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"Poverty, Race and LGBT Youth,"

by L. Michael Gipson March/April 2002 issue of Poverty & Race

In a capitalist society that places a premium on young adulthood (read: economic productivity and opportunity), reproductive capacity and propensity, masculinity, European lineage, conformity to strict gender roles ageism, sexism, racial prejudice and discrimination, transphobia, homophobia, and heterosexism will flourish. In a society that has disdain for racial and ethnic complexity, gender variance and sexual diversity, intolerance is the likely experience and oppression the probable condition for people who belong to communities that defy simplistic categorization, resist the values and ideals of the majority community, and consistently engage in political protest against the political and cultural dominance of those belonging to the status quo. For people from these communities, outcomes often include an increased potential to experience poverty, disease, incarceration and violence. In the US, these communities are easily identified as the poor, youth, the elderly, racial and ethnic minorities, women and those identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT). Members of an oppressed community have unique obstacles to overcome in order to fulfill their potential. For individuals like LGBT youth of color (YOC) whose identities cross the lines of age, racial or ethnic identity, sexual orientation, gender and/or non-conformist gender expression, and low socio-economic status, the challenge of achieving resiliency, economic prosperity, a healthy existence, and the privileges of full citizenship are markedly reduced. Consequently, LGBT YOC may be the most vulnerable of any other youth population in terms of negative health and developmental outcomes because of a lack of research determining the needs and addressing the health status of the population; a lack of support either from their cultural communities and their LGBT community; an over-representation in the child welfare and juvenile justice system; and the likelihood they will experience prejudice and discrimination on multiple fronts on the basis of their individual and collective identities.

Who are LGBT YOC?

While research on LGBT youth in general is scarce, research on LGBT YOC is virtually nonexistent. In a 2001 review of the professional literature and research needs of LGBT YOC commissioned by the National Youth Advocacy Coalition, researcher Caitlin Ryan discovered only 16 studies (14 articles and 2 book chapters) published during the last 30 years on LGBT YOC. Most of these were empirical studies, with small sample sizes, samples of convenience or snowball samples that lack diversity in terms of class, geographic area and level of acculturation.

LGBT YOC data are also unlikely to be extracted from national data sources. National or government-sponsored studies on youth behaviors like the Department of Health and Human Services Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) that routinely ask questions about heterosexual sexual risk-taking behaviors do not ask youth questions about same sex behavior or desires for fear that states already hostile to the data collection process and the politically charged outcomes of the survey’s behavioral findings will not implement the survey tools and collect the necessary data. Some states, like Massachusetts, and municipalities, like New York City, do ask a few questions about same sex behavior among youth on their amended versions of the YRBS, but these locales are the exception not the rule.

The lack of comprehensive research about LGBT YOC, and to a lesser extent LGBT youth, means that the knowledge professionals working with LGBT YOC have is anecdotal or qualitative in nature. For LGBT YOC advocates, the research gaps on LGBT YOC present a credibility challenge during attempts to raise the public’s awareness of the obstacles confronting this vulnerable population. With a paucity in peer-reviewed data to understand the unique experience of LGBT YOC, one has to make certain assumptions about the challenges and experiences of LGBT YOC based on information about LGBT youth and data on general population YOC.


There may be more LGBT-identified youth, and potentially LGBT YOC, living in poverty now than at any point in US history. There are an estimated 60-70 million young people in the US between ages five and twenty, a youth population explosion not recorded in the US since the baby boom generation. Of these youth, one in three are a member of a racial or ethnic minority. Social scientists generally estimate that 10% of youth are or will become lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The 2000 Census reports that youth under 18 comprise the largest number of people living in poverty in the US, and youth 18 to 24 had a poverty rate of 14.4%. Employer discrimination against youth based on age (which contributes to low youth wages and the income disparities between old and young workers); youth unemployment that can be as high as 33% in some cities; and government-sanctioned employment discrimination in 40 states against self-identified LGBT populations ensure that LGBT youth and young adults are well represented among communities of poor and working-class people. LGBT YOC, particularly those of African-American, Native American and Latino descent may be disproportionately represented among LGBT youth living in poverty, given the high poverty rates for those communities, the disproportionately low wages paid to these workers, and the potential for racial discrimination in hiring and job promotion.

