Toshio Meronek

What is it Like to Be Young, Queer and Behind Bars?

Filed By Toshio Meronek | December 13, 2010 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Critical Resistance, Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, prison, prison industrial complex, Wesley Ware

lgbt-3.jpgWe have a way harder life when we're incarcerated. Straight people have a hard time here but [gay youth] have it even worse. They are raped, get food thrown at them, are jumped, humiliated, god knows what will happen to them...[If I wasn't gay,] I would have an easier life. There would be less teasing from boys and staff and people wouldn't be on my back all the time. But this way, I have my individuality, I have my self, I know who I am. I have people willing to support me, true people, friends, and I get to give advice to other gay kids. You meet more true people this way. If I could be on Oprah for one minute, I'd say, 'Don't let [gay youth] be picked on for their individuality. Let them be who they are...no matter what it is!'

-15-year-old transgender youth

Like many other oppressed groups, young LGBTQ people are overrepresented within the imprisoned population, making up 15% of youth incarcerated nationwide. The majority of imprisoned LGBTQ youth have no home to return to once they're on the outside, and they face a disproportionately high amount of time in solitary confinement (justified as "for their own safety"). They're also among the most victimized while in lock-up.

I had to be placed on Protective Custody (PC) due to the abuse I received. I have been spitted [sic] on, punched, and even called names because I was GAY and was not like the rest of them...I was even asked by an Officer to have sexual contact with him and I refused to do so...I started having problems with the [group home] manager because I was gay and he treated me different and even hit me and push me [sic] in my face and my probation officer was contacted and nothing was done...I was scared to sleep at night because I never know [sic] if I was going to wake up in the morning. The staff would fall asleep on the job and the youth [would] not be supervised. The Correctional facility was out of order...While I was in custody of the group home, I was attacked by a boy because I was gay and he lied to the staff and said I was 'making crosses' at him. Well the staff on board called the cops...The [police officer] told me to 'Shut up and don't say nothing.' Well I had to stay in the living room because the staff told [me] it was to protect me...I just think I was safer in the prison than I was in the group home...

-19-year-old gay youth

Last summer, Wesley Ware of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL) guest blogged on Bilerico about Locked Up & Out, a report focused on queer youth in detention. The report found that LGBTQ youth may be more likely to receive additional charges for fighting or be issued disciplinary tickets for defending themselves from sexual attacks. They experience psychological attacks as well. One youth reported that he was called a gay slur 20 times per day. According to Wes Ware, "Once inside prison, LGBT youth often bear the worst the system has to offer." But little attention has been paid to this vulnerable population.

I followed up with Wes for a related article published in The Abolitionist. Earlier this year, a youth who contributed to the report requested a meeting with the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice to discuss the report's recommendations, which call for alternatives to incarceration (such as community-based rehabilitation, mentoring programs, and mental health care), and new non-discrimination policies.

In lieu of a meeting, she was sent a not-particularly-illuminating info packet on the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which includes a small reference to the heightened vulnerability of LGBT youth in lock up. Unsurprisingly, she wasn't satisfied, and again requested a meeting, which has yet to be granted.

Says Wes, "We continue to try to push [the Office of Juvenile Justice] on this to no avail. We have been successful with local detention centers, but not the state-level youth prisons." You can get updates at JJPL's website and Facebook page devoted to this campaign, and pressure Congress to adopt better legislation related to this issue at Youth Promise Action.

The preceding and following stories and advice are from youth interviewed for the report, describing their experiences as LGBTQ kids in detention.

Being positive in the juvenile system was very hard at first. Being ridiculed by others who are not even sure about your predicament [but] just heard it from others. I was often judged and whispered about by others on a daily basis. They would say things like, 'He got that gansta,' and tell others, 'You better stay away from him because he's got AIDS.' Or sometimes they would say stuff like, 'it doesn't matter what I think because I'm about to die anyway.' Some people were even scared to communicate with me because of things that they heard. They were reacting to the stigma of the disease. I even had nurses and staff telling one another and even [the] kids things about me...I've been talked about to the point of where I just wanted to go on lockdown and never come off...Staff who work here were even telling visitors and people who were in the free world that know me that I have AIDS and no one should talk to me because they would die, too. I started getting messages from friends at home who know someone who works up here that they told them that I was dying at the facility. Over the years it has improved but it has not ceased. These rumors really conflicted [with] my social life here.

