conversion therapy. The Center for American Progress cites instances such as the following:

“…a 15-year-old boy being given a women’s lingerie catalogue with the purpose of teaching him ‘appropriate’ sexual desires and a male-to-female transgender youth, who was detained in a boy’s facility, being placed on ‘treatment plan’ to ‘help with gender confusion and appropriate gender identity.’”

Whether at school, on the street, or in detention centers, LGBT youth face discrimination and victimization that most straight youth do not encounter. Research has demonstrated there are disparities in the number of LGBT youth incarcerated and detained. The question is, “How can we prevent this discrimination?”


1. Himmelstein, K., & Brückner, H. (2011). Criminal-justice and school sanctions against nonheterosexual youth: a national longitudinal study. Pediatrics, 127(1), 53.

2. Russell, S., Everett, B., Rosario, M., & Birkett, M. (In Press). Victimization and Sexual Orientation among Youth.

3. Amnesty International. (2005). StoneWalled: Police Abuse of LGBT in the US. Available online at

4. Jenness, V. et al., (2007).  Violence in California Correctional Facilities: An Empirical Examination of Sexual Assault.  Center for Evidence-Based Corrections.

*This post was written by IMPACT Program Journalism Intern, Rachel Graf, and edited by IMPACT staffer, Antonia Clifford.

One thought on “Youth Blog > Unfair Criminalization of LGBT Youth

  1. Thanks for raising awareness about this important issue!

    The Southern Poverty Law center is doing some great work on these issues:

    As is Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice:

    Black and Pink provides great educational materials to the public as well as to LGBT individuals who are currently incarcerated. One great way to make a difference is to become a pen pal of a currently incarcerated LGBT individual. In addition to their resources/info, Black and Pink maintains a database of individuals looking for a pen pal:

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