Transgender Youth and the Juvenile Court System: How Compassion and Education Can Change Lives
Earn one hour of Elimination of Bias MCLE credit by reading the article below and answering the questions on the Self-Study MCLE test. Send your answers, along with a check ($30 per credit hour for CCCBA members / $45 per credit hour for non-members), to the address on the test form. Certificates are dated as the day the form is received.
Much of society’s misunderstanding and mishandling of transgender youth stems from uncertainty. If one is interested in understanding anything about issues burdening the transgender youth community, one must first understand basic terminology and concepts.
The American Psychological Society defines “sex” as something that “refers to a person’s biological status and is typically categorized as male or female,” as determined by a physician or other medical professional at the time of birth.1 Gender identity is a person’s internal, deeply-felt sense of being male, female, something other or in-between.2 Gender expression is an individual’s characteristics and behaviors such as appearance, dress, mannerisms, speech patterns and social interactions that are perceived as masculine or feminine.3 The term Transgender or trans acts as an umbrella term that can be used to describe people whose gender expression is nonconforming or whose gender identity is different from their sex assigned at birth.4
Over the last few years, it has become clear that transgender youth have a higher rate of contact with the juvenile court system. In 2014, ACT 4 Juvenile Justice released a fact sheet on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth in relation to the justice system. This fact sheet details how LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system; they make up just 5-7 percent of the overall youth population, but represent 20 percent of those in the juvenile justice system.5
The question we must ask then is: Why are transgender youth representing an inflated number in the juvenile system? The answer is complicated and there are many factors. Two of the factors are related to family relationships and the criminalization of the behavior of transgender individuals.
Our family relationships define us in many ways. Many questions can arise when a youth identifies as transgender and then comes out to their family. This is where home life can play a major role in development of trans youth. Many youth, regardless of orientation or gender, deal with physical violence in the home, isolation, parental disappointment and so on. However, research shows that gay and transgender youth entering the juvenile justice system are twice as likely to have experienced family conflict, child abuse and homelessness as other youth.6
There is still an immense amount of discrimination and stigma in our society surrounding those who identify as transgender. Many times, families do not know how to react or react poorly to youth who are transgender. A lack of education or understanding can lead to the abandoning of children or the limiting of their self-expression through abuse, both physical and emotional. The connection is simple; the increase in transgender youth in the juvenile system quite simply starts at home.
Societal perceptions and criminalization of behavior are just as important as home life in determining the pathways of trans youth. The over criminalization of trans youth behavior happens because society as a whole is not fluent in what it means to be transgender. For instance, a transgender female using the ladies room, sadly, can still lead to public admonishment and even criminal charges. However, trans youth must be allowed to use resources that match their gender identity, regardless of their transition or appearing gender-nonconforming.
Teachers and school administration have broad discretion on punishment in schools. Police also have broad discretion over who will be arrested. Therefore, without proper training and understanding, transgender youth are at a disadvantage.
According to a 2005 Amnesty International Report, police regularly target LGBTQ youth as criminals, and severely enforce laws relating to public sexual expression and minor “quality of life” offenses, such as loitering, drunkenness, public urination and littering.7 Hence, trouble in school and crimes in public are being prosecuted with more frequency against trans teens than non-trans identifying teens. Then, once a trans teen is arrested, he or she runs the risk of being kept in a holding area that is unsafe based upon his or her gender identity. This only leads to more violence and discrimination.
Generally speaking, discrimination starting in the home can lead a trans youth to suffer violence and intolerance from their closest relatives, forcing many to run away or into homelessness. Once this happens, the spiral can and does, in many cases, continue straight to the justice system due to a lack of options and family support.
So what can be done to counteract these issues for transgender teens? We can learn more. We can work to educate ourselves and others, especially those who are in dominant roles such as teachers and law enforcement. We can strive to learn not to discriminate merely because something is different than what we know.
Change is slow. Even still, society must take the time to learn what it means to treat transgender people as equals, legally and socially. The LGBTQ community is working tirelessly to promote inclusiveness in the school system with training targeted at teachers and students. There are organizations working with law enforcement to try to limit prejudice and there are medical and mental support services for transgender youth and family members to help with transitioning and overall acceptance.
For more information, or if you have any questions or need resources for transgender youth in this community, please contact the Rainbow Community Center in Concord.
Earn one hour of Elimination of Bias MCLE credit by answering the questions on the Self-Study MCLE test. Send your answers, along with a check ($30 per credit hour for CCCBA members / $45 per credit hour for non-members), to the address on the test form. Certificates are dated as the day the form is received.
 The Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Clients, adopted by the APA Council of Representatives, February 18-20, 2011.
 Berwick, Oddo, Durso, et al., “Identifying and Serving LGBTQ Youth: Case Studies of Runaway and Homeless Youth Program Grantees,” Final Report, February 14 2014.
 Preston Mitchum and Aisha C. Moodie-Mills, “Beyond Bullying: How Hostile School Climate Perpetuates the School- to-Prison Pipeline for LGBT Students of Color,” Center for American Progress, February 27, 2014.
 United States of America Stonewalled: Police abuse and misconduct against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the U.S. (September 2005). Amnesty International 2005 Index Report.