-20-year-old youth living with HIV

It is very difficult because I feel as if there's no where that I can turn to. Being attracted to both sexes is so, so confusing. Although I don't feel 'homosexual,' it's hard to understand my preference. I need someone to talk to but there is no one I can...No matter what, don't give up. Eat healthy. Stay in shape and stay away from risky situations and keep good spirits. Get as much info on whatever your situation is from someone you trust. And no matter how hard it is, don't let rumors and instigators get under your skin. Don't be afraid to write a staff or nurse up and report them for breeching [sic] confidentiality.

-19-year-old bisexual youth

Sometimes when I'm alone and people are judging me, I remember what someone once told me: 'You know who you are and what you can and can't do. You know your strengths and weaknesses; those things are what make you, you.' So don't let no one tell you who or what you are. Because in the long run, you'll be the one happy in life and they'll be miserable. So next time you're being picked on and judged, just remember, 'I'm me.'

-15-year-old transgender youth

More resources:

  • Fierce Youth Reclaiming & Empowering (FYRE) I recommend their free publication, FIRE: Sparking the Flames in Each Other, an art/resource zine "by and for Southern lesbian, gay, bi, trans, same-gender loving, and questioning youth and our allies."
  • National Youth Advocacy Coalition (NYAC) Social justice organization that advocates for and with LGBTQ youth in an effort to end discrimination against these youth and to ensure their physical and emotional well-being.
  • FIERCE (Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment) Building the leadership and power of LGBTQ youth of color in New York City; dedicated to cultivating the next generation of social justice movement leaders who are dedicated to ending all forms of oppression.
  • Sylvia Rivera Law Project Working to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence.

(Photo by Abdul Aziz.)


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In the UK there is a project called Bent Bars, linking up imprisoned and non-imprisoned LGBTQ people. They are looking for non-imprisoned and formerly imprisoned LGBTQ people who are interested in becoming penpals.

http://www.co-re.org/joomla/index.php/bent-bars

Thanks for this excellent post, it is critical that more people recognize the intense challenges facing LGBTQ youth behind bars. It is also important to remember that these problems don't disappear when LGBTQ youth turn 18, or 21, or whatever age the state considers legal adulthood, as they often end up incarcerated as adults as well.

This holiday season, Just Detention International is sending holiday cards to survivors of prisoner rape behind bars -- many of whom are LGBTQ -- to remind them that they are not forgotten. Every day we hear from survivors who tell us that something as simple as a letter or card with a message of support was life-changing, or even life-saving. You can send a note of hope at http://www.justdetention.org/en/holiday-message.aspx

The problem with American prisons is that the wrong class of people are in prison.

Members if Congress and state legislators who accept bribes from business, big or otherwise, should be prosecuted. That would empty Congress and the legislatures. "There is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress." Mark Twain

Members of the Bush 1 & 2, Clinton and Obama Administrations, the Pentagon, NSA, CIA, and etc. who fabricated lies to excuse genocide and the mass murder of civilians in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan should be prosecuted.

Business leaders, managers and their lawyers and lobbyists who paid to have Clinton and the Congress pass NAFTA and deregulation should be prosecuted for causing the current depression.

Bigots who deny our humanity or say we're second class citizens unfit to marry are the direct and sole cause of discrimination, harassment and violence should be prosecuted.

In a decent, proserous society, a socialist society, people wouldn't be driven to crime.

Great post on a largely forgotten issue. It's easier to ignore the products of our blood-thirsty criminal justice system than to actually ask what happens in there.

You want to know what it's like to be an LGBT teenager in prison?

http://trinityofhedon.blogspot.com/2009/09/sharing-my-survival.html

THAT is what it's like to be an LGBT teenager in prison. 20 years later it STILL cripples my life in very significant ways.