Confronting Homophobia on the Inside

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For the estimated ten percent of young people confined in New York’s youth prisons and jails who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ), every day can be a struggle. After facing rejection from their families, abuse on the street, and discrimination at school, once caught up in the criminal justice system, LGBTQ young people report being slapped, hit, punched, kicked, threatened and called names by facility residents and sometimes even staff.

“If you are gay and you are in one of these facilities, you are kind of in trouble,” explains Ayesha Ahktar, a 19 year old youth organizer and advocate for juvenile justice reform. “Within the facilities, especially in the boys’ section, there is a lot of homophobia. It manifests as teasing and violence, but it begins with misunderstanding and a lack of respect—many people just don’t understand or know how to relate to LGBTQ young people.”

As a part of its ongoing efforts to protect the rights and promote the welfare of LGBTQ young people in the juvenile justice system, the CA launched the “Respect” anti-homophobia workshop series in youth detention centers across the city. These sessions are facilitated primarily by youth organizers, who, like Ayesha, have graduated from Safe Passages, the CA’s leadership and advocacy program for LGBTQ youth and allies run by the Juvenile Justice Project.

The group has visited 13 juvenile facilities this year and spoken with hundreds of young people about homophobia and broader issues of discrimination and intolerance. After starting with a series of exercises that explore racism, sexism, and other prejudices, facilitators define key LGBTQ terms for participants, and then launch a group discussion on homophobia. “A lot of times, incarcerated youth don’t have the chance to talk about their experiences—how they have been discriminated against, what their attitudes are towards these issues, and their thoughts about the system. It becomes an opportunity for all of the young people to bring that to the table,” Ayesha says.

“The long term hope is that whether youth transition back into their communities or move deeper into the juvenile justice system, they can help create safe and secure environments for LGBTQ youth, and become allies and advocates for their peers,” says DeAvery Irons, the Associate Director of the CA’s Juvenile Justice Project.

Ayesha agrees. “A lot of these kids have the potential to be leaders. They just have to be given a chance to use what they have in a positive way.”