Not a tick box exercise: LGBTQ+ women and multiple disadvantage

While there is abundant evidence of the ethnic, gender and age make-up of people in contact with the criminal justice system, very little data exists on people from LGBTQ+ communities. What we do know, however, is that LGBTQ+ people are disproportionately impacted by multiple disadvantages such as homelessness, mental-ill health, trauma, discrimination or problematic substance use – which are known to be driving factors of offending.

In this two-part article, co-written with three lived experience members from our Women’s Forum, we explore what it’s like being an LGBTQ+ woman in the ‘revolving door’ of crisis and crime.

The impact of multiple disadvantage

It is unclear exactly how many LGBTQ+ people come into contact with the police, are in prison, or under probation supervision. Looking at statistics on the proportion of LGBTQ+ people in prison, it is fair to assume that they are disproportionately represented at every step of the criminal justice system. LGBTQ+ identifying women make up 22% of women in prison, which is almost eight times more than the general UK population. A much smaller proportion of men – 5% – identify as LGBTQ+ in prison, although this figure is likely to be underestimated due to the prevalence of homophobia and hypermasculine culture in prison. 

We know that the discrimination and marginalisation that LGBTQ+ communities continue to face are strong prerequisites to physical and mental health inequalities, homelessness, and problematic alcohol and substance use.

Yet mainstream services fail to understand the profoundly unique barriers that LGBTQ+ people face and, in fact, often exacerbate these.

One of us reported that being open about her identity with social services and other support agencies often felt like a tick box exercise,

Being the L in LGBTQ+ made me more vulnerable to trauma, and homelessness, many times throughout my life.

or even made her vulnerable to various forms of abuse – such as verbal discrimination or mistreatment from caregivers.

Over half of LGBTQ+ young people have faced some form of discrimination or harassment while accessing services such as housing. Worrying numbers of LGBTQ+ people report having experienced some form of unequal treatment from healthcare staff because of their identity (5%), witnessed discriminatory or negative remarks by staff (one in four), even being pressured to access services to question their sexual orientation when accessing healthcare services (5%). 

Taking an intersectional lens

The burden of discrimination is even more profound for LGBTQ+ women from racially minoritised communities, who can experience rejection on grounds of their sexuality or race both within and outside their communities. The helplessness and isolation resulting from this has a pervasive, and lasting impact.

One of us shared how coming out as a lesbian at work was met by verbal abuse and open discrimination. The lack of appropriate response and support left her with no other choice but to leave the job which, together with the rejection she faced from her ethnic community, led to depression and exacerbated existing trauma. Pulled into homelessness and problematic substance use, she was subjected to further abuse because of her identity. Yet, she was never signposted to any organisation that was familiar with LGBTQ+ needs. She was never able to find support that addressed and understood the specific, intersectional issues that a Black lesbian could experience, compounding identity issues, shame and self-hatred.

Being LGBTQ+ by itself… Is that a thing… No matter how you slice it, I’m a black woman first.

The complexity of intersectional discrimination, and its interconnectedness with multiple disadvantage means that the needs of LGBTQ+ people are routinely overlooked. While services supporting people with multiple disadvantage often fail to provide tailored interventions to LGBTQ+ communities, LGBTQ+ run organisations do not generally have the resources to address the intricacy of multiple disadvantage. This can, in turn, have a lasting ripple effect that leads people into a revolving door of crisis and crime.

In the second part of this blog, we will discuss issues of representation and bias against LGBTQ+ people within the criminal justice system, and what is needed to rebuild trust.

Revolving Doors is committed to representing the diversity of voices that experience contact with the criminal justice system. We thank Eden Rose, Aly and River for sharing their experiences and ideas with such honesty and passion. We will continue our efforts to make our membership more diverse and shed a light on marginalised communities in the revolving door every month of the year – and invite anyone from the LGBTQ+ community who wants to help us break the cycle of crisis and crime to get in touch.