In the United States, June is recognized as LGBTQ+ Pride Month. It's a time to remember history, celebrate progress, and remind ourselves of the continued need to ensure equity and equality for LGBTQ+ people and communities.
Homophobia and gender-based discrimination make LGBTQ+ people, especially youth, vulnerable to various forms of violence and exploitation, including human trafficking. Human trafficking is the act of compelling someone to engage in work or commercial sex, for little or no pay, through force, fraud, or coercion. It is a systemic injustice that disproportionately affects marginalized people, groups, and communities who face discrimination.
Prejudice, stigma, and homophobia often lead LGBTQ+ youth to experience housing instability or homelessness. This is especially true if their family, friends, and communities do not accept their gender identity or sexuality. Research shows that LGBTQ+ youth are 13 times more likely to experience homelessness than their straight peers and that they are overrepresented among homeless youth populations, accounting for up to 40% in North America. This is a staggeringly high statistic, given that only roughly 5% of the general youth population identify as LGBTQ+.
Discrimination by shelters, social service providers, law enforcement, and other community agencies and leaders exacerbates vulnerability for LGBTQ+ youth. All this, coupled with young age, can lead to opportunities for exploitation such as human trafficking. Researchers found that LGBTQ+ youth are significantly more likely to experience human trafficking than their straight counterparts. Traffickers may offer fraudulent job opportunities or coerce youth into engaging in commercial sex acts in exchange for shelter and food. They may even use the person’s gender identity or sexuality as a tool of coercion to prolong the exploitation.
Although human trafficking disproportionately affects LGBTQ+ youth, cases are significantly underreported. Fear of additional discrimination, violence, and exploitation frequently keep survivors from reporting their experiences, and when they do seek help, adequate services are often not available. Many shelters do not accept men or transgender women, and non-affirming social services can create additional trauma for LGBTQ+ survivors. Additionally, survivors often choose to not seek help from law enforcement due to past experiences of discrimination or violence by police or fear of such mistreatment. Studies have shown that transgender individuals, in particular, experience high levels of mistreatment by local police. Additionally, some survivors choose not to report their trafficking experience for fear of having their sexuality or gender identity “outed” in the process.
Jose Alfaro, a leader in the anti-human trafficking movement, shared his experience as a homeless teenager who was trafficked. “Although I was still a child, my gender, sexual orientation, and race (Latino) rendered me invisible,” Alfaro wrote. “I needed help, but I stayed silent. My trafficker had groomed me to believe that I would get in trouble if anyone found out.” Without access to proper social safety net services, and facing discrimination and prejudice, Alfaro battled PTSD, anxiety, depression, and addiction in the years following his trafficking experience. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. Survivors “need services now, not later," Alfaro said. "They shouldn’t have to wait a decade to get the help that they need, as I did.”
How Can You Help?
Though this information is heavy and hard, there are things each of us can do to support LGBTQ+ survivors of human trafficking, including:
1. Creating Inclusive Communities and Services
Meeting the basic needs of LGBTQ+ youth by developing accepting communities and affirming social services can help prevent human trafficking and support survivors as they rebuild their lives. Intentionally creating programs, facilities, and communities that are overtly inclusive of at-risk populations, such as LGBTQ+ people, is paramount to combatting systemic injustices like human trafficking. Development of these safe spaces and inclusive services should be guided by the expertise of people with lived experiences of these issues. LGBTQ+ survivors of human trafficking are best equipped to educate service providers and community leaders on how to address this injustice among this specific community.
2. Educating Ourselves and Others
Misinformation can damage any social justice movement, and we know that the spread of myths and falsehoods have been harmful to the anti-human trafficking movement. Perpetuating false narratives fails to center survivors and keeps us from adequately addressing the issue. After learning from reputable sources, each of us should use our voice, position, and privilege to elevate the expertise of people with lived experience of this issue.
3. Advocating for Justice
Following the leadership of survivors, we can advocate for a more inclusive culture in our communities, workplaces, and schools. We should support policies that may impact the LGBTQ+ community and legislation that dedicates funding for more inclusive services. “Safe Harbor” laws have been proven to increase protections for youth who have experienced human trafficking. Advocating for improved policies that address systemic vulnerabilities at the community level is critical to reducing risk of human trafficking.
This work should be done year-round, not just during Pride Month. As Jose Alfaro explained, “Many organizations and people who claim to be allies advocate for us only when they need to use us for clout for Juneteenth or Pride month. Each day, I experience first-hand the racism and homophobia that Americans continue to harbor. There is progress, but it is halting and too slow.” United Way encourages you to learn more about this issue and support the LGBTQ+ community with the following resources:
- I am a survivor of sex trafficking and invisible no more (Jose Alfaro)
- Breaking Barriers: Improving Services for LGBTQ+ Human Trafficking Victims (Polaris)
- Staying Safe: Tips for LGBTQ Youth (Polaris)
- LGBTQIA+ Youth and Experiences of Human Trafficking: A Healing-Centered Approach (National LGBTQIA+ Health Education Center)
- Human Trafficking Prevalence and Child Welfare Risk Factors Among Homeless Youth (Covenant House & University of Pennsylvania)
- Labor and Sex Trafficking Among Homeless Youth (Covenant House & Loyola University)
Want to learn more about what United Way is doing to stop human trafficking? Find out more about the United Way Center to Combat Human Trafficking here.