LGBTQ+ young people are at high risk of human trafficking, in the United States and globally. Polaris identifies LGBTQ+ individuals as being the second most at-risk group, alongside people of color.
That heightened vulnerability is in part because kids in the LGBTQ+ community are more likely to experience homelessness, with 40% of homeless youth in the United States identifying as part of that group. Many of those kids are homeless because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. With family and social groups often rejecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer kids, those young people are left to fend for themselves. That can make “survival sex” (trading sexual services for basic needs, such as housing and food) seem like the only option.
Unfortunately, there is still a lack of data when it comes to the scale of trafficking’s impact on these individuals. The anti-trafficking community has a long way to go in understanding the complexities of how to care for LGBTQ survivors and how to resource the most vulnerable so they are never trafficked to begin with.
Fortunately, several LGBT survivors have begun generously sharing their stories with the world. Their voices offer awareness to those who have not lived through the nightmare of human trafficking and hope to other survivors who are fighting to reclaim agency and freedom.
Here are the stories of 8 LGBTQ+ survivors of human trafficking.
Jose Alfaro: A Survivor Advocate
Jose Alfaro was kicked out of his parents’ home when he came out as gay at age 16. An older man quickly took him in, promising stability and safety. Instead, the predator trafficked him through a massage business.
“After I escaped, I struggled. I began experiencing episodes of PTSD, anxiety, and depression. I used drugs and alcohol to cope. I felt worthless,” Alfaro told the Boston Globe.
After over a decade spent rebuilding his life, Jose Alfaro ultimately testified in court against his trafficker — and won. Now, he is on the board of the Human Trafficking Legal Center, and he has become one of the most vocal advocates for LGBTQ+ and boy survivors of human trafficking.
Chris Bates: The escalation of online exploitation
Chris Bates was first exploited online by older men, who took advantage of his vulnerable status as a queer kid in a poor, single-parent home. This quickly led to in-person meetings, with older men showering him with expensive gifts to earn his loyalty. Bates found himself homeless, constantly exploited for sex, and convinced that it was all his fault.
Since then, Bates’ intense determination and resilience has led him into a stable adult life as an advocate and lived-experience expert with Overcome Exploitation. His work to spread awareness about online exploitation and the experiences of boys who are trafficked recently led to Bates receiving the key to the city of Worcester, MA, where he now lives.
You can learn more about Chris Bates’ advocacy work at Overcome Exploitation.
Dessai Scott: Normalized abuse
Dessai Scott lived through a traumatic series of events that is all too common for transgender women like her: cast out of her abusive family’s home at just 16, she had no one to turn to when her boyfriend began selling her for sex. Because of the home environment she came from, further abuse from the men she was sold to seemed normal. But when she realized that she was being drugged against her will and assaulted while she slept, she knew she had to get out. After multiple escape attempts, it was the nonprofit FAIR Girls that ultimately helped her get free.
Scott has become an advocate and a mentor to other young women leaving trafficking. She even wrote a stage production about her story, inspired by her own experiences.
Read more about Dessai Scott’s journey through the Thomas Reuters Foundation.
Chin Tsui: Intersecting vulnerabilities
Chin Tsui’s story garnered national attention when an immigration paperwork error sparked a long series of violations of his rights. As a trans man who immigrated with his family from Hong Kong, Tsui had a unique set of vulnerabilities that led to 15 years of homelessness and being trafficked. When he finally found his way into more stability, he was detained due to the false identification papers he had used to try and hold down a job that was not exploitive.
#FreeChin became a social movement, with LGBTQ+ rights activists mobilizing on his behalf. He was finally freed in 2020, when authorities determined that his convictions were a result of having been trafficked.
You can read more of Chin Tsui’s story from the Transgender Law Center.
Joel Filmore: Captured by kindness
Survivor Joel Filmore told The Imprint, “It was easy for me to get caught up in sex trafficking. All my trafficker had to do was be kind to me, because that was something I hadn’t received growing up: kindness.”
As a gay man of color, Filmore had suffered constant marginalization in his small hometown. This led to a desperation for acceptance. He spent 10 years homeless and trafficked in Chicago. Ultimately, he was able to exit trafficking and get his criminal record cleared through proving he had been exploited. Now, he works as assistant professor at National Louis University and as a clinical counselor.
Read more of Joel Filmore’s story from the American Psychological Association.
Nathan Earl: Finding meaning after trafficking
Nathan Earl’s exploitation began at a young age, coming from family members. Coping with his reality led to a life of substance dependency and ongoing abuse from others. It was a Viktor Frankl quote that ultimately led him to seek recovery: “If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.”
Earl has lived out that concept now through decades of advocacy on behalf of other youth in the same position he was in. Through a consulting firm, Earl is sharing lived experience and industry expertise with organizations who seek to fight trafficking. He is also a sought-after speaker.
You can learn more about Nathan Earl’s work at Giant Slayer Consulting.
Sharon: Trafficked from Peru
Sharon was deceived and exploited through sex trafficking twice before the age of 20. As a trans teenager in Peru, she felt limited by her job options at home. She was trafficked for the first time at 16, and then re-exploited in Argentina shortly after she escaped.
Due to a lack of understanding and awareness of trafficking, even law enforcement intervention did little to support long-term resourcing for Sharon. Her story is a sobering reminder of how much support is still needed for marginalized groups like trans women.
You can read more of Sharon’s story, and those of other survivors from Peru, from Insight Crime.
Erik Gray: Falling through the cracks
As a child in a military family that moved between Japan and the United States, Erik Gray’s childhood included cultural tensions and resulting bullying. At 14 years old, as a curious kid trying to understand his identity, he encountered an older man on Craigslist who quickly began grooming him. Not long after, the man was trafficking him. Every adult Gray tried to share his situation with met him with judgment and disbelief. “Every filter we have to help our children skipped over me,” Erik Gray said in an interview with BEST (Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking).
Gray finally fought his way out of the dark situation that he was in on his own. He quickly became active in advocating on behalf of LGBTQ+ youth, fighting to ensure that no one else would fall through the cracks the way that he had.
You can find out more about Erik Gray’s work through the consulting service he co-founded, QUEE (Queers Uniting to End Exploitation).
Supporting LGBTQ+ survivors of human trafficking
Listening to and engaging with LGBTQ+ survivors’ stories is the first and most crucial step in beginning to understand how to better support this community.
Familiarizing yourself with the unique vulnerabilities LGBTQ+ youth experience will give you insight into how crucial it is to support these kids in your own communities. The best way to prevent the trafficking of LGBTQ+ kids is to offer them the care and support that counters their social vulnerabilities.
If you or someone you know is an LGBTQ+ individual impacted by trafficking, visit the resources below to learn more and get help.
Human Trafficking Hotline (call 1-888-373-7888, or text 233733)
Center for Family Services hotline and referrals (call 1-866-295-7378)