The most at-risk LGBT youth suffer from a lack of advocacy

By Jordan Wilkie

There are at least 26 organizations that exist explicitly to serve or advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in North Carolina. They lobby politicians in Raleigh and help teachers support LGBT students, they run LGBT community centers and create summer camps for LGBT kids.

One topic they do not do is address is the treatment of LGBT youth in the juvenile justice system.

This lack of advocacy on the outside is matched by the lack of policy within the juvenile justice system, and it seems to create a feedback loop where nothing changes.

The problem is four-fold: North Carolina does not have policies that explicitly protect LGBT youth in its juvenile justice system, the state does not collect data on sexual identity or gender expression, the juvenile system is confidential and there are few watchdogs for the juvenile justice system.

This means that juvenile justice can be a black hole of information.

Peggy Nicholson is a lawyer with the Youth Justice Project, part of the legal and advocacy center Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham. They do not advocate for LGBT youth in North Carolina’s justice system.

The success the Youth Justice Project has found in advocating for other groups of children comes from a two-pronged approach, Nicholson said. They match stories of how kids’ lives are impacted by the justice system with data showing how big the problem really is.

That approach is not currently possible for LGBT youth, Nicholson said. There just is not enough information on LGBT youth in North Carolina’s juvenile justice system to show that there is an issue, Nicholson said.

Without data, no issue. Without an issue, no advocacy. Without advocacy, no policy change. Without policy change, no data collection. A complete circle.

A chicken or egg situation, Eric Zogry, the state’s lead juvenile public defender, called it.

But unless North Carolina is somehow different from every other state in the country, relatively more of the LGBT youth showing up in juvenile courts are being sent to juvenile detentions than their heterosexual or cisgender peers. Once detained, those youths also suffer physical and sexual assault at several times the rates of their heterosexual and cisgender peers, according to federal statistics.

Zogry implicates himself in the problem.

As head of the Office of the Juvenile Defender, Zogry advises the legislature and other state agencies on changes that could benefit youth in the juvenile justice system.

It is the squeaky-wheel theory, Zogry said. Attention is given to what people make noise about. And on the issue of LGBT youth in juvenile justice, North Carolina is near silent.

The juvenile justice system has no shortage of problems that need fixing. Several organizations are dedicated to racial justice in the juvenile system, for example, and it is no wonder that reducing the disparity of black youth sentenced to detention or juvenile prison is a hot-button issue.

In contrast, Zogry has not heard from any advocacy organization asking him to push policies to help LGBT youth.

Zogry did create a resource document in 2011 to help lawyers represent LGBT juvenile clients and he has brought experts in to train various juvenile justice administrators on the challenges facing LGBT youth. But then he stopped.

“The issue didn’t go away,” he said. “I did.”

There were other fires to put out. And unlike racial discrimination, the treatment of LGBT youth does not affect the majority of kids in the juvenile justice system, Zogry said.

In 2016, over 1,900 youth were sent to juvenile detentions, 178 youth were committed to a juvenile prison and over 24,000 youth were served in community-based treatment programs in North Carolina, according to data published by the Department of Public Safety.

If 20 percent of youth in juvenile detentions are LGBT in North Carolina – in line with national estimates – then the state detained around 380 LGBT youth in 2016.

National research on LGBT youth in the juvenile justice system has not reached into juvenile prisons nor assessed the number of LGBT youth in community programs.

Angela Irvine, the researcher who established the best national estimates for LGBT youth in juvenile detentions, says that it is likely that LGBT youth are overrepresented at those other stages of the system as well. Without the data, though, it is impossible to tell.

There are two types of overrepresentation, Zogry said, and one gets more attention. The first is what happens to black youth, who make up 76 percent of juvenile prison admissions despite being 23 percent of youth in the state.

LGBT youth  make up almost five times more of the percentage of detained juveniles than they do of the general population and yet they still do not make up a majority of the youth in juvenile detentions.

Being fewer in number demands less attention. And unlike race, being LGBT is not an identity that literally stares you in the face, Zogry said.

But this does not explain why LGBT advocacy organizations in North Carolina have not picked up the issue like it has been in other states.

BreakOUT! has been organizing against police violence against black and LGBT youth in New Orleans since 2011. The Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights has been training their staff to represent LGBT youth in court for at least as long.

The National Center for Lesbian Rights, based in California, has been working closely with Santa Clara County’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs and that county’s juvenile justice system to create protective policies and improve conditions for LGBT youth. California, at the state level, is a national leader along with New York in creating specific policies to protect LGBT youth in the juvenile justice system.

To highlight the difference in government buy-in to the issue, no North Carolina county has an office of LGBTQ affairs. Neither does the state.

Also in California, the Young Women’s Freedom Center in San Francisco works to provide lesbian and trans women of color who have been in the juvenile justice system with employment and opportunity to advocate for other women in similar conditions.

New York boasts several legal and advocacy organizations that support LGBT youth, such as the Peter Cicchino Youth Project at the Urban Justice Center and Lambda Legal, a national advocacy organization for LGBT rights.

