Does it get better?: LGBTQI Youth in Confinement and the Teen SENSE Initiative

By Peggy Lee, CHLP Program Associate

In this cycling media attention on school administrators that do nothing about threats to LGBTQ youth, and queer teens killing themselves or being killed, what is the status of young LGBTQ teens who are in alternative settings, specifically the spaces often invisibilized to us and the media?

On September 8, 2010, Governor David Paterson signed the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) which makes New York City the 10th state to implement an anti-bullying law that includes protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression.
Within a week, from the midwest, we hear about Billy Lucas, a 15 year old from Indiana who hung himself in a barn after being unable to withstand the torment of gay bullying.  Soon after, Seth Walsh from California, and Asher Brown from Texas, two 13 year olds, also commit suicide due to unaddressed gay bullying.  In light of the slew of gay teen suicides, both publicized and unseen, Dan Savage created a new YouTube channel assuring struggling young queers that "It Gets Better."  It is a channel that will host video narratives and testimonies from older LGBTQ folks offering words of hope in a pending bright futurity that hinges on coping.

However, in this cycling media attention on school administrators that do nothing, queer teens killing themselves or being killed, or a prom king who is being de-crowned, to the outrage of his class, because his birth certificate dictates other, what is the status of young LGBTQ teens who are in alternative settings, specifically the spaces often invisibilized to us and the media?  In other words, how are LGBTQ teens in state confinement, correctional facilities, or foster care dealing with the homophobia and bullying which has shortened the lives of many gay teens in just under one month?
The Department of Justice (DOJ) in January 2010, released a Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report on Sexual Victimization in Juvenile Facilities ("BJS Report").  According to the BJS Report, youth in state custody are especially vulnerable to sexual victimization, with self-identified or perceived LGBTQ youth being ten times more likely to be sexual victimized than heterosexual youth.  At least one state has directly confronted the specific needs of confined LGBTQ youth. The District Court of Hawaii examined the conditions of the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility (HYCF) and concluded that it is unacceptable that LGBTQ youth were subject to pervasive verbal and physical harassment by guards and other youth.  And in state confinement, there is no school bell to end, however momentarily, these conditions which tear at the emotional and physical health of those detained.

The Center of HIV Law and Policy's Teen SENSE (Sexual health and Education Now in State Environments) program is an initiative that addresses the basic sexual health needs of youth in state custody which, right now, are largely ignored  This initiative, driven by voices of those who currently are in or have been through correctional systems, strives to ensure through state-by-state strategy that clear and inclusive standards of health care and sexual education are implemented.
Voices from the Teen SENSE Youth Advisory Council have pointed out blatant inequities in current health care and access to vital sexual health information and resources.  One young person shared how her HIV-positive status, information that should be confidential, was openly discussed among staff members; this break in confidentiality led to stigmatizing treatment by other youth and staff. Another shared how essential medications were distributed inconsistently and unpredictably.  And many shared that homophobic bullying and assaulting language went mostly unaddressed and even normalized by staff members.

Teen SENSE believes that state officials should be held accountable for providing LGBTQI-inclusive sexual health services and information to young people who are in their custody.  This would mean better and more comprehensive staff training of the adult figures directly involved in their care, from correctional officers to medical staff, who are needed to intervene in hostile and unsafe environments.  Teen SENSE sees safety and violence prevention directly linked to more comprehensive sexual health education, services, and HIV prevention.

So, can it get better? Yes. At The Center for HIV Law and Policy, we are attempting to heal a severe gap in follow-through on basic human rights when it comes to the spaces where young people are confined in out-of-home custody.  Teen SENSE strives to ensure that there are, first, comprehensive standards that spell out the essential elements of sexual health care for youth in state custody, and second, that here is an active implementation of these standards, in funding and action.
We want to see a level of accountability for the health and well-being of young people in state custody that, at the very least, measures up to demands we place on our public schools to address gay bullying (i.e. DAWA).  It is more than time to turn a spotlight on the sexual health and safety needs of young people confined to places that have been largely invisible to most of us, but that hold a disproportionate number of Black, Latino, and LGBTQ youth.
On October 25th, we will be holding our first New York City based, Teen SENSE coalition meeting at the Anti-Violence Project.  If you or your organization is interested, please contact Peggy Lee at or (212) 430-6733.