By Michael K. Lavers
Dany, who asked the Washington Blade not to use his last name, came to Virginia from Mexico in 2009 to escape the discrimination and abuse he said he suffered from his classmates and family members because he is gay. Those whom he said kidnapped him after he ran away from the school to which his parents had sent him as a child threatened to kill him because of his sexual orientation.
Dany moved to D.C. last year, but the woman with whom he was living soon told him the money he gave her to live in her home was not enough to pay for food and rent. He said that his landlord forced him to prostitute himself. He made the revelation during a District of Columbia State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hearing on trafficking of LGBT youth in Northwest Washington on Tuesday. Dany told the Blade in a follow-up interview she threatened to report him as an undocumented immigrant if he refused.
“I had no guidance because I was very fearful,” he told the commissioners. “I had no direction on what to do.”
A report the State Department issued in June  said up to 27 million people around the world are currently victims of labor and sex trafficking. Up to an estimated 300,000 people in the United States are currently involved with human trafficking.
The Polaris Project, an organization that combats human trafficking,  estimates 100,000 children are currently in the sex trade in the U.S. The group’s National Human Trafficking Hotline has also received more than 80,000 calls from people who want to report cases as well as victims seeking support.
Those who testified at the hearing said homophobia and transphobia only exacerbate the problem of human trafficking among LGBT youth.
Andrea Powell, executive director of FAIR Girls,  an organization that advocates on behalf of exploited girls and young women in the D.C. metropolitan area and elsewhere, highlighted the case of a 17-year-old transgender teenager from Maryland she said had recently been arrested for solicitation.
Powell said the teen has run away 62 times because of the abuse she said she suffered in the foster care system in which she has lived since birth. She said the teen’s boyfriend who is in his early 40s sometimes allows her to live with him in “exchange for sex.” Powell said he has also asked his girlfriend to have sex with others to help him pay the rent.
“The situation was pretty normal to her,” Powell said. “She would prefer not to have sex for money. She really preferred not to have sex with her boyfriend, but she did not want to be sent back to foster care and saw this as the best case scenario.”
A report the Williams Institute published last year  indicates 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT. Nearly 70 percent of service providers who responded to the survey cited family rejection as a major contributing factor to homelessness among this population.
Statistics from the National Coalition for the Homeless in 2009 indicate LGBT youth are more susceptible to victimization and mental health problems once they become homeless. The group said nearly 60 percent of homeless LGBT youth have been sexually assaulted, compared to roughly a third of their heterosexual counterparts. The National Coalition for the Homeless also found homeless LGBT youth are 7.4 times more likely to become a victim of sexual violence than those who are straight.
One person who requested anonymity told the committee a man who lived with his family in Honduras when he was a child began to abuse him because he is gay. He said his family kicked him out of the house after he told local authorities the man impregnated his 13-year-old sister.
The witness told the committee he began selling drugs to make money, but subsequently turned to prostitution. He said the person with whom he currently lives threatens to tell his family about what he is doing.
“This person is kind of a bad person to me,” he told the committee. “He has made me do stuff that I don’t want to do.”
The Polaris Project, the Metropolitan Police Department and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are among the members of the D.C. Human Trafficking Task Force that formed in 2004 to increase the amount of trafficker prosecutions while identifying and expanding services to victims. It also receives grants from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Assistance to combat the issue.
Casa Ruby CEO Ruby Corado, who told commissioners during the hearing she had to work four jobs to pay the family with whom she lived after she moved to the U.S. from her native El Salvador in 1986, said homophobic and transphobic attitudes among some older D.C. police officers remain a barrier to LGBT trafficking victims. She said the situation has begun to improve through the Metropolitan Police Department’s Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit.
“There are open-minded law enforcement out there,” D.C. Police Det. Steven Schwalm told commissioners during his testimony. “If you’re being exploited, by all means give us a call. We’re here to help.”
Powell said another potential solution is to work with law enforcement officials to refer trafficking victims to services under so-called safe harbor laws as opposed to placing them under arrest for solicitation and other crimes.
“Incarceration and detention are not safety planning options,” she said. “They’re not our best case scenarios.”
As for Dany, he began volunteering at Casa Ruby after he said four men beat him up because he is gay last December as he left his apartment to see his psychologist. He has a new place to live and has applied for a U visa that allows crime victims to live in the U.S.
Dany, now 23, told the Blade he no longer prostitutes himself.
“If my story is going to help someone, I’m going to tell it,” he said.
The National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s hotline is (888) 373-7888 or 233733 via text message.
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