Other states including Georgia, Maine, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania have legal and advocacy organizations that specifically work with LGBT youth in the juvenile justice system.

It is not clear why this is not the case in North Carolina.

There were a handful of advocates from this state’s LGBT centers, like Bishop Tonyia Rawls of the Freedom Center for Social Justice in Charlotte, who say they have gone to court to support LGBT people.

But that has not yet translated to formal advocacy for LGBT youth in the state.

Just as LGBT centers have not crossed over into juvenile justice advocacy, groups that seek juvenile justice reform have not worked on LGBT issues in any systematic way. These partnerships that are found elsewhere in the country have yet to develop in North Carolina.

It could be part of a historical trend, according to Emily Hobson who co-directs the American Historical Association’s Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History. Major LGBT organizations have typically geared resources toward a legal agenda set by people with racial and economic privilege, she said.

Just like the overall population of people sent to court, jail or prison, LGBT youth skew poorer and blacker than the rest of the country. Irvine’s work shows that 85 percent of LGBT youth in juvenile detentions are people of color.

The implication is that LGBT legal and advocacy organizations with the most resources in North Carolina have a blind spot for black LGBT youth from low-wealth neighborhoods.

There is a clear resource gap between white and black-led LGBT organizations in the state.

Equality NC, the state’s largest and best-funded LGBTQ advocacy organization, has not turned its attention to LGBT youth in the juvenile justice system. The group has been broadly made aware of the issue, according to Ian Palmquist of the Equality Federation, a national organization that coordinates state-level LGBT advocacy groups.

The Equality Federation has worked with LGBT centers around the country to increase their awareness and participation in issues around the criminal justice system. So far, Equality NC has not become deeply involved, Palmquist said, the way the Equality Federation’s partner group in Oregon has, for example.

There are a number of organizations led by LGBT people of color in North Carolina, though it is unclear how established their networks are or what the scope of their work is. None of these organizations responded to multiple attempts for comment, and their websites did not provide much information or were non-functional.

The Youth Justice Project has recognized the increased vulnerability of teens who are both black and LGBT in the number of students who are sent to the courts as a result of school sanctions, Nicholson said.

“It’s especially troubling because we know the intersection between LGBTQ youth of color are at even higher rates of involvement in the court system, higher rates of suspension,” Nicholson said.

Nicholson sees a connection between the over-criminalization of youth of color and LGBT youth.

“I think anything that doesn’t fit within our cultural norm, which is based on norms of white, heterosexual, cisgender society, anything outside of those norms is very prone to punishment or a negative response from the system that’s based on those norms,” Nicholson said.

Bull City Schools United is one of several small groups that work adjacent to the juvenile justice system. Focused in the Durham school district, their work focuses on reducing the disparate impact zero-tolerance and school-based policing has on LGBT children and children of color.

Zero-tolerance policies are a “one strike and you’re out” approach to school discipline. A school fight or disrupting a class that once would have landed students in the principal’s office are now pushed to the justice system. School resource officers exacerbate this trend. Once of these officers – who are from either the police or sheriff’s departments – are involved, the issue becomes one of public safety and not simply school discipline.

In 2016, 42 percent of juvenile justice referrals in North Carolina came from schools. Bull City Schools United is training teachers to confront bullying, to increase the number of openly LGBT-supportive teachers in schools and training assistant principals in charge of discipline on the outsized impact punitive policies have on LGBT students and youth of color.

There are a few organizations in the state that provide services and support to LGBT people in the criminal justice system, just not to minors.

The Tranzmission Prison Project, based in Asheville, provides support to LGB and especially transgender people in the criminal justice system. They are staffed entirely by volunteers, and their time is consumed with sending books and writing letters to LGBT prisoners in North Carolina.

But they have not corresponded with anyone in the juvenile justice system, nor would they be able to. The juvenile justice system is confidential, making it nearly impossible to work directly with youth in detentions or juvenile prisons.

The state keeps juvenile records sealed. The intention is to prevent harm to the youth later in life the way an adult criminal record can prevent people from gaining employment, housing and government assistance.

The juvenile justice system does not have a public, online, searchable database of all incarcerated youth the way the adult prison system does. Organizations like the Tranzmission Prison Project or Black and Pink, a national pen-pal and advocacy organization for LGBT people behind bars, are not able to send magazines, books or letters into juvenile prisons in North Carolina.

A lifetime could be spent trying to make the juvenile system more transparent, Zogry said.

In the meantime, as a result of this reporting, Zogry has suggested that representing LGBT youth be a topic at the juvenile defender’s annual conference.

Zogry is also part of a legislatively-appointed committee to make changes to the juvenile justice system. He has considered asking for a subcommittee to be formed to study overrepresented groups, such as kids from low-wealth backgrounds, kids of color and LGBT youth.


This is one of four stories produced for Jordan Wilkie’s thesis work as a journalism master’s student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is currently shopping the other pieces around to North Carolina publications.