LGBT Youth of Color Join Forces Against Homophobia, Prejudice in U.S.

August 19, 2013

Stopped by New York police five times over the last five years, in New York City neighborhoods from the West Village to Park Slope, Mitchyll Mora weighs his options when he sees an officer on an upcoming street corner: “Do I cross before the corner or after?” he asks himself.

“One time the officer frisking me groped me and called me ‘faggot’ because of the way I was dressed,” says Mora, a 23-year old gay Latino, who moved to New York City several years ago from the U.S. midwest.

“Of course, they never found a weapon or any reason to detain me,” says Mora, who is shocked by how many times he and his friends have been stopped and frisked even when there is no objective “reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.”

Mora cannot envision a scenario in which he would go to the police for help. “When you’re of color and queer or trans, and a police officer sees you, you’re assumed to be doing something wrong,” he says.

While New York’s Black and Latino communities make up 52 percent of the city’s total population they comprised 87 percent of the 533,000 stops in 2012 by the New York City Police Department (NYPD), according to an analysis by the New York Civil Liberties Union. In the vast majority of stops, there were no grounds for arrest and no weapons found.

Homeless youth, of whom 25 to 40 percent have been estimated to be LGBT, are particularly targeted, says Andrea Ritchie, co-coordinator of Streetwise and Safe (SAS).

As a result of SAS advocacy in alliance with other organizations, the NYPD in June released broad changes to its Patrol Guide to address discrimination and abuse of LGBT or gender-nonconforming people, and the department is training officers about the guide’s implications.

In addition, work by Communities United for Police Reform campaign, which includes SAS, led New York City Council to make history, also in June, by passing legislation banning police profiling based on sexual orientation and gender identity in addition to race and other grounds.

“I see a national youth movement growing around discriminatory policing,” Mora says. “People working with LGBTQ youth in Los Angeles and New Orleans are building off each other’s work to seek similar changes.”

Bridging Campaigns, Building a Movement

Whether seeking reform of policing, education, or immigration policies, coalitions led by or prominently including LGBT young people are being formed across the country. Those include FIERCE, National Queer Asian and Pacific Islander Alliance, Southerners on New Ground, and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project.

In Oregon, for example, the Western States Center, a movement-building organization, helped the Basic Rights Education Center, an LGBT group, understand the need to work more intentionally with people-of-color organizations such as the immigrant rights group CAUSA.

“Now, anyone who walks through the doors of either organization is expected to be grounded in a broader, more inclusive set of social justice values,” says Aimee Santos-Lyons, the center’s gender justice director, adding that it is not uncommon to see LGBT youth speaking at Oregon farm-workers rallies.

One emerging CAUSA leader, Ish Guevara, now 20 and a student at Oregon State University, was demoted from president of his high school’s Latino Club when it came to light that he was gay.

Guevara, raised by parents who were migrant farm workers from Mexico, was taunted with the Spanish word maricon (“faggot”) on the soccer field, leaving him feeling “dark and evil.” But going to college and working with CAUSA helped Guevara overcome feelings of shame about his sexual orientation, and his family has come to accept him.

Bullying and hostility continue to blight the lives of LGBT students across the country, with some 87 percent of rural LGBT students reporting verbal harassment and 22 percent physical assault, according to the 2012 report Strengths and Silences: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Students in Rural and Small Town Schoolsby the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

GLSEN, along with the Gay-Straight Alliance Network (GSA Network) and other organizations, has been working for decades to stop this bullying, but they oppose the “zero tolerance” policies that have emerged as a response.

Alternatives that emphasize counseling or peer mediation can be more productive in changing the culture of a school than suspending bullies—who simply return unchanged—according to a 2012 white paper, Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right: Why Zero Tolerance is Not the Solution to Bullying, authored by the GSA Network, Advancement Project, and Alliance for Educational Justice.

“Our young leaders are not only coming out about their sexual orientation and gender identity in greater numbers, they’re also proudly standing up against discriminatory policies and practices that fail to create a safe learning environment,” says Carolyn Laub of the GSA Network.

Adds Mora: “LGBTQ youth of color are educating each other and other youth to navigate police encounters with legal knowledge. We’re also engaging with larger coalitions to change systems that affect our lives and the lives of all LGBTQ youth of color.”

“We shouldn’t be singled out because of the color of our skin or the clothes we wear.”