Moving Beyond Scared Straight: Stop Using Homosexuality As a Scare Tactic

by Brittany Dawson

As an aspiring educator, it was recommended that I watch a few episodes of A&E TV’s reality series, Beyond Scared Straight. According to my mentor, this exercise would help me understand external factors that contribute to how students form negative associations towards education. Beyond Scared Straight targets troubled and at-risk teens who have criminal records, lag behind academically, and come from “shattered” homes. County-based youth outreach and prevention programs send unruly teens to an overnight or full-day prison visit, showcasing the reality of falling victim to the monstrous claws of an ominous, unforgiving criminal justice system. Inmates emotionally and verbally brutalize teens, puncturing their ostensibly unconquerable egos, and leaving many deflated. These uncensored stories give teens a chance to take responsibility for their actions and choose life over vice.

Nonetheless, despite my reservations to watch a show that sensationalizes teen trauma under the guise of reality television, I trudged on and watched several episodes.

I opened my journal and scribbled terse yet accurate notes about the barriers adolescents faced: no father, violence at home, bullying, drug addiction, incarcerated guardian. Each story moved my heart to silence and curiosity, especially an episode featuring six teens from Hampton Roads, VA.

All went awry when teens were introduced to openly gay and transgender inmates. Neither tray-slamming convicted murderers nor tattooed Herculean-like inmates seemed to place the same level of fear and anxiety in the teens than these inmates’ open expression of their identity. One by one, inmates trickled out from their cells as ants would a hill and readily offered their take on prison life.

A female correctional officer motioned for a male inmate to talk to a 14-year-old boy on his transformation from the streets to prison.

“Hey, you’re going to meet me and sleep with me every day,” the inmate said.

“Hell nah, man,” barked the boy, a peevish, uncomfortable grin stained his face. He hurried backwards and dodged the inmate’s glance.

The inmate continued. “This is what you see when you’re in the jail. You don’t see a girlfriend. You see me. When you eat, you’re eating with me. You’re coming up to my cell.”

The young boy grimaced and pursed his lips, bemused as the gay inmate sashayed and rolled his neck.

“Are you gay?” asked the female correctional officer, watching the 14-year-old grow even smaller as the inmate bobbed his head confidently.


“Have you always been gay?”

“Nuh-uh, I wasn’t gay when I first came in here. I was hard like you when I first came in here. Then they turned me into this little punk and that’s what they’re going to turn you into. You ain’t no gangsta and you don’t go hard.”

Likewise, a female teen experienced similar fears when a female inmate growled at the young girl.

“I’m gonna make you my girlfriend,” she bragged with a booming hiss, “[I’m] gonna take your virginity.” Teeth exposed, she blew a kiss.

Another inmate gave words of wisdom to a visibly shaken 15-year-old. “Anything goes in here. When you can’t holler and get no help, who ‘gone be in there? Your cellmate, who MIGHT be your girlfriend. Yeah. They got girlfriends in here.”

All in all, while the visit pinpointed the gravity of the at-risk teens’ reality, it proved to be a dangerous way to represent LGBTQ individuals. In fact, these statements are not limited to this particular episode, it’s a visible theme found in almost every Beyond Scared Straight episode.

The correctional officers projected inaccurate statements about LGBTQ individuals and treated being LGBTQ as something dirty and debasing. Several officers (not seen in this episode, but in others) make merciless jokes on men and women getting “turned out” in prison, turning the lived experiences of LGBTQ identities into a cautionary tale.

At what point did homosexuality become something to be afraid of? What are we telling our Black LGBTQ youth who are struggling with their identities, as well as with the added pressures of adolescence? The underlying message of Beyond Scared Straight is clear: “If you don’t want to be gay—or in other words, effeminate and weak—don’t come to prison!” Correctional officers capitalized on this anxiety and treated LGBTQ individuals as threatening and unwanted.

Two harmful and inaccurate conclusions can be drawn from this dialogue: (a) being gay is a choice, and (b) being gay is a consequence of committing a crime.

When we place LGBTQ identities in the context of criminality, we are sending problematic messages to young people about what it means to be gay, bisexual, or transgender. We cannot endorse programs that inject poisonous, misguided opinions of a community into the impressionable veins of youth who are already vulnerable and distrusting.

Homosexuality is not an undesirable outcome of living on the streets, nor is it an infectious virus that burns away masculinity or femininity or “turns you out”. Yes, LGBTQ people can and do commit crimes, but centering their identity as a consequence of their misguided actions is troubling and harmful.

I am no way insinuating Beyond Scared Straight hasn’t changed lives, but if we probe further into how this dialogue is framed, it is evident that these statements do more than deter young people from continuing down the wrong path: They send them dangerous, and homophobic messages that LGBTQ people are to be feared.

They give a new meaning to being “scared straight,” and it’s one I do not like.

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos

Brittany Dawson is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She is a senior at the University of South Carolina who is passionate about equality, social justice, and education. You may follow her on Twitter: @BrittanyJDawson.

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