Policing the Gender and Sexuality of LGBTQ Youth Experiencing Homelessness

Image from Mother Jones

“I would walk from maybe 12 at night to two in the morning and just walk around,” stated Jenelle, a 21-year-old heterosexual Hispanic transgender woman, “And ’cause there was a known transgender prostitute that was known by everybody and was arrested multiple times, [police] assumed that I was a prostitute too.”

I met Jenelle while I was conducting 18 months of fieldwork on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth homelessness in central Texas. Like 36 of the 40 youth I interviewed while conducting this study, Jenelle often had encounters with police while living on the streets. These encounters include the experience of police bias, which transgender activists and scholars have called “walking while trans” – when police officers presumed trans youth were prostitutes or otherwise troublesome. Police often presume transgender and gender-expansive Black and Brown youth are hyper-sexual and presume they engage in prostitution, which is both illegal in most of the United States and viewed as disruptive by police. Such biased stereotypes lead police to use their discretion to stop, look for warrants, potentially ticket and sometimes arrest transgender and gender-expansive Black and Brown youth merely for being on the streets.

Punishment and discrimination continued post-arrest. A 19-year-old White Hispanic lesbian, Alaina, said that police treated her “like a man.” She explained, “[Police] say the same thing, ‘Want to dress like a man? Going to beat you like a man.’” Alaina stated that police placed her “in the men’s cell.” She detailed, “He knew I was a girl. But he put me in there for about two hours. I said, ‘You better move me to that girl cell. I’m a girl.’ And then he was like, ‘You want to be like a man, then I’ll put you in a man’s cell.’”  Such policing practices criminalize poor LGBTQ youth of color and increase their incarceration rates, post-arrest punishment, and their subordination.

The Findings

In my Gender & Society article, I document the lives of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness and their accounts of police bias and maltreatment during incarceration. The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, and that includes extreme rates of imprisonment for poor Black and Brown people. Legal scholar Michelle Alexander calls this era “the new Jim Crow,” drawing attention to how current incarceration practices perpetuate racial inequality through the continued discrimination and subjugation of poor Black and Brown people.

Although cross-dressing is no longer illegal, policing practices still regulate LGBTQ youth’s gender expressions. Police often see expansive expressions of gender as signs of deviance and criminality. Police also target and arrest some poor Black and Brown youth who identify as LGBTQ, even when cities have nondiscrimination policies based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Youth of color in this study explicitly understood their negative interactions with police because of “their bias toward” LGBTQ people. Youth told stories about police knowingly placing them in the wrong gender-segregated jail cells and prisons as another way to punish them and control their identity. Such practices further punish and criminalize poor Black and Brown LGBTQ youth.

Police also regulate LGBTQ youth’s sex lives. Some of the gender-expansive and transgender youth I talked to told me that some authorities at jails and prisons put them in solitary confinement because they believed that non-heterosexual people would have sex with each other, and so justified using solitary confinement to supposedly prevent sex in prisons. Solitary further punishes and marginalizes poor Black and Brown LGBTQ youth. These policing and incarceration practices that the youth I talked to experienced furthered racial inequality, punished poverty, and also regulated their gender and sexuality.

The Takeaways

Policing practices in the past—when crossdressing, homosexuality, and sodomy were illegal—acted as de jure discrimination against LGBTQ people. Now, as LGBTQ rights have progressed, and being LGBTQ is no longer illegal, policing practices operate as de facto discrimination. Despite the decrease of some kinds of discrimination against LGBTQ people, the policing practices I document still target Black and Brown LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness as if they were criminals. De facto discrimination, including contemporary biased policing, may be harder to challenge. Policing is not just a primary way in which the state deals with poverty and oppresses poor Black and Brown people. Police also oppress poor LGBTQ people of color who challenge the gender binary and heteronormativity.


Brandon Andrew Robinson is an Assistant Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California, Riverside. They co-authored Race & Sexuality (Polity Press), and they are the author of the forthcoming book Coming Out to the Streets: The Lives of LGBTQ Youth Experiencing Homelessness (University of California Press). Follow them on Twitter @DrKittyGirl.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s