By Jody Marksamer, Esq.
NCLR Youth Project Director
Being a teenager in the juvenile justice system is challenging for any young person, but as Cyryna can attest, being transgender adds an additional layer of fear.
Cyryna, a transgender girl, experienced the dark reality that most people don’t talk about while being housed in a juvenile correction facility for boys, where she was the victim of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse by many of the boys she was housed with.
Some of her abuse was witnessed by, and sometimes encouraged by, the facility guards, who saw her gender identity as a choice rather than an expression of her true self. Not surprisingly, Cyryna (pronounced Serena) never filed an official grievance about the harassment she endured, fearing that the guards would not help her and that the abuse would only get worse. Ultimately, Cyryna was left feeling isolated and defenseless in a place that should have provided her safety.
Transgender youth across the country face significant challenges in their day-to-day lives. Those challenges are multiplied for transgender youth who are living out of their homes in group care settings. Unfortunately, many youth service providers do not know how to provide transgender youth with competent, affirming care. Too often, providers even view transgender youth with hostility.
The lack of information and misinformation about people who are transgender or gender non-conforming causes many people—including those who work directly with youth in schools, community groups, foster care, and the juvenile justice system— to discriminate against these young people and violate their rights.
In 2004, the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP) began noticing an increasing volume of legal inquiries from transgender and gender non-conforming youth in foster care and juvenile justice facilities. One such inquiry came from Mariah, a transgender girl, who was arrested and sent to juvenile detention. While there, the facility staff tried to force her to look like a boy. They ripped her long weave from her hair, forced her to get a boy’s haircut, broke off her nails, prohibited her from wearing makeup, took away her bra and underwear, and forced her to wear male underwear and clothing.
NCLR and SRLP have spoken with many other teens who have endured similar abuses. Captain, a gender non-conforming youth, lived in a girls group home and was repeatedly reprimanded for his short hair cut and style of dress. Even his mannerisms got him into trouble. The staff would tell him he wasn’t “talking like a lady” or that he was being “too gentlemanly” when he opened doors for girls. Rosco, a transgender boy, was placed in isolation when he was honest about his male gender identity. The staff also forced him to wear girl’s clothes and refused to accept his male gender identity.
To help these youth, NCLR and SRLP teamed up to develop a comprehensive report that gives facility administrators the information to make effective policy decisions and adopt best practices for the treatment of transgender and gender non-conforming youth in their care. The report, A Place of Respect: A Guide for Group Care Facilities Serving Transgender and Gender Non-conforming Youth released today, March 17, 2011, helps facility staff understand the experiences and concerns of transgender and gender non-conforming youth and provides them the tools they need to create a safe and respectful space for all youth.
The report, which is the first of its kind, provides comprehensive solutions to problems that service providers may face, offering best practices that agencies can easily implement. Additionally, it discusses the personal experiences of transgender youth, and provides information to help readers to better understand gender identity, gender non-conformity, and what it means to be transgender. The report also explains the legal requirements of each facility to treat transgender and gender non-conforming youth with respect and keep them safe.
Hopefully, through this report, and through the greater knowledge it provides for facility staff, youth like Cyryna, Captian, and Myrah will never have to endure such terrible and demeaning experiences, and they’ll be able to live their lives proudly and with respect.
NCLR Communications Director Erik Olvera | Office: 415.392.6257 x324 | EOlvera@NCLRights.org