We’re now well into Pride month, with celebrations culminating this weekend in cities throughout the country. It’s uplifting to see activists battling “bathroom bills” and discrimination in the workplace, in housing, and in health care. But the disgraceful treatment of LGBTQ youth in state custody remains a relatively invisible issue in our communities.
Youth entering the system usually present with histories of family or institutional abuse, neglect, and instability. Challenges such as family rejection, bullying and harassment, biased school discipline, and failed safety net policies lead to the overrepresentation of queer youth in state custody. They have higher incidence of suicide attempts, substance abuse, STIs, and HIV. For some, the pathway into state custody includes periods of homelessness and survival sex.
Once in state custody, LGBTQ youth encounter violence at rates as much as ten times higher than their straight, cisgender peers. States with policies that ignore the needs of queer youth or demean their identities are complicit in this violence. After all, if they marginalize and disrespect queer youth, why wouldn’t their peers do the same? But when services and programs incorporate and affirm the needs and experiences of LGBTQ youth, those youth are less likely to be victimized and more likely to report abuse when it occurs.
They’re also more likely to feel emotionally supported and have their individual mental and physical health needs met. It’s no wonder the CDC lists inadequate sex education, prevalence of high-risk behaviors, high rates of STDs, HIV stigma, and feelings of isolation for LGBTQ youth as the most significant HIV prevention challenges for young people. And HIV is just one serious collateral consequence of institutionalized discrimination and negligence based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.
All youth in state custody, as wards of the state, rely on state policies and programs to protect their human rights and safeguard their safety, health, and well-being.
Acknowledging these realities, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) endorsed a policy last month to promote the safety and well being of LGBTQ youth in its care. Built upon protections in the Illinois Human Rights Act, the policy sets a minimum standard of care under DCFS, ensuring all youth are treated with respect and dignity and that their emotional and physical safety are prioritized.
For example, the policy allows youth to determine their gender identity and secures respect, privacy, and provision of services in line with their needs. That includes queer affirming housing, sexual health education and resources, and medical care, such as gender affirming services and appropriate mental health care. It informs youth of their rights and how to assert them. It also declares that in no instance should queer youth be placed with a caregiver who is unwilling to support them, that no DCFS staff or caregiver may impose personal beliefs on queer youth, and that personal beliefs may not affect the way individual youth needs are met. Finally, the policy requires annual LGBTQ training for all care providers, although the details are not yet finalized.
The new policy must still be implemented, but it reflects a good faith effort to live up to the significant moral and legal responsibility of the state to ensure all youth under its care are in a safe, supportive, and affirming environment.
Few other states take this responsibility as seriously. It’s no wonder when you consider the range of excuses offered. From religious rights to parental rights, homophobic and transphobic advocacy groups have done a depressingly effective job of arguing that states should continue neglecting the LGBTQ youth under their care.
Such groups mischaracterize policies like Illinois’ as an inappropriate ideological test for staff who wish to mentor or care for the state’s most vulnerable children, one that will have a chilling effect on “free speech, freedom of religion, and the conscience rights of American citizens.”
Illinois' youth staffing requirements are not an ideological test; they are a test of a staff person's willingness to put aside personal religious beliefs and to truly serve the best interests of the young people entrusted to their care.
Freedom of speech and of religion do not allow imposition of a particular religious point of view on others, least of all when the state is effectively serving as the "parent" of those in its custody. State-run youth facilities violate the speech, religious freedom, and privacy rights of LGBTQ youth when their health and education policies reflect certain religious views of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.
So, sure: celebrate Pride. Live your truth. But don’t forget about the queer youth who can’t. And fight like hell for their right to do so. Learn more about the issue; raise it when talking to friends, family, and advocacy groups; and tell your elected officials to prioritize the needs of all youth under state care.
Pepis Rodriguez is a staff attorney at the Center for HIV Law & Policy and coordinator of CHLP's Teen SENSE initiative.