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LGBT issues in the criminal justice system

2012 APA Convention symposium highlights the discrimination faced by individuals who are LGBT-identified when they interact with the criminal justice system.
By Kevin L. Nadal

Kristin C. Davidoff and Kevin L. Nadal 1

The symposium on LGBT Issues in the Criminal Justice System chaired by Dr. Kevin Nadal at the 2012 APA convention provided a platform for researchers to discuss the many ways in which individuals who are LGBT-identified interact with the criminal justice system and highlighted the discrimination they sometimes face, as both perpetrators and victims of crime.

Individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) continue to experience both blatant and subtle forms of discrimination in everyday life (Nadal, Rivera, & Corpus, 2010). These individuals experience discrimination at the extreme end of the spectrum, often becoming the victim of hate crimes as a result of their LGBT identity (Herek, Cogan & Gillis, 2002). This increases the likelihood that many will, at some point, come into contact with the criminal justice system. However, there is evidence to suggest that some LGBTidentified victims are reluctant to report crimes or seek help through the criminal justice system due to a fear of discrimination within the system itself (Potoczniak et al., 2003). Additionally, LGBT individuals who become involved in the criminal justice system due to their participation in criminal activity may also experience discrimination in legal processes or in the prison system (Brown & McDuffie, 2009).

Kristin Davidoff argued that transgender women who enter the sex work industry may do so as a result of discrimination on systemic, institutional, and interpersonal levels. A review of the literature was punctuated by quotes from previous qualitative research that were used to share the experiences of transgender women through their own voices and perspectives. Major findings of the two known studies that concentrate on transgender sex workers exclusively without looking at HIV/AIDS describe how some trans-identified people turn to sex work as a “last resort” due to discrimination experienced in other workplaces (Nadal et al., 2012; Sausa, Keatley, & Operario, 2007). Once involved in the criminal justice system, research suggested two main areas where LGBT-identified people may experience discrimination: with law enforcement officers and within the prison system. Discrimination within the criminal justice system served as a prime example of the larger systemic issue of viewing gender as binary, and recommendations for policy and prevention were discussed.

Alexis Forbes focused on LGBTQ experiences within the court system, seeking to identify the negative and positive legal experiences that are common among people in the LGBT community. Gender nonconformity, defined as expression of a schema of behaviors typically associated with the opposite sex (Bailey & Zucker, 1995), is a prominent correlate to victimization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered persons (Gordon & Meyer, 2007). This increased risk of harm for gender nonconformists suggests that gender nonconformity may moderate the relationship between LGBT identity and certain types of discriminatory treatment. Quantitative analysis of measures of LGBTQ-identified participants’ perceptions of procedural justice and satisfaction with their court experiences were conducted. Gender nonconformity was found to predict treatment and procedural justice scores, particularly for transgender MTF women who reported the least desirable perceptions and experiences in the court systems. Quotes from participants describing their perceptions and the nature of their involvement in the criminal justice system were shared. Data collection is ongoing.

Alexis Johnson shared data from an ongoing project exploring the experiences of male sex workers in New York City. Previous literature involving the sex work industry has focused almost exclusively on biological female sex workers, neglecting experiences of male sex workers (Morrison & Whitehead, 2008). The primary goal of this research was to obtain an understanding of the experiences of male sex workers that are unique to this population. In a preliminary analysis of interviews with participants, seven domains emerged: Sexual Identity Development, Victimization, Psychological Processes, Experiences with Sex Work, Positive Experiences with Sex Work, Consequences of Sex Work, and Additional Factors and Challenges. Factors that may be unique to male sex workers include positive experiences and sexual gratification obtained through sex work, the vague terms of service involved, and the lack of third party involvement and independence gained from such a system. Results also suggested a need to refocus intervention efforts, specifically with respect to gaining medical benefits, developing employment programs, and avoidance of labels (i.e., “prostitute”).

Amalia Quintanilla presented preliminary results of a project on LGBT experiences with and perceptions of the criminal justice system. In psychological, sociological, and criminal justice literature, authors have noted the possibility that some LGB survivors of crime are reluctant to interact with the criminal justice system for fear of experiencing microaggressions or outright discrimination (Pattavina et al., 2007; Potoczniak et al., 2003). However, studies that address LGB perceptions of the criminal justice system and willingness to seek help through this legal avenue are scarce. Accordingly, the goal of this study was to assess LGBT perceptions of the criminal justice system through focus groups. Preliminary findings suggest that LGBT people have both positive and negative reactions to the criminal justice system, and that a variety of factors may influence their perceptions and experiences. Further, results suggest that LGBT-identified people will seek help and compensation within the criminal justice system—but their past experiences and perception of the system causes them to be hesitant, careful in their interactions, and tempers their beliefs about the eventual outcome of situations.

The presentations in this symposium demonstrate that LGBT-identified individuals have both positive and negative reactions to the criminal justice system, suggesting that while there are varying levels of inappropriate treatment and discrimination within specific aspects of the system (i.e., within the prison system versus in the courts), that some LGBTidentified individuals believe some measure of justice occurs within the system. An interesting theme across presentations that merits further investigation was the role of gender presentation, suggesting that much work still needs to be done to improve the experiences of transgender and gender nonconforming individuals in the criminal justice system. Future studies can continue to investigate other LGBT issues in forensic psychology, including experiences of LGBT offenders in prison, understanding the relationships between discriminatory laws and LGBT mental health, and examining experiences of LGBT youth with police.

About this Article

John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. Address correspondence concerning this article to Kevin L. Nadal.


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