Article originally published on MeetJustice.org on June 8, 2011.
In March, the media created a buzz in Atlanta’s LGBT community when it covered the arrest of popular drag queen personality Pasha Nicole (Christopher Lynch) and dancer Stephen Lang (Steven Lemery). The two were arrested and later collectively charged with human trafficking of a minor for sexual servitude, two counts of sexual exploitation of a child, and pandering by compulsion. Four male teens had been enticed by Lemery from several states surrounding Georgia and later pimped out of Lemery and Lynch’s apartment, where they’d been imprisoned. The story shatters a significant stereotype regarding sex trafficking: it isn’t only heterosexual men and underage girls that are involved in commercial sexual exploitation.
Traffickers are notorious for seeking out the most vulnerable members of society: those who are financially destitute, socially alienated, abused by family, or in need of food and shelter. Runaway teens make the perfect target – but this “target” is not just the young girls we expect. The targets come from different ethnicities, social backgrounds, economic circumstances, even gender and sexual orientation. Current estimates are that 90% of teens who runaway from home are approached by traffickers for the purpose of exploitation. And an overhwhelming amount of runaway teens identify as gay or lesbian – this makes them a wide target for pimps.
An estimated 325,000 minors are sexually exploited in the U.S each year. Of this number, 121,911 are runaway cases and 51,602 are “throwaway” cases (told to leave by a parent or guardian). According to the National Runaway switchboard, nearly half of these teens are runaways because of conflict with their sexual orientation. Tana Hall, licensed counselor at YouthPride, describes the sad reality that gay teens face when they’re not accepted at home: “The number one thing we get on our help line is ‘I’ve been kicked out and I don’t know what to do and I don’t know where to go’.”
Once on the street, both straight and gay runaways face enormous risk of being picked up by a trafficker. The National Runaway switchboard estimates that “…many [gay identifying homeless teens] get involved with prostitution and other abusive behaviors as a way of surviving”. Just like young girls who are exploited by pimps and traffickers, gay youth face the paradoxical classification of “teen prostitutes” despite often being under the legal age of consent. Unfortunately, the mentality that they choose to be prostitutes is even more prevalent with gay youth because some groups view their orientation as taboo or perverse.
Sex trafficking is difficult to talk about- and not just for emotional reasons. There are simply too few resources to help clear up the nature of the crime. Just how many people are being exploited- and who they are, exactly- is not readily understood. Even less is known about male victims of sex trafficking than is known about females, and there are no rehabilitative systems of care designed for gay youth who are victims or potential victims of sex trafficking.
In a press release, Deb Price claims that the Federal Runaway and Homeless Youth Act is in need of attention and renewal: “So much hostility and violence are directed at gay teens in foster care, homeless shelters or correctional facilities that many conclude they’re safer living on a sidewalk,” Price writes. “Our nation is failing these kids.”
After being driven from both home and homeless shelters, gay teens with nowhere else to go present particularly high-risk cases for commercial exploitation.
So how can we help gay youth who are being exploited or at risk of being exploited?
First: it starts with acceptance in the family. Home must be a safe place.
P-FLAG offers a hotline for parents who are struggling to cope with their child’s sexual orientation at 866-627-9749.
Secondly, shelters must be a safe place.
In the past, some Georgia shelters have refused to accept gay or lesbian homeless/runaway teens. Others have only accepted them if they were willing to undergo behavior modification programs. Still others are unable to protect young gay men and women from violence and harassment inside the shelter. Homeless youth already have limited ‘safe places’ – but for gay runaways, shelter is even scarcer. If you are or know someone who is a gay or lesbian runaway teen in need of shelter or resources, contact:
The National Runaway Switchboard at 1-800-RUNAWAY (1-800-786-2929)
Chris Kids (Rainbow Project) at 404.486.9034
Lastly: awareness works. Recognizing that gay teens are victims of sex trafficking in Atlanta is one of the key steps we must take in rescuing them.
Human trafficking, in all of its forms, is a blemish on the nation’s status as democratic city on a hill. We’re a country that is rich with rhetoric about freedom. But we’re also a country that contains roughly a third of the world’s slaves. The faces of these slaves are diverse: and each one deserves and requires recognition, review, and restoration.