Trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault and sexual violence.
What do you think of when you hear queer women in prison? Orange Is The New Black? Oz? Me too.
I watched OITNB regularly at least through the first couple of seasons with varying degrees of interest and investment. The Netflix series wasn’t without its problematic elements, but the cast was attractive, and the characters and their relationships were compelling. I always wanted to watch Oz because I was a big Benson and Stabler fan in my youth, but never was allowed to, due to the violence and sexual explicitness.
I think it’s safe to say that neither of these shows are a totally accurate representation of what life is like for incarcerated folks—especially incarcerated queer folks, though on Orange Is the New Black queer storylines abound. One thing the show does seem to get right is the sheer number of queer people living in prisons right now. According to a study by the American Journal of Public Health, LGBTQ people (“sexual minorities” in the study), are overrepresented in prisons. We are three times more likely to be incarcerated than straight people, the study says. About a third of the women in prison identify as bisexual or lesbian, as compared to a corresponding 3.4 percent of the U.S. population. And this is just for women who actually identify as LGBTQ. When you factor in those who had same-sex relationships or experiences before they were incarcerated, but who do not, for whatever reason, identify as a member of the LGBTQ community, that percentage jumps to just under half the prison population: about 42 percent.
Why is this? While it’s difficult to fully understand the causes behind so many queer women ending up in prison due to limited data, researcher Lara Stemple has a theory. She hypothesizes that women who diverge from traditional norms and roles associated with femininity may be more likely to be perceived as “aggressive” and “dangerous.” This is an example of the way stigma adversely affects the lives of those who are perceived as diverging too far from the norm.
We may have achieved marriage equality, but true equity is still out of reach, if the numbers of incarcerated queer people are any indication. Stemple also notes that it is important to take race into account when considering the high incarceration rates of LGBTQ people, given that a disproportionate number of incarcerated people are people of color. Stemple’s theory certainly holds weight when one considers the impact of tropes such as the angry Black woman, which mischaracterizes Black women’s justifiable anger at poor treatment as dangerous or even violent. The trope of the angry Black woman plays out so ubiquitously, that it is evident in movies, reality TV shows, and even the sports world.
Life for incarcerated queer women isn’t all the cliques and conspiracies that Orange Is the New Black makes it out to be. But what the show gets right is the increased risk of sexual assault that inmates face at the hands of both prison staff and other inmates. LGBTQ identified inmates, both women and men, are at higher risk of sexual assault than straight inmates, with trans women being at the most severe risk. Queer inmates are also more likely than straight inmates to be subjected to “segregation” punishment, such as solitary confinement, which has severe repercussions for queer inmates’ mental health and general wellbeing.
According to the ACLU, the experience of trans women in prison is utterly traumatic. An article published last November follows the story of a trans woman named Jules Williams, who experienced multiple instances of physical and sexual assault while she was incarcerated. Williams was kept in the Allegheny County Jail from 2015-2017 and was incarcerated with men, despite the fact that the state recognizes her correct gender on her identification. The ACLU reports that jail personnel were repeatedly “indifferent” to the threats that being incarcerated among men posed for Williams, which is a violation of her Constitutional right to be protected from harm while imprisoned. Williams’ experience is far from an isolated case: The ACLU reports that 21 percent of trans women spend time in prison, and are nine times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other inmates.
The United States is not the only country that needs to deeply consider and rectify the ways queer people are treated in prison. Erwin James, a writer for The Guardian, described the commonalities in the experiences of the more than 10,000 incarcerated gay men in the U.K., citing the pervasive effects of sexual suppression resulting from homophobia in prisons. Some gay inmates found themselves having to navigate being back in the closet for their own safety. Others had to be in coercive sexual relationships where they exchanged sex for protection. Still other inmates were referred to as “jail gays” in that the only same-sex relationships they had were while in prison.
While homophobia is undoubtedly experienced differently by gay men and lesbians and bisexual women, one thing remains true of all genders: that the curtailing of healthy sexual expression for people of all genders and sexualities is, as James describes, “painful, destructive, and damaging”and that the prison environment only amplifies these conditions.
Many of the queer women and femmes in prison are also sex workers, especially queer and trans people of color. SWOP Behind Bars is a chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project that specifically serves incarcerated sex workers. As they note, “prostitution is one of the few crimes where women are arrested more frequently than men” and sex workers often experience the so-called justice system as a “revolving door” wherein they “do time, though rarely receive the resources, social, economic, and psychological support that would enable them to leave the industry if they choose.”
SWOP Behind Bars is one of the few programs that endeavors to build relationships with incarcerated sex workers, connecting them with resources on the outside, such as case management services, that hopefully empower them while they serve time. SWOP Behind Bars also helps foster pen pal relationships for incarcerated sex workers, so that incarcerated sex workers can experience a link with the outside world that provides a sustaining connection. Some pen pals even end up having a “mentorship” like relationship with their correspondents.
This is not the only organization that understands the value of finding ways for incarcerated queer folks to experience self-expression while they’re behind bars. Though the stories coming out of prisons about queer people are often bleak, violent, and disheartening, there are some stories of hope—such as the connections that incarcerated people make with their pen pals, or forge amongst each other, or make within the rare creative writing and therapy groups, the outcome of which are the sharing of stories, such as those in Inside and Out. These experiences offer rare opportunities for healing, authenticity, and resilience, qualities that are especially abundant in the queer community.
So what can we do to stand in solidarity with incarcerated queer folks? SWOP Behind Bars has an excellent list of ten ways to take action, some of which include donating to them directly, applying to become a pen pal, or purchasing books from the Amazon Wish Lists of current incarcerated folks. You can also volunteer your time as an advocate and receiving training to become part of the community support line. Support Ho(s)e is another great resource if you want to get involved with advocacy for incarcerated queer and trans sex workers, and they’re currently working on an initiative to #StandWithAlisha, a sex worker sentenced to 15 years in prison for self-defense.
Sometimes it feels like there is so much injustice in the world, it is impossible to know where to start. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, a great resource is the Prison Activist Resource Center, which is a huge directory of anti-incarceration initiatives and projects, clearly and succinctly organized. Take your pick of any number activities to find one that suits your talents, interest, and ability for time commitment. Maybe even team up with friends to hold each other accountable for the work you intend to do, and to check in with each other to keep your spirits up.
Whether it’s becoming a pen pal, or working in your personal life to address and correct the underlying cultural stereotypes that make queer people of color— and queer Black femmes in particular—more vulnerable to predatory policing and more severe sentencing, we must use our privilege to center the needs of the most vulnerable among us. The most important thing to remember is that while queer folks have made so many strides in recent years towards acceptance and equality in society, true equity can’t happen until the most vulnerable members of our community are safe from harm, and free.