Pride Month and working with LGBTQ+ youth

LGBTQ+ youth are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system. It’s important that we find better ways to serve them.

June is Pride Month, a time to celebrate the history, accomplishments, and current culture of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) people in our communities and around the world.

Legal protections for LGBTQ+ people

First, I would like to address the importance of protecting the rights and identities of LGBTQ+ people under the law. In Oregon, it’s unlawful to discriminate against someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity for employment and housing. Our state recognizes hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people, and Oregon was the first state to allow residents to identify as non-binary on their state ID cards. Oregon also protects transgender people against discrimination for insurance coverage and allows same-sex marriage.

Encoding these protections in law is critically important for the safety of LGBTQ+ people. Even though Oregon has been ahead of many other states in this area, we still have plenty to do. LGBTQ+ people, particularly those who are transgender and people of color, continue to experience harassment, assault, discrimination, and violence in our communities. The Human Rights Campaign reports that at least 14 transgender people have been murdered in the U.S. so far in 2022 — and the real number is likely much higher. The vast majority of LGBTQ+ students in Oregon report that they hear anti-LGBTQ remarks and experience anti-LGBTQ victimization in their schools.

I want to make it clear that LGBTQ+ lives matter, and our agency stands in support of our colleagues, youth in our custody, and people in our communities who identify at LGBTQ+.

LGBTQ+ youth in the juvenile justice system

Second, I’d like to talk about why it’s so important that we properly support and provide equitable services to the LGBTQ+ youth in our custody. Here are just a few things to consider:

  • According to national surveys, the percentage of LGBTQ+ incarcerated youth is double that of LGBTQ+ youth in the general population. At OYA, in 2020, 9% of youth in our custody said they did not identify as heterosexual, and 5% identified as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth — and these statistics only capture youth who felt safe enough to share their identity with their caseworkers.
  • LGBTQ+ youth face stigmas and discrimination that are different from other groups, often leading them to commit crimes and end up in the justice system. This can include things like being rejected, abused, or kicked out of their homes by their own families due to their sexuality or identity.
  • The rate of suicide attempts for lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth is four times greater than for straight youth. Nearly half of transgender people have considered suicide.
  • One national study found that youth who identify as LGBTQ+ are more likely to be stopped by police, to be expelled from school, or to be arrested and convicted as juveniles and adults.
  • Once they are incarcerated, LGBTQ+ youth often report facing bias, mistreatment and abuse.

Most of these facts come from a national report that I recommend you read, titled “Unjust: LGBTQ Youth Incarcerated in the Juvenile Justice System.”

Chart showing how LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in the criminal justice system
Image from Unjust: LGBTQ Youth Incarcerated in the Juvenile Justice System

How we can better serve LGBTQ+ youth

The statistics listed above demonstrate the critical importance of considering the different needs of LGBTQ+ youth and catering our services more specifically to those needs. Many of our staff recently completed a training from our Development Services team that was meant to help them serve LGBTQ+ youth more effectively. Here are a few highlights from the training:

  • Do what you can to increase protective factors, including:
    • Social support and positive relationships, especially with family, teachers, friends, and other LGBTQ people.
    • Role models in the LGBTQ community, especially mentors and notable individuals.
    • Positive environments with clear policies protecting their rights and giving them access to facilities such as bathrooms or changing rooms.
    • Coping skills, including a positive mental attitude, and control over when they “come out” about their identity and who they come out to.
  • Recognize internal biases you might have regarding the LGBTQ+ community and be aware of biases you see in others.
  • Interrupt biases by others. Speak up and challenge others to let them know their behavior or language is inappropriate. Don’t laugh at jokes or comments based on race, sexual orientation, or gender.

Perspectives from LGBTQ+ youth

Several youth in the Spirit of Two Feathers group recently shared some things they’d like our staff to know about working with LGBTQ+ youth. Spirit of Two Feathers is a support group for LGBTQ+ youth at OYA, which is overseen by the Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations (OIIR).

Here are some of the tips from these youth:

  • Respect and use a person’s name and pronouns (“You wouldn’t want someone calling you a nickname that you don’t like,” one youth said).
  • Be conscious of how not respecting a youth’s identity can “throw them out of balance” and “make them want to hurt themselves or somebody else.”
  • Use inclusive, appropriate, and respectful language. When staff use inappropriate language, youth think it’s OK to use the same language.

Overall, the youths’ main advice for staff was simple: “Just treat me like me. Don’t treat me like I’m a different person. Treat me equally.”

When we ignore the needs of LGBTQ+ youth, we are ignoring their right to a safe environment and contributing to declines in their mental health. Taking the time to learn about LGBTQ+ culture and community, checking and addressing our biases, and providing the right wraparound services can have huge positive impacts for the youth, their families, and our communities.

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