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The Short Version: Homelessness and incarceration are systemic issues, and they both disproportionately affect LGBTQ individuals. Queer youth are at high risk for housing instability, which often leads to incarceration later on. LGBTQ Freedom Fund, an organization dedicated to bailing out LGBTQ incarcerated individuals and detained migrants awaiting trial, is working to reduce mass incarceration’s harm to the LGBTQ community. We spoke to the organization’s Founder, Scott Greenberg, about the ways individuals can help affirm and support LGBTQ youth.
The LGBTQ Rights Movement has come a long way.
From the first gay kiss on screen in 1927 to the Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015, queer representation in media and gay rights around the world have seen substantial growth in the 20th and 21st centuries. In moderate and progressive society, acceptance and affirmation of LGBTQ individuals have grown substantially.
But the visibility of queer people on television or in the workplace doesn’t mean that homophobia and transphobia are gone. It may be safe to be openly queer in wealthy and progressive circles, but queer people in homophobic communities still experience violence and hate on a daily basis. Many queer people are still extremely vulnerable to discrimination on the basis of their gender and sexuality compounded with other facets of marginalization, such as race, religion, disability, and economic status.
Homophobia and transphobia work in tandem with racism, class structure, and the prison industrial complex to oppress certain individuals more than others.
A poor lesbian with few housing options may be subject to renter or hiring discrimination on the basis of her sexuality, situations she wouldn’t encounter were she in a higher income class. Different issues of marginalization work together to oppress her through intersectionality.
“In the U.S., a web of discrimination and poverty traps LGBTQ people in cycles of crime, punishment, and homelessness,” Scott Greenberg, Executive Director and Founder of LGBTQ Freedom Fund, told me. “These problems intensify and aggravate each other, increasing the risk of poverty and police contact for LGBTQ individuals when people engage in survival crimes. Coupled with racism and class discrimination, it presents unyielding challenges.”
LGBTQ Freedom Fund provides bailouts and pretrial support to LGBTQ people incarcerated or held in immigrant detention centers. Queer people are disproportionately affected by mass incarceration, and the LGBTQ Freedom Fund team is working to fight that harm toward the queer community.
“We educate and advocate, to the public and policymakers, on issues of LGBTQ criminalization and its harms,” they said. “Sexual minorities are three times more likely than heterosexual individuals to be incarcerated. Given the magnitude of the problem, queer criminalization has not received the attention it merits.”
Unsurprisingly, homophobia has some of the worst implications for the most vulnerable group in society: children. Kids rely on their parents and guardians to meet their basic needs, protect them, and support them emotionally. But if the adults in children’s lives refuse to love and care for them, the effects can be catastrophic.
LGBTQ children and teenagers risk dealing with families whose homophobia leads them to be abusive and negligent toward the children in their care. With unsupportive families and few positive adult figures to turn to, these kids have nowhere to go but the streets.
“Nearly half of homeless children in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ, which is wildly disproportionate to the number of LGBTQ youth in the general population,” Scott said. “Every day, LGBTQ youth are forced from their homes because of their gender identity or who they love. Homelessness can trigger cycles of poverty and incarceration that are often difficult to get out from.”
Once children are forced into homelessness, finding stable living conditions, reliable community, support, and education gets all the more difficult. Discrimination against the homeless compounds with homophobia to erect even more barriers for young people.
“This is a common iteration: Queer youth become homeless because they’re abandoned, then they do survival crimes like prostitution or sleeping in public spaces, which is unlawful in most places,” he explained. “Then these young people have a criminal record which, if they’re old enough to even get a job, is a barrier, along with homelessness and anti-gay discrimination, to finding work. If you can’t shower, can’t get a good night’s sleep, are being harassed and attacked, and aren’t eating well, it’s harder to keep a steady job.”
When a person experiences homelessness, their chances of incarceration increase. Whether they get arrested for survival crimes or simply experience more skepticism from the police, their chances of keeping a clean record dwindle.
“At some point in their lives, half of homeless people are incarcerated, and 70% of low-income LGBTQ people are homeless,” Scott said. “Because of whom they love or their gender identity, LGBTQ people face rejection from their families, unsafe schools, and discrimination in healthcare, employment, and housing.”
If LGBTQ people are incarcerated, their risk of experiencing violence within the justice system is far greater than that of heterosexual individuals in the same position. “According to the U.S. Department of Justice, sexual minorities are 10 to 20 times more likely to be sexually assaulted in prison or jail,” Scott said. Four in 10 transgender prisoners are sexually abused.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, over 400,000 people in the US are legally detained before their trials – a number that has grown exponentially since the 1980s. They can wait years for their cases to be heard by a judge and never get that time back. Many of them will have their cases dismissed when they actually get their days in court.
By helping queer people get out of jail, LGBTQ Freedom Fund helps prevent queer people from experiencing the life-altering abuse and mistreatment they may face while incarcerated.
Few people have significant influence over prison reform, but there are still many things you can do to support the queer youth who may be struggling to find acceptance near you.
The best support system for these kids, in Scott’s opinion, is family, biological or chosen (Your logical family, as gay writer, Armistead Maupin, would say). “Those bonds carry you,” Scott said. “Helping those you already know and giving them the support and patience they need is critical.”
If there’s a queer kid in your life who needs support, be there for them. Whether they’re your child or not, being a positive and supportive role model for them is key to making sure they feel safe and guided.
Of course, not everyone has access to a supportive family, but queer community centers do fantastic work to help give youth the affirmation and care they need. Consider volunteering or donating to your local organization.
But Scott believes that meaningful actions can be even smaller. “Be a visible supporter of the LGBTQ community — I think even little things like bumper stickers, t-shirts, they do a lot to telegraph support, and it’s tremendously important for LGBTQ youth to see that,” they said. “In the last two years, there’s been an unprecedented number of attacks on LGBTQ rights, the vast majority targeting trans youth. For queer people with greater distance from the justice system, their visibility and example are critical too.”
Even if you feel like you don’t have much social power or capital, there are ways you can support the plight of marginalized communities. This is especially true for business owners, who have control over who they employ. Many business owners won’t employ people with criminal records — no exceptions.
But business owners should consider how their hiring practices further the marginalization and discrimination behind incarceration. “Understanding criminal convictions in the context of LGBTQ criminalization is also very important,” Scott said. “People with criminal convictions have a harder time getting work given the social and legal stigma associated with a criminal record. So if you own a business or hire, keep that in mind.”
LGBTQ youth – especially those in non-affirming communities – face hardships that no one of any age should have to deal with. But Scott and the LGBTQ Freedom Fund want them to know that it isn’t their fault.
“Even if some are hateful, you are loved and worth everything,” they said.