In 2015, more transgender people were killed than in any other year on record. While it has come to the public’s attention that discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation is pervasive in the United States, the epidemic of homeless LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning) youth has gone largely unnoticed and unaddressed. LGBTQ youth are at a disproportionately high risk for homelessness, mental illness, and substance abuse, which are also risk factors for commercial sexual exploitation.
Compared to their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts, LGBTQ youth experience homelessness at disproportionately high rates. The United States Family and Youth Services Bureau reported that approximately 30% of homeless youth identify as homosexual or bisexual and 6.8% of homeless youth self-report as transgender, compared to the 3 to 5% of the overall United States population that identifies as LGBTQ. LGBTQ youth face distinct challenges that make them particularly susceptible to traffickers, including high rates of self-esteem and body image issues, substance abuse, and a lack of social support. Twenty-six percent of homeless LGBTQ youth report being forced out of their homes solely because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Once homeless, LGBTQ youth face higher rates of sexual victimization and exploitation than non-LGBTQ youths. In 2009, the National Coalition for the Homeless reported that roughly 58.7% of homeless LGBTQ youth have been sexually victimized and exploited as compared to 33.4% of non-LGBTQ youth. This disproportionately high rate of sexual victimization of LGBTQ youth, including undoubtedly commercial sexual exploitation, reveals the need for specialized services addressing the specific issues that this population faces.
While commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking undoubtedly affects all homeless youth, the challenges that LGBTQ youth face are distinct from their heterosexual and cisgender peers. Transgender youths in particular face discrimination at shelters that often prevent them from having a safe and clean place to stay at night. Many shelters either do not accept transgender youths or force them to classify themselves as their biological sex rather than the gender with which they identify. In Philadelphia, there are three youth shelters, but no shelters that are dedicated specifically to LGBTQ youth. Because of the lack of resources available, LGBTQ youth are more likely to engage in survival sex than their non-LGBTQ cohort. A form of sexual exploitation, survival sex is the exchange of sexual favors for basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter. A Canadian study revealed that transgender youth are three times more likely to engage in survival sex than cisgender homeless youth. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that the main reason homeless youths engaged in survival sex is to have a bed to sleep in each night. The scarce amount of resources available to transgender homeless youths increases the vulnerability of an already at-risk demographic and pushes these children and teenagers toward people who exploit their vulnerability.
In addition to the lack of resources available to homeless LGBTQ youth, social stigma surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity impedes the reporting of commercial sexual exploitation, particularly for homosexual and bisexual males. To combat the issue of commercial sexual exploitation in homeless LGBTQ youth, the United States Department of State suggests that law enforcement officers and service providers should partner with LGBTQ-inclusive organizations to increase the number of services available to homeless LGBTQ youth. By increasing the services available and training officers on the specific issues facing the LGBTQ community, we can create a safer environment for this population and potentially reduce the number of LGBTQ individuals who are victims of commercial sexual exploitation.
 Cisgender: “Denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex.” http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/cisgender
Jessica DiBacco is currently a first-year law student at the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. Jessica is from Norfolk, Massachusetts and received a Bachelor of Arts in Counseling and Health Psychology from Emmanuel College. After graduation, Jessica hopes to become a prosecutor or do advocacy work.