Why Are so Many LGBTQ Youth Ending Up in Prison?

Research examines the school-to-prison pipeline among LGBTQ youth.

Posted Mar 30, 2019

This post was co-authored by Breanna O'Handley, the Gender and Sexual Diversity Advisor at St. Francis Xavier University

While we may love to binge watch Orange is the New Black and root for Piper and Alex’s tumultuous prison romance, the reality of the school-to-prison pipeline and LGBTQ over-representation in corrections is much bleaker. You don’t have to look far to find media representations of LGBTQ people who are incarcerated. But what many people may not know is that LGBTQ individuals are over-represented in current prison populations. A 2012 survey found that although gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals make up only 3.5 percent of the general population, gay men make up 5.5 percent of inmates in male prison facilities, and lesbians make up 33 percent of inmates in female prison facilities. LGBTQ youth are also over-represented in the population of U.S. juvenile detention centers and are twice as likely as their heterosexual counterparts to be detained for non-violent crimes1.

Why do we see so many LGBTQ people, especially youth, in correctional facilities? In a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Research, Snapp et al. (2015) set out to answer this question and further examine the pathways that lead LGBTQ youth to juvenile detention centers and prisons2. Snapp and colleagues focused on experiences that may push LGBTQ youth out of schools and into contact with the criminal justice system. The researchers conducted interviews with 19 adult advocates, including teachers, administrators, counselors, and policymakers, asking them questions about how LGBTQ youth are disciplined in schools, their knowledge of LGBTQ youth drop-outs, and their trajectories after leaving school. The researchers also conducted focus groups with 31 youth who identified as LGBTQ, were currently in grades 9-12, and who had experienced or witnessed some type of school discipline.

The study concluded that multiple systems of support had failed the LGBTQ youth in their study, which made it difficult for these youth to continue their education and put them at increased risk of falling into the school-to-prison pipeline. LGBTQ youth and adult advocates in the study remarked that queer and gender-non-conforming students were often targeted for their identities and labeled as "problematic" by other students and staff. Participants remarked that visibly queer or gender-non-conforming students were punished for behavior that would otherwise go unaddressed. For example, one participant described how after experiencing constant bullying by her peers for being a lesbian, she began to adopt a more masculine gender expression and “tough” appearance. While her peers ceased bullying her, the school administrators started paying extra attention to her, as they expected her to be a troublemaker.

Anti-PDA policies disproportionately target LGBTQ exchanges of affection.
Source: Pexels

LGBTQ students were also more likely to be punished for engaging in public displays of affection (PDAs) in their schools and for their gender expression. While many schools may have policies against PDA (e.g. hand holding, kissing) among students, these policies appear to be unfairly applied, with LGBTQ students being more likely to face consequences than their straight peers. Participants described many instances of students engaging in same-sex PDAs and being shamed, given detention, suspended, or even being outed to their parents by school administrators. Additionally, gender-non-conforming youth appear to receive harsher punishments than gender-conforming youth. For example, when girls dress in overtly masculine ways, or boys wear dresses, their clothing choices make them a target for harassment by both other students and staff.

Furthermore, LGBTQ youth were often punished by school staff for protecting themselves against anti-gay bullying, harassment, and violence from other students. Zero-tolerance policies for violence in high schools resulted in LGBTQ youth facing harsh discipline when being forced to protect themselves, such as detention, suspension, and even expulsion. In many cases, the LGBTQ youth were actually blamed for their own victimization, being told by teachers that if they just dressed or talked differently they would avoid “making themselves a target” for bullies.  

While there are multiple factors that contribute to pushing LGBTQ youth out of school and into contact with the criminal justice system (e.g., including learning challenges, family problems, homelessness, compromised mental health), discipline disparities appear to be a driving force behind the school-to-prison pipeline. The increased victimization within school settings, coupled with being punished for their own victimization and offered inadequate support from staff, has detrimental effects on the mental health of LGBTQ youth. These experiences, along with an increased likelihood of experiencing familial rejection, can motivate youth to leave their high school education behind.

Due to familial rejection, LGBTQ youth are more likely to end up homeless than their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts.
Source: Pexels.

The potential for familial rejection is exacerbated by the finding that LGBTQ youth are not only receiving harsher treatment at school, but they are also likely to face more negative consequences at home as a result of school discipline, especially when that discipline is connected to their sexual or gender identity. For example, the experience of a queer youth being punished for holding their partner’s hand at school and subsequently being outed by the school to their family may result in familial rejection or even being kicked out of their home. Homeless LGBTQ youth may then resort to criminal activity, such as selling drugs or sex work, in order to generate income to simply survive. As one of the study’s participants put it, education is no longer a “top concern at all.”

LGBTQ students who lack support from school staff may never make it to graduation day.
Source: Pexels.

The findings of Snapp et al. (2015) point to the importance of education for school staff, including administrators and teachers, concerning LGBTQ identities, oppression, and how to best support queer students. Research by Mitton-Kukner, Kearns & Tompkins (2016) indicates that Positive Space training programs for pre-service teachers have been useful in helping teachers become aware of LGBTQ oppression in their schools and empowering them to interrupt such behavior3. If teachers and administrators were more aware of the struggles of LGBTQ youth, perhaps they would lift these students up instead of forcing them out.


1 - Garnette, L., Irvine, A., Reyes, C., & Wilber, S. (2011). Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth and the juvenile justice system. Juvenile justice: Advancing research, policy, and practice, 156-173.

2 - Snapp, S. D., Hoenig, J. M., Fields, A., & Russell, S. T. (2015). Messy, butch, and queer: LGBTQ youth and the school-to-prison pipelineJournal of Adolescent Research, 30(1), 57-82.

3 - Mitton-Kukner, J., Kearns, L. L., & Tompkins, J. (2016). Pre-service educators and anti-oppressive pedagogy: Interrupting and challenging LGBTQ oppression in schoolsAsia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 44(1), 20-34.

Meyer, I. H., Flores, A. R., Stemple, L., Romero, A. P., Wilson, B. D., & Herman, J. L. (2017). Incarceration rates and traits of sexual minorities in the United States: National Inmate Survey, 2011–2012. American journal of public health, 107(2), 267-273.