Queer and proud

Pride Month Behind Bars: Uplifting the Stories of the Incarcerated Queer Community

Since the early 2000s, June has been widely recognized as Pride month, a time set aside to honor liberation, celebrate the pursuit of equality, illuminate the history of injustices inflicted upon the LGBTQ+ community, and recognize some of the most monumental Queer figures from the past and today. Every year, the LGBTQ+ community and allies bring awareness to the month and the communities it is set to honor through parades, marches, and themed branding that demonstrate an unrequited dedication, autonomy, and authenticity.

Throughout history, LGBTQ+ Pride and the various means to express or practice queerness have been consistently criminalized, making the relationship between the prison industrial complex and the fight for Queer liberation closely intertwined.

The LGBTQ+ Experience in Prisons and Jails

Today, members of the LGBTQ+ community are incarcerated at a rate three times higher than the total adult population, with women’s prison facilities hosting a majority of these individuals. One in three women in prison identify as lesbian or bisexual, and one in six transgender people have been incarcerated at some point in their lives—47% of those being Black trans people.

What’s more, the treatment endured by Queer people in prison and their experiences in prison is often more life-threatening than the average incarcerated individual: 85% percent of Queer people in prison reported having been held in solitary confinement at some point during their incarceration.

From access to gender-affirming care, protection from homophobic acts of violence, and dodging sexual assault, among hundreds of other inhumane and unspeakable violations, to live life in prison as an openly Queer person means living in fear.

Listen to the Incarcerated Queer Community

Pride is a time to celebrate freedom, uplift the voices of the Queer community, and continue to work toward a more equitable, inclusive society.

At APBP, we believe that reading is not only one of the best ways to find freedom for yourself but also one of the best ways to advocate for the freedom and justice of others, especially the overlooked voices of the Queer community who often find themselves forgotten behind prison walls during Pride month celebrations.

This year, APBP is celebrating Pride by uplifting some great work from and about members of the LGBTQ+ community who have been affected by incarceration. You can show your support for the Queer incarcerated community this year by checking out these books, essays, podcasts, and videos that showcase stories of discrimination, liberation, and self-discovery.

“How I Celebrate Pride in Prison” by Lexie Handlang

The Prison Journalism Project features a compelling article written by incarcerated author Lexie Handlang, who shares what pride celebrations look like inside prison walls—at least in the prisons that allow it.

Celebrating pride is a crucial part of the Queer identity and experience, and with around 40% of the incarcerated population identifying as part of the LGBTQ+ community, it is important we seek to find ways to include them in these celebrations and that they have the resources to celebrate.

“I Know That to Be True: Being Transgender in Prison” by Taci Vixen

Taci Vixen, a transgender woman who is currently incarcerated in Ohio, shared an essay with us at APBP about fighting for the right to live their life as their true self while behind bars.

While on death row, Taci has authored three books, six screen plays, and several essays. In April 202, they wrote to us again: “I very much hope that what I’m doing, the words I write, will be a source of inspiration to others in the future. I’ll continue to do that for as long as I’m alive, to help as many others as I’m able to, in what ways I’m able to do so.”

“I Survived Prison During the AIDS Epidemic: Here’s What It Taught Me About Coronavirus” by Richard Rivera

The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and the devasting effects resulting from the government’s disdain and disregard for Queer health stands as one of the more recognizable events of LGBTQ+ history. While millions of people on the outside battled for recognition and accessible healthcare, these horrendous conditions were only exacerbated within the prison walls.

Read what author Richard Rivera has to share about what it was like to be in prison during the AIDS epidemic, watching the already fragile healthcare systems in these facilities crumble and leaving thousands of men to succumb to the disease in isolation and agony.

“When a Gay Inmate Loses the Ability to Blend In” by Stephen Wilson

Prisons can be an especially dangerous place for Queer people. In this essay, incarcerated writer Stephen Wilson shares what happens when a prison fails to value the personal property and privacy of an incarcerated individual; through a mail delivery mix-up, his sexuality is outed, and his entire dynamic with the prison facility is shifted, suddenly subjecting him to new avenues of assault, oppression, and prejudice.

All in all, this story showcases the lack of autonomy Queer people have over sharing their sexual identity and harkens to the widespread experience of being outed without consent.

“Meeting Another Trans Woman in Men’s Prison Made Me Believe in My Future Again” by Vanessa del Rio

Transgender visibility is one of the many vital ways we celebrate pride and help support the needs of the transgender community.

Harper’s Bazar published this essay in 2021, following the story of Vanessa Giselle del Rio, a Black trans woman being detained in a men’s prison, who expresses what it is like to have your mind, body, and gender taken from you and how seeking refuge in another trans woman in prison helped redefine her perception of a free future.

“Episode 55: Marcel and Angie” of Ear Hustle

In this episode of the Ear Hustle podcast, an incarcerated transgender man, Marcel, and an incarcerated woman, Angie, come together to speak on the struggles of pursuing a life authentic to oneself.

Showcasing the dysphoria, sexual assault, gang violence, and other immense pressures that young trans children endure that lead them to incarceration, these powerfully moving stories exemplify what it means to be betrayed by your family, your body, and society.

The Women’s House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison by Hugh Ryan

Queer women are arrested at a much higher rate than Queer men and straight women, and in Hugh Ryan’s book, The Women’s House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison, he touches on the significant history of Queer women and the prison complex by investigating the stories of women incarcerated at the Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village, New York.

Tracing the over-policing of Queer communities, the intersecting pressures put on Queer women of color, and the overarching effects this has on the wide-scale community, Ryan’s book is a key resource in understanding the history between the LGBTQ+ community and the prison industrial complex.

Women, Culture, & Politics by Angela Y. Davis

Angela Davis is an iconic lesbian activist, professor, author, and formerly incarcerated political prisoner who has produced a series of works covering the intrinsically racist, sexist, homophobic, and imperialist philosophies embedded in the prison system—and in particular their effects on the Black and Queer communities of our nation.

In her book Women, Culture, & Politics, Davis compiles a series of essays, stories, speeches, and other writings that champion social, political, racial, and gender equality.

“Free CeCe!”

After defending herself from transphobic attacks, CeCe McDonald was wrongfully convicted to 14 months in prison for manslaughter.

In the “Free CeCe!” documentary, actress Laverne Cox portrays McDonald’s story as she traces the way unnecessary and destructive violence perpetuates throughout the trans experience, ultimately working to keep trans people, the entire LGBTQ+ community, and women in places of vulnerability and passivity.

“The First Drag Queen Was a Former Slave” by Channing Gerard Joseph

In this article from The Nation and in a Ted Talk about Black Queer culture, historian Channing Gerard Joseph shares some of the key research that has emerged from his work documenting the life, arrest, and activism of the earliest documented, self-dubbed drag queen, William Dorsey Sawnn.

From Joseph’s findings, we can see how one of the most iconic performances used to symbolize queerness and pride was coined from a figure directly born into imprisonment and, more importantly, see how easily the lives, work, and movements of Queer people in prison can be erased from public knowledge.

This Is Just the Beginning

So many stories are waiting to be told, and our list is just a starting point. We encourage you to seek out the voices of those behind bars this Pride month, learn about the history of incarceration and the LGBTQ+ community, and work in solidarity with incarcerated communities toward liberation, safety, and justice.

What stories would you suggest we add to the list? Let us know. We’d love to see your recommendations.

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