Discriminatory Behavior of Socializing Agents

Beyond poverty, LGBT YOC face enormous developmental obstacles in achieving resiliency. At a point when youth are already struggling with the developmental and emotional challenges of adolescence, including the phase of sexual awakening and intense pressure to conform to peer norms, LGBT youth are additionally confronted with their same sex attractions and/or non-conformist gender expression.

Homophobia and heterosexism from socializing agents like family, church and school compound LGBT youths’ challenges by enforcing rigid gender roles, condemning gender non-conformity, and homosexuality. Perceptions and/or confirmation of youths’ LGBT identity in school can lead to verbal or physical assault, consequently making school unsafe for many LGBT young people. In response, LGBT advocates have developed youth-led gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in school and adult-led safe school coalitions. Of the more than 800 GSAs and the 40 or so safe schools coalitions in the US, few are located in schools or school districts in urban communities or those dominated by YOC. Significant numbers of LGBT youth face rejection and abuse from their parents and relatives, and some 26% of youth are forced to leave home due to conflicts over sexual orientation. Small studies note that this statistic may be higher for YOC, given the stringent cultural expectations and beliefs of families of color. Fundamentalist teachings and understandings of religious doctrine in mainstream society further alienate LGBT youth by contributing to their social stigmatization and low self-esteem. The majority of African-Americans strongly identify as Christian, and the majority of Latinos and Filipinos identify as devout Catholic, and both communities have historically leaned more toward fundamentalist interpretations of biblical teachings that traditionally condemn same sex behavior. Few of the youths’ socializing agents are contributing to positive physical or emotional health outcomes for LGBT YOC.

Research suggests that homophobia and heterosexism greatly contribute to higher rates of suicide, suicidal thoughts, violence victimization, truancy, sexual risk-taking behavior and substance abuse among LGBT youth as compared to their heterosexual peers. Compared to other adolescents, self-reporting LGBT youth are twice as likely to use alcohol, three times more likely to use marijuana, and eight times more likely to use cocaine/crack. Among YOC, African-American and Latino/a in particular, and among Asian Pacific Islander (API) and Native-American youth residing in resource deprived communities, the risk of becoming a victim of violence, engaging in sexual risk-taking, substance abusing or criminal behaviors is even greater.

Racial, Ethnic and Cultural Concerns Facing LGBT YOC

LGBT YOC who come out in their racial or ethnic communities risk separation from their cultural communities and the loss of support for their racial and ethnic identities. The individualism often espoused by the framers of a Westernized gay identity, which often is a consequence of that identity, is often considered by communities of color to be antithetical to the interdependent communal and family relationships traditionally promoted by those communities. Through these interdependent family and communal structures, cultural expectations and determinants of cultural “authenticity” are defined and reinforced. Cultural expectation of and adherence to strict gender roles are also developed within the contexts of this communal framework. Such expectations may include machismo and sexual prowess in Latino, African American and Filipino males. In some Latino and API communities, these cultural markers often allow same sex behavior by men as long as these men discreetly engage in these behaviors, adhere to strict gender roles, and meet their family’s expectations of marriage and reproduction.

Affirmed expressions of gender variance and open sexual liberation often found in the politicized gay, lesbian and transgendered identities in the US are viewed by many communities of color as a threat to the patriarchal family structure and the interdependent nature of their communities. This view holds particularly true for newly immigrated people of color and others who exhibit low levels of acculturation and place a premium on males and masculine behavior. Religious beliefs, like Islam, that condemn homosexuality and further determine the cultural norms and mores of communities of color reinforce resistance to acknowledging and affirming LGBT identities.

