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.

Transgender Identities: Do we Need Diagnostic Criteria?

By Jay A. Irwin

In a recent NYT piece, a discussion was presented regarding the potential for the World Health Organization (W.H.O.), to declassify transgender identities as mental disorders in the ICD (International Classification of Diseases). This topic has been hotly debated within the transgender community for years, particularly during the update from the DSM IV-TR to the DSM-V. The DSM, or the Diagnostic Statistical Manual is the American Psychiatric Association’s version of the ICD, but the U.S. version only focuses on mental disorders, while the ICD classifies all diseases and conditions. Similar to the debate during the update to the DSM V, the conversation around changes to the ICD focuses on weighing the pros and cons of dropping classifications related to “transsexualism” or “GID” (gender identity disorder), the common codes related to trans people in the current ICD 10.

In my own research regarding transgender people living in Nebraska, transgender individuals are at a heightened risk of mental health conditions such as depression and suicidal ideation. Countless other studies have found similar negative health outcomes for transgender individuals. A major predictor of these health disparities lie in societal acceptance, as a number of studies show that trans individuals who have better social support (particularly family support for trans youth and young adults), higher social capital, and experience less discrimination have better mental health outcomes than trans individuals who lack these social resources.

Another major theory, both within the trans community and among some in the clinical psychological/counseling world, is that these health disparities can be due to the fact that one’s identity is stigmatized by the mere fact of being included in a medical classification system like the DSM or ICD. The social label of the “crazy” transgender person can be seen in public media and online discussions of transgender people even today. This kind of stigmatization and stereotyping of a whole group has led to a larger social misunderstanding of transgender people. The removal of trans identities from the ICD and the DSM could help to reduce the stereotypes society has of trans folx (an inclusive version of folks that has been recently adopted by the transgender community), similar to what we saw when homosexuality was removed from the DSM in 1973. Continue reading “Transgender Identities: Do we Need Diagnostic Criteria?”