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criminalizing queer youth

GSA Washington Prep HS

As the world continues to condemn and mourn the terrorist murders of queer folk of color in Orlando what messages are being sent to queer youth of color about their dignity, worth and agency?

The Orlando shooter has been characterized as self-hating and closeted, his rampage allegedly driven by internalized homophobia. While the massacre has rightfully become a mobilizing force for queer communities, it has also been exploited as a convenient symbol of PC solidarity for straight hypocrites on all sides of the religious spectrum.

In the week since the tragedy, Christian fundamentalists have repeatedly marginalized the unrelenting violence that queer, trans and gender non-conforming people in the U.S. face. Notorious homophobe-transphobes like Christian fascist Ted Cruz self-righteously slam “radical Islam” for demonizing LGBTQ folk, yet traffic in their own anti-gay venom. Cruz (aka “at least we don’t throw our gays off of buildings like the radical Islamists”) and his ilk are the most visible purveyors of heterosexist violence.

After mainstream outrage about Orlando recedes, how many who’ve railed against the intersection of domestic terrorism and homophobic violence will actually step up on systemic discrimination against LGBTQ youth of color?

Yet, after mainstream outrage about Orlando recedes, how many who’ve railed against the intersection of domestic terrorism and homophobic violence will actually step up on systemic discrimination against LGBTQ youth of color?

State violence against queer youth of color is reflected in the disproportionate rates of harsh school discipline and incarceration that they experience. According to Aisha Moodie-Mills and Jerome Hunt of the Center for American Progress, of the “approximately 300,000 gay and transgender youth who are arrested and/or detained each year (more) than 60 percent are black or Latino.” Further, “Many gay and transgender youth leave their homes of their own accord to escape the conflict and emotional or physical abuse that can ensue—26 percent report leaving their homes at some point—but more often, they are pushed out and into the juvenile justice system by their own families.”

Because there are so few supportive resources for queer black youth, a significant number wind up homeless and on the streets. In L.A. County, the homeless capital of the nation, queer youth comprise forty percent of the homeless youth population—a majority of which are African American. These gaps in social welfare mean that homeless and foster care youth are more likely to become incarcerated.

In a weekly young women’s leadership class that I co-teach with my colleague Josh Parr of The Beat Within at Camp Scott and Scudder juvenile camp in Santa Clarita, virtually all of our students identify as lesbian, bi, trans and gender non-conforming. Many speak of navigating the intolerance of ultra-religious families, dealing with physical and sexual abuse and harsh discipline as they cycled through multiple schools.

Nationwide, queer youth of color are more likely to be targeted by school staff and faculty for gender non-conformity. They are more likely to be suspended, expelled and pushed out of school because of biased notions about how they should behave relative to their perceived gender and sexual orientation.

In over-policed schools in which “acceptable” feminine behavior constitutes being more ladylike, docile and compliant, black girls are targeted more harshly than Latina and white girls, while black boys are hampered by racist stereotypes about black hypermasculinity.

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In her work on the criminalization of black girls in schools, educator Monique Morris argues that the burden of conforming to heteronormative behaviors has especially dire consequences for black girls. According to Morris:

“There is an important point of departure between the conditions affecting Black females and males with respect to the role of discipline and educational attainment in the ‘pipeline’ between schools and carceral institutions…the behaviors for which Black females routinely experience disciplinary response are related to their nonconformity with notions of white middle class femininity, for example, by their dress, their profanity, or having tantrums in the classroom.”

Bucking white hetero-norms, black girls are often penalized for not being sufficiently “ladylike” or deferential to authority, a dynamic that is especially traumatic when they’re victimized by physical and sexual abuse.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, these insidious expectations and gender norms played a big role in the bullying-related suicides of boys of color like Carl Walker Hoover and Jahem Herrera. Hoover’s 2010 suicide—as well as that of Herrera, a Latino boy who was also harassed at school because he was suspected of being gay— both went under the national radar.

Conversely, bullying-related suicides involving white gay youth are more widely publicized and seized on as national calls to action. These cases were highlighted in magazines and on cable TV and network news. Town halls were convened, experts were tapped, and bullying prevention became the mantra in public schools.

Yet the mainstream view that youth of color aren’t deserving victims prevents them from getting the mental health intervention and social reinforcement that they need.

The dearth of culturally responsive curricula and instruction that addresses the social history of queer communities also leads to prison pipelining. Despite the passage of California’s SB48, a bill requiring textbooks and high school history courses to include the contributions of gays and lesbians, school districts across this “liberal” blue state have made few investments in training and professional development for school staff and faculty.

The bill was passed with much fanfare on the promise that it would provide greater visibility for LGBTQ communities of color and the struggle for social justice. Yet, in most high school curricula, cultural inclusion of prominent gays and lesbians of color rarely goes beyond tokenized/sanitized portrayals of Langston Hughes or James Baldwin.

In the shadow of Orlando, pushing for transformative schools and culturally responsive education is still a matter of life and death, both for queer and straight youth of color. In families, classrooms and schoolyards, homophobia, transphobia and the toxic, criminalizing straight privilege that they represent, continue to kill.


Sikivu Hutchinson