Despite evidence to the contrary, members of communities of color often see LGBT identities as “white identities” and declarations of an LGBT identity as a rejection of communities of color values and traditions. Communities of color are in denial about ethnographic studies that document known and occasionally celebrated instances of homosexuality and transgendered behavior in their pre-colonization histories. For example, men in some pre-colonial African tribes engaged in homosexual acts as a norm during an adolescent male’s rites of passage into adulthood, and some Native American and Filipino cultures believed in a “third sex,” those whose behavior seemed to embody both the masculine and the feminine, and placed those who exhibited this gender variance in a high place of esteem. Rather than accept a range of human sexuality and gender expression within their communities’ culture and histories, communities of color often ostracize LGBT YOC who disclose their orientation, refuse to adhere to a cultural code of silence on sexuality, and/or are unable to comfortably fit the gender roles. Since these communities often are the only affirming constructs of a youth’s cultural, racial, and/or religious identity, LGBT YOC often lack cultural support.

Public Health Concerns for LGBT YOC

Race and ethnicity in the US are risk markers that correlate with other fundamental determinants of health status, such as poverty, limited or no access to care, and fewer attempts to obtain medical treatment. HIV and other sexually transmitted disease (STDs) disproportionately affect disenfranchised youth, particularly youth in social networks in which high-risk sexual behavior is common and either access to care or health-seeking behavior is compromised. The social norm of sexual risk-taking behaviors and substance abuse among LGBT youth populations and the health disparities between communities of color and white populations almost ensure that the health risks for LGBT YOC are higher than for their white peers. Some evidence of this phenomenon already exists, particularly in the HIV rates of young gay and bisexual men of color. African-American and Latino men in recent years have constituted the majority of AIDS cases among men who have sex with men (MSM), with the majority of these reporting infection before age 25. One sample of young, urban MSM aged 15 to 22 found that 7% were HIV-infected, with the highest rates among African-American and Latino youth.

Young African-American and Latino gay men are not alone in their sexual risk-taking behaviors. Scientific evidence supports the theory that young lesbian and bisexual women are at high risk for STDs, such as Hepatitis V Virus and Human Papillo-mavirus, and unintended pregnancy. A University of Minnesota study on adolescent women found that lesbian and bisexual women reported a 12.3% rate of unintended pregnancy compared to the 5.3% rate of their heterosexual counterparts. Young lesbian and bisexual women are also at high risk for HIV, since many young lesbian, bisexual and questioning women engage in high-risk sexual activities with multiple partners in an effort to deny their same sex feelings. Some research demonstrates that a portion of young lesbians engage in unprotected sexual activities with young gay men.

Sexual abuse also increases young lesbian and bisexual women’s potential for physical and mental health disorders. The Minnesota study found that 22.1% of the lesbian and bisexual young women studied reported that they had been sexually abused. Many young lesbians believe that their lesbian identity lowers their risk for HIV, STDs, and unintended pregnancy, despite growing evidence to the contrary. Among African-American and Latina women, rates of STD infection and unintended pregnancy over the last 20 years have been disproportionately high. For African-American and Latina lesbians or bisexual young women, rates of STD and unintended pregnancy may be even higher than their heterosexual counterparts. Since risk for any population is heightened by a lack of accurate and culturally relevant health promotion and prevention information, and since communities of color and young lesbian and bisexual women are among the least targeted with culturally appropriate or gender-specific STD prevention materials, one can speculate that the STD and pregnancy risk for lesbian and bisexual young women of color, including API and Native American women, may be disturbingly higher than their heterosexual and white lesbian and bisexual peers.

To address the alarming trends in health disparities in low-income communities of color and in some adult LGBT communities, the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has incorporated cultural competency guidelines in its recommended protocols to state and local health departments and community-based health agencies serving diverse populations. DHHS has incorporated cultural competency guidelines in its recommended protocols to state and local health departments and for community based health agencies serving diverse populations. DHHS intended their recommended cultural competency or relevancy policies and practices to reduce the pervasive reluctance of those in marginalized communities to seek health services; increase the effectiveness of outreach programs in efforts to reach vulnerable populations; and prevent overt instances of staff-initiated or organizationally-sponsored racism, sexism, classism and homophobia in any government-funded health settings.

