Social Justice

Believers Must Fight for Gay Teens

Compassion is important, but so is fighting systemic injustice—like the way our social institutions harass and criminalize gay teenagers.


There’s an old saying among social justice advocates: it’s not enough to pull drowning people out of a raging stream; we must also walk back upstream and find out who’s throwing them in.

Religious people of all stripes are called by their various sacred texts to care for the most vulnerable in our midst. But that “care” cannot and must not be limited to compassionate acts of kindness and “rescue.” Compassion is one side of the “care” coin; the other is justice. If religious people and religious institutions are to respond to God’s call for compassion and justice, then we need to address societal systems that target and victimize the vulnerable in the first place.

Nowhere is this need more evident than in the systematic criminalization of LGBT people (especially LGBT youth) and people living with HIV infection. A startling and disturbing new report, “A Roadmap for Change: Federal Policy Recommendations for Addressing the Criminalization of LGBT People and People Living with HIV,” outlines the frightening world facing this vulnerable population. This confluence of societal systems—policing and law enforcement, incarceration, immigration laws, and the increasing criminalization of youth and people living with HIV—are working in tandem to make already-difficult lives more burdensome and dangerous.

LGBT youth are disproportionately susceptible to being thrown out of their homes and forced to fend for themselves at a young age, often “triggering a lifetime of economic and social instability. … Family rejection and homelessness are top predictors that a young person will come in contact with the juvenile justice system because of police targeting of homeless and low-income communities and people engaged in survival economies—such as drug sales, sex work, and other criminalized activity—to quite literally survive. Schools can also play a critical role in pushing youth onto the streets, from hostile school climates that leave LGBT youth feeling unsafe, to harsh discipline policies that have a disparate impact of perpetuating a school-to-prison pipeline.”

A longitudinal study (PDF) by Kathryn E. W. Himmelstein and Hannah Bruckner finds that “LGB and gender non-conforming youth, especially gender non-conforming girls, are three times more likely to experience harsh disciplinary treatment and wind up in the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ than their non-LGB counterparts. These differences in punishment cannot be explained by greater engagement in illegal or transgressive behaviors by LGBT youth, but rather by the reality that LGBT youth are punished more harshly when engaging in the same behavior as their peers.”

Finding themselves on the streets, struggling to survive, our young people are forced to engage in activities that propel them toward a system of suspicion, targeting and arrest by law enforcement. Even those who are not engaging in those activities are under suspicion for doing so, with the mere possession of a condom sometimes used as evidence of suspected “prostitution.” Such suspicion and potential arrest renders LGBT youth less likely to take precautions to avoid HIV infection or to be tested for it.

If they become infected with HIV, young people are then subjected to various criminal prosecutions—these laws are in effect in a majority of states—which target “consensual sex and other conduct involving theoretical contact with any bodily fluid (e.g., via spitting, biting, vomiting or sex) of people diagnosed with HIV” and “the failure of an HIV-positive person to demonstrate disclosure of his or her HIV status to a sexual partner prior to sexual intimacy.”

In other words, we have a perfect storm of societal systems that disproportionately target our LGBT youth. Add to this the on-going and widespread profiling of racial minorities and poor (especially homeless) people, and you have a system that is unjust, cruel and relentlessly intimidating.

So what does all this have to do with religion?

Religion worth its salt is not only about being kind, but working for justice. There is nothing wrong, of course, about being kind and compassionate to those who fall victim to an unjust system. It has always been the case that churches, synagogues and mosques have fostered compassionate care for the unfortunate. But religion also compels us to fight the unjust, prejudiced systems that cause and perpetuate that misfortune.

Institutionalized religion is perhaps the single most contributing factor to the attitudes of parents who, because they have been taught condemnation of homosexuality, are likely to dispossess their LGBT children and throw them into the streets. This religiously-based condemnation is not simply an intellectual difference of opinion on a philosophical plane. It results in virtually-defenseless young people being thrown into the streets to fend for themselves in a world which further victimizes them and pushes them into a criminal system which disproportionately seeks their incarceration and perpetuates their victimization.

When are we religious people going to find our voices, stand up to the forces that victimize our LGBT youth, and demand change in a prejudiced and hostile criminal justice system? Changing religious attitudes about homosexuality is not simply a theological nicety waiting to happen. It is a matter of life and death to our most vulnerable youth.