LGBT Month Celebrated in Federal Prison: A Validation for Lives Dismissed

At the start of June, pink flyers announcing LGBT Month started appearing around FCI Petersburg, a medium-security federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia, where I am incarcerated. The fliers, along with many colorful postings in the Education Department, explained what LGBT means: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. They profiled famous and successful LGBT persons, and generally strived to inject an element of understanding into the prison population, a population somewhat low on the concepts of compassion and understanding -- particularly as it concerns gender and social issues.

FCI Petersburg is an anomaly. When one thinks of prison, they think of big, burly men who stab one another. They think of gun towers and police batons. They think of crowded cell blocks and disease. They think of hate and of noise. What they don't think of are LeLe with her tattooed on eyebrows, Ashley with her cherry pink lipstick, Precious with her characteristic pony tail (and her love for animals, which she often can be found healing), and the other gay and transgender federal prisoners who walk the yard -- some in the open, others hidden due to fear.

The reason an LGBT month is possible at FCI Petersburg is because it has become somewhat of a gay and transgender haven. In the past several years, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has come to understand that they must start housing LGBT prisoners on "softer" yards or else deal with the turmoil of these prisoners being raped, abused, or beaten at the "harder" places. This understanding has created prisons where LGBT prisoners can feel safe at -- prisons at which they will not be assaulted simply for being different.

An outgrowth of the large LGBT population of FCI Petersburg is the celebration of LGBT month, a month designed to raise public awareness of LGBT issues and provide a day of validation to those often dismissed as lesser than. The participants made sure that we -- the non-LGBT prisoners -- could not help but to take notice. The phrase "loud and proud" comes to mind.

As previously mentioned, in celebration of LGBT month the Education Department was decorated in all manner of informative and colorful literature. And on the last Saturday in June, a bash occurred on the recreation yard, a party that included backwards softball (where the participants started by running to third base first), dizzy bat (where teams of players spun around in circles, then tried to race to the finish line), a one-mile Equality Walk, lawn bowling (through the use of plastic bowling pins and a rubber bowling ball), and even a massive group photo, which required the participants to line up against the outside of the Special Housing Unit's recreation enclosures in order to all fit (the walls of which span a portion of the recreation yard). While perhaps not the traditional manner of seeking social validation, it certainly was a colorful manner of expression and certainly got people talking, both leading up to the day and since.

As a non-LGBT federal prisoner (albeit one which tries to be socially conscious, and who has engaged in litigation against the Federal Bureau of Prisons for fellow transgender prisoners so that they can receive treatment such as individual counseling, hormone therapy, and bras, as I've extensively written at, I have to say that I initially disagreed with their plan. After all, in prison, LGBT prisoners tend to be picked on and abused. I felt that it was a bad idea to draw more attention to some of the weaker prisoners, prisoners who might not have the self-esteem or physical prowess to withstand such barbs. I still feel this way, at least as a general idea.

On the other hand, I have a number of gay and transgender friends here at the prison, many of whom I've discussed the matter with. The vast majority of them see this as a point of pride. They explain that they often have to hide their true selves or pay the consequences. They view the festivities that occurred on the recreation yard on the 28th of June as a day when their being -- their selves -- were validated. And some have expressed the hope that this public show of support for the incarcerated LGBT community might both strengthen the community, and also lend support to LGBT prisoners in hiding who are hurting. And this is something that I can support.

Prison is an odd place to be celebrating LGBT issues. To us non-LGBT prisoners, it can feel as if this celebration causes more problems than it solves. But if we look within ourselves and focus on the real issue -- that of people in hiding who are hurting because of the status quo -- then I think that we can come to the agreement that celebrating LGBT month at FCI Petersburg really wasn't a bad idea at all. And while I didn't participate in the dizzy bat or bowling on the 28th of June, I was out there supporting my LGBT friends, and even spent an hour playing in a soccer game in the afternoon and an Ultimate Frisbee game in the evening. But it isn't about me this time. As a transgender friend put it, "This day is for us. Not for them."

In the end, the day went off without a hitch. While the musical chairs got nixed out of "safety" concerns -- a bit laughable in a place where flag football and street hockey games resemble mayhem and bones are regularly broken -- the games and contests were enjoyed by all. The MVP of the softball game wore a gold lamé headband. A first for Petersburg, without a doubt. Thumping disco music filled the air, and, surprisingly, the line for the cherry snow cones was, for once, orderly and patient. At least for one day, the mood on the yard was, well, fabulous.

Not everyone enjoyed the festivities. Grumpy thugs in hightop basketball sneakers stared down the yard bowling participants, and several clumps of tattooed, shaved-head types did their best to avoid the chipper groups of participants in the Equality Walk. The planned protests never got going, save for one lonely prisoner walking with his Bible, feebly insisting that the revelers were "going to Hell" for the "abomination" of the day. My transgender friend, who has been through some dark, dark days in prison, simply laughed at him. "It's hot," she said, "Go get a snow cone. You'll feel better."