Getting that diploma and getting ahead in the world, figuring out who you and how to live on your own terms — these are the challenges of growing up that everyone can recognize. But too often, for LGBT youth — or lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth — that journey has the added obstacles of harassment, violence, and even incarceration.
“Because LGBT youth are more likely to experience family rejection they might be more likely to be homeless, and homelessness of course leads to more survival crimes, for example, or just easy targeting by the police department or law enforcement which leads kids into the criminal justice system,” says Wes Ware, executive director of the New Orleans-based nonprofit BreakOUT.
The group’s mission is to fight what Ware calls the criminalization of LGBT youth, particularly those who are black.
“When we say criminalization, LGBT youth are over-represented in every single feeder into the juvenile justice system or the criminal justice system,” says Ware. “So if it’s homelessness or substance abuse or facing violence on the street, being kicked out or expelled from school, all of these different risk factors lead kids into the criminal justice system.”
Add the complexities of race and class, and the sense of alienation for these youth can be extreme. But BreakOUT has been demonstrating the power these young people have when they come together. A centerpiece of the effort is a campaign called We Deserve Better, which is out to address discriminatory policing. Here’s Derwin Wilright Jr., a 22-year-old college student and youth organizer for BreakOUT:
“Young people come to BreakOUT and connect with BreakOUT because we all are facing similar issues with policing, whether that be riding in a car or walking down the street and an officer stops us, those sort of things are these common narratives that many people are experiencing in New Orleans,” Wilright says. “It’s not the most fun thing to have streets in your city in which you’re not safe in your own neighborhoods.”
BreakOUT was formed in 2011, right around the time that the U.S. Department of Justice reported evidence of significant discrimination and harassment of LGBT residents by New Orleans police officers.
“With gender identity and gender expression being at the forefront, when young black trans women walk in this city, cat calling or name calling just by citizens is one thing but, there’s really big issues with officers, the people who are supposed to serve and protect the people in our city being the ones actually perpetuating these cycles of violence.”
BreakOUT’s members are now contributing to the police department’s new LGBT policies, and a video on LGBT issues is now included in NOPD officer training. To achieve this, BreakOUT members have been meeting, organizing, and speaking for their community in the halls of power, and along the way learning about their own potential.
“How can we actually build the power of LGBT young people in our city and develop the leadership of those young people so that they can actually be enacting the kinds of changes we want to see?” says Ware. “For an LBGT young person or transgender young person in this city to be able to walk down the street to the store without fear, that’s the kind of city that we’re working toward.”
Written by Ian McNulty for the Community IMPACT Series and produced by WWNO in partnership with the Greater New Orleans Foundation. To learn more about BreakOUT!, click here.