LGBTQ+ Youth & the Juvenile Justice System

By Sierra Dotson


“Mom… Dad.. I’m gay…” 

For hundreds of thousands of young people across the country, this difficult conversation becomes a reality when they feel that it's time to come out. “Coming out of the closet,” or as it is often shortened to, “coming out,” refers to the act of announcing your identity either publicly or privately to a trusted person like a parent or friend. For people who are “closeted,” mentally preparing themselves to come out can cause a great deal of anxiety as opening up about their gender identity or sexual orientation puts them at higher risk for rejection or retaliation

Youth homelessness, homophobia, and the criminal justice system are all heavily intertwined. Although it is estimated that only about 7 percent of the youth in America identify as LGBTQ+, they make up roughly 13-15 percent of the  juvenile justice system. Additionally, according to a study done by Lesley University, out of the 1.6 million homeless youth in the United States, over 40 percent of them identify as LGBTQ. These statistics imply that LGBTQ youth make up a disproportionate percentage of the juvenile justice system population and that they are at a higher risk of facing criminalization than their straight, cisgender counterparts. Systemic racism has also contributed to BIPOC youth also being disproportionately criminalized so in turn, QPOC (Queer People of Color) are at an even higher risk of criminalization compared to white gay and trans juveniles.

LGBTQ+ Youth and the Juvenile Justice System

LGBTQ+ youth are at a disproportionately higher risk of becoming homeless and being swept up in the juvenile justice system. Learn how a supportive home environment can be life-changing for a young LGBTQ person. 

Produced and Edited by Sierra Dotson/ Royalty-Free Stock Videos from 


In many cases, LGBTQ youth in non-accepting homes are at risk of being kicked out or facing abuse which may cause them to flee. Homelessness at such a young age can be devastatingly traumatic as young people are still in the developmental stages of their life. By legal definition, even just the act of running away from home can snowball into a criminal record as the young person is still a minor and things like skipping school can be considered a status offense. For example, truancy laws in Pennsylvania state that children can actually be arrested if they repeatedly defy attendance mandates.

When young LGBTQ people are forced to survive on the streets, many often resort to what are referred to as “survival crimes” or “quality of life offenses.” This includes infractions such as theft, sleeping on public property, or breaking city-enforced curfews. If a young person racks up enough fines and cannot pay them, they could even potentially risk facing time in prison. 

“If you don’t have your basic necessities, human nature is gonna do what it needs to to get them. When a youth becomes homeless, it increases their chances of becoming part of the criminal justice system because those basic needs are not being met,” Lyn Middleton said. Middleton is the Program Manager and leader of the young adult LGBTQ program at Project H.O.M.E. 's Gloria Casarez residence, a youth permanent supportive housing center in Philadelphia, PA. 

Failed safety nets and a lack of proper resources can also contribute to LGBTQ youth acting out. For example, youth who are experiencing constant interfamilial conflict may see a decline in mental health and/or development of mental illnesses. Additionally, questioning one’s own gender and/or sexuality can come with its own set of internal conflicts that can be stressful to a developing child. If serious mental illnesses are left untreated or if the child is subjected to traumatic, harmful “treatments” such as conversion therapy, their mental wellbeing can be detrimentally affected and the child could be at risk of lashing out or exhibiting self-destructive tendencies. 

According to the Center for American Progress, “Programs designed to keep children and youth off the streets, such as foster care, health centers, and other youth-serving institutions, are often ill-prepared or unsafe for gay and transgender youth due to institutional prejudice, lack of provider and foster-parent training, and discrimination against gay and transgender youth by adults and peers. As a result, many youth run away from these placements, actions that could also land them in the custody of the juvenile justice system.” 

When asked about possible solutions to these issues, transgender activist Jules Nickerson suggested that more diverse representation in government and legislation could be a possible first step to introducing new policies and protection that would benefit not just the LGBTQ community but all marginalized communities.

“[LGBTQ issues] should be something that is decided by LGBT people, people who run LGBTQ groups and do advocacy work especially within the criminal justice system, and politicians, preferably LGBTQ politicians.” 

Nickerson also mentioned the importance of education. He believes that those who work in the criminal justice system, particularly law enforcement, should be educated on the issues that affect the communities they serve. 

“I had to go to school longer to be a master barber than police have to go to school to hold a gun,” Nickerson said. “They need to be educated on mental health, they need to be educated on autism and the ASD spectrum, they need to be educated on LGBT issues, the need to be educated in de-escalation… just training and education, in general, would really help these people so much.” 

The Criminalization of BIPOC LGBTQ Youth

How does the intersection of systemic homophobia and systemic racism impact LGBTQ youth of color? How does a juvenile's intersectional identities affect their risk to be disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system? Special thanks to Aisha Canfield of Ceres Policy Research for providing this episode's interview.

Produced and Edited by Sierra Dotson 

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