The LGBTQ community is one of the most at-risk for human trafficking.
As one of the fastest-growing demographics of marginalized people in the United States, LGBTQ youth face tremendous pressure and an increased risk of sex trafficking. Cultural biases, homophobia, sex and gender discrimination, economic vulnerability, generational hate, and social stigma make LGBTQ youth inordinately vulnerable to exploitation.
As a gay child in Texas, José Alfaro was raised in a conservative religious home, where he experienced abuse and discrimination from his own parents.
After José was sent to live with an aunt at 15, he found the acceptance and belonging he was craving in relationships with several older men, one of whom began grooming him and then trafficking him. José found himself trapped in a horrific situation: “It was degrading and terrifying, but I was too scared to leave. I felt like I had nowhere to go, and my trafficker kept reinforcing that to keep me under his control.”
José’s heartbreaking story is unfortunately common. Sadly, the number of LBGTQ youth cases reported to authorities is not even close to an accurate reflection of how many individuals are trafficked on a daily basis.
Overlooked and forgotten.
True statistics on LGBTQ youth and human trafficking are severely underreported. The discrepancy is due to complex factors including fear of discrimination, prejudice, and violence, societal stigmas surrounding the LGBTQ population, and an often strained relationship with law enforcement. In fact, of the 31,659 cases of human trafficking reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline since 2007, only 418 (that’s just 1%) were reported as being connected to the LGBTQ population.
LGBTQ youth are often overlooked or forgotten when it comes to the conversation regarding the fight against sex trafficking. Among organizations fighting human trafficking, there is a growing need for specific training in acceptance, understanding, and awareness of the particular issues unique to the LGBTQ youth community.
Why are LGBTQ youth more vulnerable?
Homelessness & Financial Instability
The Polaris Project has determined that, along with people of color, LGBTQ people are the demographic most vulnerable to being trafficked. This is compounded by longstanding societal discrimination and prejudice.
LGBTQ youth face unique challenges because of their sexual identity. Many are victims of discrimination, abuse, or hate from their own family members. They might see running away as their only recourse. The added factor of homelessness leaves this already vulnerable population even more at risk.
According to the U.S. National Coalition for the Homeless, homeless LGBTQ youth are significantly more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and trafficking than other homeless youths. The Polaris Project reports that up to 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. That means nearly half of the youth living on the streets are at elevated risk of being trafficked. Even more alarming, according to the National District Attorney’s Association, 1 out of every 3 homeless teens are lured toward some type of sex work within just 48 hours of leaving home.
Traffickers are ready to take advantage of the vulnerabilities specific to LGBTQ youth. They know many are no longer welcome in their families or homes, so they position themselves as the sole source of love and care for these insecure and hurting hearts. Whether it’s through building up physical, financial, or emotional dependence, traffickers present themselves as the answer to the deep questions of identity, acceptance, and belonging that survivors are experiencing. Traffickers may feel like a substitute for the family structure so many LGBTQ teens have lost.
MENTAL HEALTH CHALLENGES
In part because of the oppression directed toward some sexual orientations, many LGBTQ young people also suffer from mental health challenges. According to the Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, 42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.
The complexities of the multifaceted trauma that LGBTQ individuals live with on a daily basis can put them in a position where they may not even be able to identify the abuse they are suffering at the hands of their traffickers. Like Jose, if they are not aware of the deep damage inflicted on them through their situation, they may not see the need to escape.
Due to the ways that LGBTQ youth are often severed from their family and social systems, they might be cut off from resources that would provide medical, legal, and educational support. For example, dropping out of school removes them from mandatory reporting spaces.
Another complicating factor is that many LGBTQ youth are simply unaware of the social supports and anti-trafficking resources available to them. Even if they are aware, they fear that because of their sexual identity, they will face discrimination and be excluded from accessing these resources. Many also struggle with shame about their situations or do not seek help for fear of further rejection and alienation.
The Exodus Road and LGBTQ Youth
At The Exodus Road, we are committed to freedom for the most at risk, and we know that that includes the LGBTQ community. This is a reality here in the United States and around the globe.
Our team in Thailand works with a special focus on boys that are trafficked for sexual services to adult men. Most of the advertising for these boys takes place on social media, where pimps sell to tourists and local gay men. Many of these children and teens identify as LGBTQ. One such tweet read, “A good and nice boy is available for sex with you if need pls let us know.” This tweet led to a TER-lead investigation uncovering a pimp’s control of a 16-year-old boy. Thankfully, police moved on the case, and the trafficker was arrested.
Since 2012, TER has helped police stop the abuse of 57 boys. This represents 12% of our total reported cases in Thailand alone over the last 9 years.
Much work remains
Human traffickers target those who are vulnerable, and those who identify as LGBTQ are still an incredibly vulnerable population. While more resources, advocacy, and research need to be invested in serving this community, we are grateful for the rising tide of attention that is building on behalf of these valuable young people.
Visit these resources for further reading and support for this population:
How to Identify Signs of Trafficking in Students
Does Slavery Exist in America Today
Love 146 Not A Number curriculum
The Trevor Project
True Colors United
TWLOHA LBGTQ Mental Health Resources