Still, such protocols rarely speak to the challenges youth experience in seeking health services and are notably silent around the unique challenges LGBT youth experience in their attempts to access health services in their communities. For insular Native American and Asian Pacific Islander communities, lack of confidentiality and anonymity prevent LGBT API and Native American youth from seeking service options like HIV testing, HIV or STD treatment, sexuality education and disease prevention from agencies familiar with their racial and ethnic health concerns. LGBT YOC brave enough to attempt to access health services from gay-identified Community Based Organizations (CBOs) generally find that such services are tailored to adults and may experience instances of racial discrimination or prejudice from these organizations’ usually predominately white, gay staff. Most CBOs tailored to serve communities of color generally assume that the youth who access services are heterosexual and may exhibit ignorance about or hostility toward the health concerns of LGBT youth. In one instance reported to National Youth Advocacy Coalition, a CBO staff member informed an African-American young gay male who had tried to schedule an appointment to receive the Hepatitis B vaccine that he didn’t need to worry about getting the vaccine since he wasn’t at risk. This youth was denied services despite evidence that the sexual practices of many gay and bisexual men put that youth at increased risk for contracting Hepatitis B.

LGBT Youth in the Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare Systems

LGBT youth represent 40% of the homeless youth population. In urban centers known as gay meccas, LGBT youth may comprise more than half of the homeless youth population. As a population that is more likely to experience homelessness, LGBT are over-represented in populations that are more likely to be involved in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. There are a multitude of reasons for the disproportionate number of LGBT youth in these systems. For instance, homelessness often requires youth to engage in criminal activity such as prostitution and theft in order to survive. Consequently, homeless youth are at a greater risk of arrest and involvement in the system.

According to a 2001 report on released by the Lesbian and Gay Youth project of the Urban Justice Center, an estimated 4-10% of the juvenile delinquency population identify as LGBT. The report further states that LGBT feelings of isolation and fear often facilitate the use and abuse of illegal substances as a form of escape. Researchers estimate that some 60% of gay and bisexual young men are substance abusers. According to a 1999 Massachusetts State Youth Risk Behavior Survey, LGBT high school students are more than twice as likely to report having been in a fight at school, three times more likely to carry a weapon to school, and six times more likely to skip school than heterosexual students. All of the above behaviors reported by LGBT youth are defined as either crimes or delinquency, thus increasing potential for LGBT youth to enter the juvenile justice system.

When LGBT youth attempt to seek support from their families, many become further victimized by familial rejection and violence. Parental assault or neglect of a young person occasionally prompts child services to place the abused LGBT youth in foster care or a group home. Attorneys have handled cases in which parents, in an effort to rid themselves of their LGBT youth, have filed a Persons In Need of Supervision (PINS) petition, asking the state to step in and assume some responsibility for the youth. Sometimes rebellious behavior by LGBT youth inspired by the youth’s fear, isolation, violence victimization, truancy and substance abuse play a role in a parent’s desire to file and be granted PINS petitions, especially since truancy and drug use constitute legal grounds. But often parents use symptoms of LGBT youth rebellion as a way of hiding their own disapproval and hostility toward their LGBT youth. One study that found 45% of parents were angry, sick and disgusted, when first learning about their child’s homosexuality. Given that 26% of parents remove their LGBT children from the home immediately or soon after disclosure, it is not improbable that other homophobic parents may seek more seemingly humane measures through the juvenile courts.

Judges in juvenile court have little education or training about the life experiences of LGBT youth placed in their care. In an attempt to safeguard LGBT youth, judges often place LGBT youth in more restrictive settings than their heterosexual peers, or isolate them in protective custody. There are few sentencing options available to judges who are sensitive to the experiences and challenges that brought LGBT youth into the juvenile justice setting. There are no Department of Juvenile Justice, state-level juvenile justice and delinquency prevention agencies that handle juvenile delinquency cases, LGBT-specific facilities. For LGBT youth whose crimes warrant sentencing to a non-secure facility, there are only three or four LGBT youth-specific facilities nationwide that meet the standards of a non-secure facility. These LGBT youth-specific, non-secure facilities generally have a waiting list of two or three years and are primarily populated by LGBT YOC.

