Direct service providers all over the country, and particularly in the South, struggle with a range of systemic and cultural challenges in their work, and lives of their clients. Our guest blogger, Wesley Ware, is the LGBTQ Youth Project Director for the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana. His post chronicles the issues facing LGBTQ youth in New Orleans and addresses the stigma and discrimination that is perpetuated by a criminal justice system that should be protecting these marginalized youth but instead prosecutes them. Though the South has few resources to address the legal and human rights of LGBTQ and HIV positive populations, this treatment of LGBTQ youth is national problem. LGBTQ youth are more likely to be rejected by their families because of their sexual orientation and gender identity, and as a result are disproportionately represented in state custodial systems and are at increased risk for HIV and STI infection. Ware's experiences, and the experiences of other advocates, working with these youth and law enforcement officials must inform how we make systemic changes regarding LGBTQ youth in our society and while in state custody. CHLP's Teen SENSE initiative recognizes and works with advocates like Ware, to address the issues faced by these youth when in juvenile detention and foster care facilities.
"I'm afraid they're rounding up the homosexuals," is what one gay youth incarcerated in a youth prison said to me about the number of LGBT youth in the criminal and juvenile justice system in Louisiana. That was a couple of years ago but in New Orleans, the day for LGBT youth to have their voices heard about the impact of disproportionate police harassment and subsequent incarceration may finally be here.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) just completed a 115-page investigative report about misconduct, harassment, and abuse at the hands of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), exposing the truths that residents of New Orleans have long been aware of. In the Executive Summary of the report, the DOJ stated, "the department has failed to take meaningful steps to counteract and eradicate bias based on race, ethnicity, and LGBT status in its policing practices and has failed to provide critical policing services to language minority communities." This is the first time advocates are aware of the DOJ ever specifically mentioning the concerns of the LGBT community in an investigative report of a police department.
The report later states:
"Members of the LGBT community complained that NOPD officers subject them to unjustified arrests for prostitution, targeting bars frequented by the community and sometimes fabricating evidence of solicitation for compensation. Moreover, transgender residents reported that officers elect to charge them under Louisiana's statute criminalizing solicitation of 'crimes against nature,' rather than the state's generic solicitation law. The crimes against nature statute, a statute whose history reflects anti-LGBT sentiment, in part criminalizes the solicitation of an individual 'with the intent to engage in any unnatural carnal copulation for compensation.'"
Of course, this is no new news to LGBT folks on the ground, especially African American transgender women, homeless youth, and those engaging in sex work to survive. The NOPD has a long pattern of abuse and targeting of LGBT people in New Orleans. The police are often the perpetrator of crimes against the LGBT community and are largely silent when LGBT individuals are themselves the victims of crimes by others.
In fact, in the preliminary results of a survey currently being conducted by BreakOUT!, homeless African American transgender women ages 19 to 23 reported that they had all been stopped by the police and given no reason for being stopped, almost all had experienced police misconduct during these stops, many were threatened with arrest if they did not perform sexual favors for the police, all had been consistently referred to as the wrong name and pronoun, and all who engaged in sex work have had NOPD officers as regular clients. Many also reported that NOPD officers had taken condoms from them because they had "too many." It should be no surprise that many of them also reported being hesitant to contact the NOPD if they were in need of help.
Of course, the connections between homelessness, poverty, sex work, LGBT youth, incarceration, and the risks for transmitting HIV/ AIDS are well known. In a city with one of the highest transmission rates for HIV (and the highest violent crime rate in the country), it is a shame that our NOPD officers play a role in further marginalizing our community and limiting our opportunities for survival and success.
It should be viewed as a huge success that advocates and organizers, including BreakOUT!, were able to hold listening sessions and forums with the DOJ that led to public recognition of abuses against the LGBT community, especially African American transwomen, and called national and local media attention to the issue. However, now the real work begins. We must ensure that the input and wisdom of those who are most affected are kept at the center of the reform efforts; that those who experience police misconduct are the ones conducting and informing trainings with the NOPD, writing the recommended policies for the NOPD, and sitting at the table whenever policing and criminal justice reforms are being discussed. If we do not make this a priority, what could result are reforms made to the NOPD that don't meet the needs of those most affected or worse, further ostracize those that don't fit into what the mainstream LGBT community finds "normal" or acceptable.
The work of BreakOUT!- to organize those young people who are criminalized for their sheer existence, targeted, and harassed by the NOPD- is crucial to seeing lasting reforms with our police department. We need not only sensitivity training for the NOPD, but critical reflection on how policing practices funnel LGBT youth into the criminal justice system along with actual policy changes to ensure lasting reform. We need advisory boards to the NOPD that consist of people who are directly experiencing violence at the hands of those who are supposed to protect them. We need the overturning of archaic statutes like Crimes Against Nature that intentionally target LGBT people of color and brand them with a scarlet letter for life. Lastly, we need a holistic view of HIV prevention that brings all community groups and prevention advocates to the table with the understanding that New Orleans won't see lasting, holistic reforms in the rebuilding of our city and lower HIV transmission rates until we recognize the inherent connections between these issues. Fortunately, for the LGBT community in New Orleans, our time may have finally come.
BreakOUT! is a project at the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana in New Orleans, LA that builds the power of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth most impacted by the criminal and juvenile justice systems. They fight for concrete policy changes regarding the criminalization of LGBT youth at the local level, particularly with the police department and jails.
You can also follow them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/youthBreakOUT