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LGBTQ People of Color Disproportionately Targeted and Harmed by Broken Criminal Justice System

August 16, 2016

In the wake of near-constant stories surfacing of police killings, mostly of Black and Latinx people, it is imperative to take an intersectional approach to addressing both the root causes of injustice in all parts of the criminal legal system as well as potential policy responses to systemic racism. Campaigns like #BlackTransLivesMatter, the Black women-led #SayHerName, and disabled people of color-led #DisabilitySolidarity all urge attention to the complex ways that misogyny and ableism – among other types of structural oppression – interact with racism in both the killings themselves and in the aftermath.


Photo by TeleSUR

Due to pervasive stigma and interlocking prejudices, LGBTQ people of color – including Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous people – suffer from sharp disparities in policing, criminalization, and incarceration due to disproportionate contact with the criminal legal system. While only limited data currently exists, we now know that 85% of all LGBTQ youth in juvenile detention facilities are also youth of color, and that LGBTQ adults comprise 8% of all prisoners but only 3.8% of the total population.

These statistics point to more sinister realities – that queer and transgender people of color experience higher likelihood of criminalization, police violence, and incarceration throughout the lifespan. We understand these issues as deeply interconnected – those who engage in sex work to survive, live with HIV/AIDS, experience homelessness, use drugs, have a mental health crisis, or simply walk in public while openly transgender are subject to profiling, arrest, and police brutality. LGBTQ people of color – particularly Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people – are more likely to be targeted by racist profiling, the school to prison pipeline, and discrimination in the courts; live in heavily policed low-income neighborhoods predominantly populated by communities of color; and suffer police violence stemming from some combination of anti-LGBTQ prejudice and racism. Those impacted by additional intersections, such as immigrants, disabled people, and religious minorities will face compounded oppression.

Learn more in the new Movement Advancement Project & Center for American Progress report, “Unjust: How the Broken Criminal Justice System Fails LGBT People of Color.”

Statistics show that all LGBTQ people are disproportionately impacted by poverty, including as a result of pervasive employment discrimination. For LGBTQ people of color, the disparities are worse. While only 12% of children of different-sex couples live in poverty, almost 20% of children of women in same-gender couples and 25% of children of men in same-gender couples do – but for children of Black men in same-gender couples, the number is over 50%. Likewise, while the overall unemployment rate for all transgender people is twice that of the general population, Black transgender people face unemployment at four times the rate of the general population, with similarly higher rates for other transgender people of color.

As a result, more LGBTQ people of color may turn to criminalized work for survival, including sex work, than either white LGBTQ people or non-LGBTQ people of color. The colliding realities of homelessness, poverty, and criminalization of survival result in much higher likelihood of contact with police, which can have deadly consequences.

Yet queer and transgender people of color face risk of profiling, arrest, and police violence even – or perhaps especially – when victimized by crime. Just ask Ky Peterson, a Black transgender man who was sentenced to twenty years in prison for killing his rapist in self-defense; or Robert Suttle, a Black gay man living with HIV who served prison time, lost his job, and is required to register as a sex offender for the next eight years for the crime of having a vindictive ex-partner who took advantage of HIV criminalization statutes to have him prosecuted for consensual sex.

Even as children, LGBTQ people of color (particularly those who are also disabled or who have a mental illness) are disproportionately impacted by the school-to-prison pipeline through suspensions, school pushout, and referrals to the juvenile justice system. In adulthood, transgender women of color are much more likely to be profiled as sex workers (whether they are engaged in sex work or not) and subject to heightened risk of police violence and prosecution on pretextual grounds.

Once impacted by the legal system, collateral consequences of a criminal record can include severely diminished housing or employment prospects, loss of civil rights, decreased access to adequate health care, and ineligibility for public assistance that might have otherwise provided small amounts of support in the face of homelessness or unemployment. The combined weight of these realities further contribute to a cycle of criminalization and incarceration of queer and transgender people of color, which demands recognition of how impossible it can be to separate racism from anti-transgender and anti-queer prejudice.

All people deserve to live free of fear of violence – whether from police, behind prison walls, or in their own communities. Accountability for police, prosecutors, and others in the criminal legal system, along with advocacy against discriminatory practices in courts and social services, must be priorities in any movement committed to achieving justice and freedom for those most marginalized in society. Part of that work means ending the criminalization of HIV status and sex work, implementation of Fair Chance hiring policies, elimination of mandatory minimum sentencing, and an end to the routine use of detention for those in immigration proceedings. It also means actively combating discrimination and abuse targeting queer and transgender people of color inside prisons and re-entry programs.

Lydia 6Ultimately, achieving full freedom, justice, and equality for LGBTQ people of color means developing new ways of addressing violence, doing justice, and creating safer communities that honor our bodies and lives.

The National LGBTQ Task Force has partnered on a new report authored by Movement Advancement Project & Center for American Progress, titled “Unjust: How the Broken Criminal Justice System Fails LGBT People of Color.”

by Lydia X. Z. Brown, 2016 Holley Law Fellow at the National LGBTQ Task Force

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