Foster Care, Group Homes and LGBT YOC

LGBT youth who are removed from abusive or neglectful home environments are placed in foster care and group homes for their care and well-being. As in juvenile detention facilities, foster care and group homes are disproportionately populated by African-American and Latino/a youth. Forty-three percent of all youth in foster care are African-American and 15% are Latino. Consequently, there is a high probability that those LGBT youth in foster care are largely represented by LGBT YOC. In 1994, a joint task force of New York City’s Child Welfare Administration and the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies published a report finding that “lesbian and gay adolescents have often been misunderstood, neglected and in some instances discriminated against by the child welfare system.” In 2001, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund issued a report assessing 14 states on the challenges confronting LGBT youth in foster care. The report found that LGBT youth in foster care who are assumed to be LGBT, self-disclose their orientation, or express non-conformist gender behavior are subject to disapproval by caseworkers, rejection by foster families, harassment and violence by foster care peers, and prejudice and neglect by group home staff. The report further finds that LGBT youth who remain closeted in foster care suffer isolation, shame and a sense of peril from being privy to the homophobic slights directed at openly gay individuals. As is the case in juvenile detention placements, foster care staff generally punish or expel LGBT youth who are harassed or hurt by peers, rather than punishing or expelling the perpetrators. Child welfare agencies that acknowledge the existence of LGBT youth generally identify LGBT youth as their hard to place children, unwanted by sectarian and other placement agencies that disapprove of homosexuality, and subject to multiple and unstable placements because of negative reactions to their sexual orientation. Child Welfare employees who are sensitive to LGBT youth find that they have little organizational or peer support, and that protocols for cultural competency and resources for referral are non-existent or difficult to access.


Despite LGBT YOC’s membership in groups with an increased probability of risk for developing chronic and costly conditions, the current public health system is largely hostile to or uniformed about their needs. Without significant system-wide reform and a healthy dose of tolerance, LGBT YOC will continue to exhibit high rates of preventable disease and poor health outcomes.

Similarly, the range of child protective services frequently fail LGBT youth and LGBT YOC with their propensity to engage in implicit denial of the challenges LGBT youth experience in foster care and group home settings and these services’ explicit refusal to acknowledge the existence of these populations in their care. The lack of cultural and social support structures for youth to meet their developmental needs are too often denied to LGBT YOC, and the few resources available to LGBT YOC too often demand that these young people compartmentalize and prioritize their multiple identities and oppressions. Society sets up LGBT YOC for failure through institutional, economic and cultural oppression rooted in heterosexism, homophobia and transphobia. This societal and institutional failure is compounded by the additional challenges LGBT YOC confront in being a racial or ethnic minority.

To improve the health and developmental outcomes for LGBT YOC, more research is needed to determine the needs and address the health status of this population; there need to be more GSAs and safe school coalitions working in schools and districts with a high concentration of racial and ethnic minorities; cultural competency education is needed for LGBT CBO’s working with LGBT YOC; targeted sexuality education and tolerance initiatives that address the homophobia and heterosexism culturally rooted in minority communities need to be developed and implemented; LGBT youth sensitivity protocols for professionals working in the child welfare and juvenile justice system must be created, and societal tolerance must be increased.

Until society is able to scrutinize the values, systems and practices that create the oppressive conditions and poor life outcomes experienced by those whose lives and being defy simplistic categorization, LGBT YOC will continue to be the most underserved and vulnerable population of any youth population in the United States.

L. Michael Gipson was until recently the Racial and Economic Justice Coordinator of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition, 1638 R St. NW, #300, Wash., DC, 20009.


L. Michael Gipson ( is the Racial and Economic Justice
Coordinator of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition, 1638 R St. NW, #300,
Wash., DC, 20009. He also works as a consultant to numerous people of color, youth and LGBT community-based organizations across the US on organizational, program and
youth development issues.


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