Over-Representation of LGBTQ+ People in Prisons Largely Driven by Outsized Incarceration of Queer Women, Data Shows

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

People identifying LGBTQ+ are overrepresented at all points of the criminal justice system. A new report from the Prison Policy Initiative takes a closer look at just how steep those disparities are, the factors likely fueling the over-incarceration of LGBTQ+ people, and places where data is limited.

The report examines various national surveys and datasets, many of which leave out the experiences of transgender people and others within the LGBTQ+ community.

“Unfortunately,” PPI notes, “government data on gender and sexuality in the criminal justice system do not allow us to see whether intersex, asexual, gender nonconforming, two-spirit people, and other groups within the queer community are also overrepresented in our criminal justice system.”

In one such limited survey, the National Inmate Survey, responses indicate that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are incarcerated at more than three times the rate of the general adult population.

Data from the survey shows that much of the disparity is driven by the incarceration of queer women. While one in 20 people held in men’s prisons identifies as gay or bisexual, one in three held in women’s prisons identifies as lesbian or bi. Put another way, 3.4 percent of women in the U.S. identify as lesbian or bisexual, compared with 33.3 percent of women in prison. Another 8.8 percent of imprisoned women reported having had sex with other women, but said that they did not identify as lesbian or bisexual.

According to data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2019, gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals (again, no trans or other identities represented) were 2.25 times as likely as straight individuals to be arrested within the last 12 months. This, like the imprisonment rates of queer people is largely the result of disparate arrests of lesbian and bisexual women who were arrested at 4 times the rate of straight women. Gay and bisexual men were arrested at 1.35 times the rate of straight men, according to the survey.

Lesbian and bisexual women also receive longer sentences than women who identify as straight for the same crimes, and are overrepresented on probation and parole.

The overrepresentation of LGBTQ+ people in the justice system begins before adulthood. An estimated 20 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system are LGBTQ+. And 40 percent of youth in carceral facilities for girls identify as lesbian, bi, queer, and/or gender non-conforming (trans kids missing from this data, as well).

PPI notes that the high rate of justice system involvement for these youth is often due to “the obstacles that LGBTQ youth face after fleeing abuse and lack of acceptance at home because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.” In this way, young people are “pushed towards criminalized behaviors such as drug sales, theft, or survival sex, which increase their risk of arrest and confinement.”

There’s far less data on trans people in the U.S. justice system. According to estimates from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are more than 3,200 transgender people in federal and state prisons and 1,827 trans people in local jails. An analysis by NBC News in 2020 found, however, that there were 4,890 trans-identifying people just in state prisons — not counting federal lockups or jails.

In another survey, one out of every six trans people reported having been previously incarcerated. Nearly half of Black trans people said they had been incarcerated.

A survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that almost half of trans people feel uncomfortable seeking help from law enforcement. One in five trans individuals — and 38 percent of Black trans people who had previously had contact with police said they were harassed by officers. Among Black trans people, 15 percent said they had been physically abused by police and seven percent said they had been sexually assaulted.

Trans people face poor treatment and conditions behind bars, including denied health care, and higher rates of solitary confinement, harassment, and physical and sexual assault, PPI notes.

The National Inmate Survey found that what it deemed “sexual minorities” were more likely to be put in solitary confinement — often as a means of “protection.” LGBTQ+ people are also far more likely than other imprisoned individuals to be sexually victimized by staff and other incarcerated people.

Discrimination in the community is the first piece of the pipeline to imprisonment for LGBTQ+ people. Advocacy groups, including the Movement Advancement Project and Center for American Progress call for increased social supports for LGBTQ+ kids and young adults at the family, school, housing, employment, and community levels. Advocates also call for the decriminalization of sex work, and more drug policy and sentencing reforms to reduce disparities in justice system involvement.

“While the central goal should be keeping LGBTQ people out of prison in the first place,” says PPI, “far more needs to be done to ensure their safety behind bars, by preventing harassment and sexual assault, improving systems for addressing assault when it occurs, providing access to appropriate housing, health care, and clothing to incarcerated transgender people, and enacting and enforcing non-discrimination policies for staff.”


  • Maybe LGBTQWTFBBQMICKEYMOUSE folks get arrested more because they commit more crimes?

    Instead of pointing the finger at the mean old po-po, try some introspection for a change.

  • Is there a link between the alphabet soup people and mental illness? Seems like a pretty good bet. Is Witness la allowed to even consider that probability, or is that considered a form of crime-think?

    Btw I like that whole “two spirit” thing, although I have to admit I’ve never heard of it before. I always thought cf’s antics were due to a borderline personality disorder, but maybe it’s this two spirit thing that’s the cause of his bouts with psychotic rage.

