“If someone had just asked, things might have been different,” said Mateo, a closeted, gay, gang-involved teenager in juvenile detention for committing a hate crime against a gay person. Mateo (pseudonym used to protect confidentiality) had committed a robbery at gunpoint outside a gay bar while shouting homophobic slurs at his victim.
The offense was the culmination of a pattern of escalating substance abuse and anger. Mateo had been self-medicating and acting out since coming out to his parents at age 11, an experience that left him feeling rejected and alone. He internalized his parents’ disapproval and carefully guarded this secret.
Mateo’s despair and isolation only deepened after his arrest. He described a detention facility in which staff generally assumed that youth were straight and in which homophobia, biphobia and transphobia were rampant. Because of the nature of his offense and his gender-conforming presentation, the detention staff felt freer to use anti-LGBTQ slurs and jokes in his presence.
Staff did not intervene when youth openly bullied and harassed anyone whom they perceived to be gay. In fact, the staff blamed victimized youth for “flaunting” their identity. Mateo retreated further into the closet, perceiving no safe option in which he could embrace his sexual orientation.
The probation agency had formal guidance for staff on how to promote the safety and well-being of LGBTQ youth, but staff members’ implicit bias about LGBTQ youth made them unable to recognize Mateo’s struggles. The primary source of his turmoil remained invisible to the adults entrusted with his care, and they missed a critical opportunity to help him.
And Mateo is not alone.