  • Dope of reality makes a point, albeit in a homophobic way that appears to gotten by the ever vigilant editor. The other possibility is that police officers, like my racist homophobic blog mate, are, let us say, drawn or attracted to this segment of the population. Once arrested they then pat them down for weapons and once booked they humiliate them with a body cavity search. I, too, suggest some introspection, dear Dope. Reminds me of the swashbuckling manly man of law enforcement who was also homophobic, J. Edgar Hoover.

  • Childish Fool,

    I have good friends who are LGBTQWTFBBQMICKEYMOUSE, and I’d lay my life down for them. The problem I have with “them” and pajama boys like you is that some demand extra rights above and beyond the rest of society. No thanks.

    And J Edgar, by most accounts, wasn’t homophobic. He was a homosexual.

  • Well as usual they blame others for the behavior by these offenders. Not all LGBQ… commit crimes. There are many gay and lesbians serving their communities as peace officers everyday. Most serve in other professions throughout our community without interacting with the CJ system.

    Many recent study have indicated that lesbians are likely to experience IPV than women in straight relationships. Women beating women with no straight men around, yet it’s their fault.

    Can we please stop suggesting that surveys are real science. Advocacy group conducts survey and finds exactly what they are looking for! Big surprise.

  • Cf, a childish fool without a doubt, you can’t make a comment without wallowing in one of your sexual fetishes. Stop projecting your sex fantasies onto others.

  • If one were to believe all the “social justice” blather plastered all over this site a person would walk away thinking no one is responsible for their actions ever because they are all members of some “oppressed, abused, marginalized and afflicted group” which excuses them from having any accountability for their actions, which they are unable to control due to no fault of their own. This proposition in itself is insulting, pandering and condescending and puts forth certain folks as the self-anointed saviors of the “poor, oppressed and simple minded natives”. So basically, no one is guilty of committing crimes or taking responsibility for anything since we are all imperfect and are members of some special group or the victim of a watershed event in our life that pushed us over the edge and made us do something for which we should not be blamed for but instead “restored”. All those “bad cops” are just products of their family and social environment prior to joining the force. Can we really come down hard and blame a Black or Hispanic police officer for acting the way they do since their behavior is simply a result of growing up in the skin they were born in and all the institutionalized racism they have had to endure? Are you listening DA Gascon? Does your research show any correlation? This site alone has mounds of “scholarly researched articles” that support this belief. What about all the White male officers, are they not suffering from the guilt of being born into the “privileged class” and having to bear the burden of being looked at as oppressors and racist? The weight of this has to have caused lifetime emotional stress and trauma. How can we punish them for their wrongdoings? Shouldn’t they be afforded the same consideration as other members of the society and be rehabilitated and restored rather than punished?
    Everybody has something in their life or is a member of some group that qualifies for the “I’m not responsible for what I do” card. The ultimate goal is to have no law, no order and chaos since everyone is a victim one way or another I guess.

  • Over-representation, under-representation, if only everything aligned with census data we would have a more perfect world…

    But everything is racist or in this case discriminatory… this article is Mickey Mouse…

  • Dope of Reality, I am sure you would lay down for your fellow gay officers. I suspect you are not man enough to make that joke in front of them. And, your ignorance shows. J Edgar Hoover was both, a homosexual and a homophobe, a self-hating homosexual. He went after them almost as much as he went after blacks or so-called communist. Put down the donuts and pick up a book.

    Madame Kong, you see things. To answer your question, there is no link between sexual orientation and mental illness. You are behind the times. The APA took that out of the DSM several decades ago. Just like on race issues, your are behind the times on issues of sexual orientation. A racist and a homophobe. If you were only a misogynist, too, you would be a triple threat.

  • Why cf, you’re quite the conformist. I know it’s difficult for you because you want so badly to believe ( while sneering at your enemies) but politics often have quite a lot to do with “expert” opinions. You might want to read a history book.

  • Adjusting for the fact that racial minorities in the USA have higher rates of ‘LGBT identification’ (racial minorities commit more crime), the lower age structure of LGBT people (most crime is committed by young people) and the higher testosterone levels of female homosexuals and perhaps male bisexuals (T levels are somewhat associated with criminality), the connection would probably disappear.

    In the UK, for example, homosexuals are less likely to be members of prison population and are better behaved while in prison (1.5% of the population vs 1.3% of prisoners, more likely to be model prisoners and to be given privileges).

    I’m not sure why racial minorities in the USA have higher levels of LGBT identification. It might have something to do with that fact that LGBT identification is more common in urban centres, where most racial minorities live, and is somewhat a political identity. Especially for women!

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