No More Prisons, No More Closets

Supporting trans and queer prisoners is a crucial way we can continue the legacy of liberation-minded people like Angela Davis and Sylvia Rivera. We need to work toward a world where no one has to come out once, and definitely not twice.
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How and why would anyone be expected and forced to live without love from a significant other...? It's insane!

It's a familiar train of thought for anyone in a non-heterosexual relationship. But here, Regina Diamond, a lesbian ex-prisoner from New Jersey, is referring specifically to LGBTQ people behind bars, where relationships are against the rules. That didn't stop Regina from meeting her own partner while inside. As soon as they both got out, they moved in together.

The illegality of relationships is a problem "especially for people who are there for the rest of their lives," says Regina, who's now a student working at Rutgers University's Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities. She and I met last fall when I was traveling around the country to support the book Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex.

Regina spent four years inside. It was a sentence that came with added punishments, like for all prisoners, with next to no contact with friends and family, no right to gender expression, and the constant threat of violence from staff and other prisoners.

We spoke together on a panel with Captive Genders editor Eric A. Stanley and contributor Ralowe Ampu. Eric, Ralowe, and I gave our spiels: Eric explained how the book came together; Ralowe talked about her piece on confinement and surveillance at SROs (residence hotels); and I talked up Critical Resistance's newspaper, The Abolitionist.

But Regina's part was by far the most powerful. During that panel, she came out to the other students at Rutgers. Not as a lesbian, but as an ex-prisoner. She told us later it was "kind of like coming out twice."

Across the U.S., people who break the "no relationships" rule risk backlash from prison administrators. Regina remembered one couple whose relationship was uncovered: they were punished with what amounts to banishment when administrators transferred one of the two to another ward. "Sex was forbidden, and if people were caught, they would get a blue sheet [a disciplinary write-up], and were often sent to 'lock,'" also known as solitary confinement.

Trans women, specifically those of color, might be the most incarcerated group in the U.S. For many of them, finding a "john" or "husband" is a survival tactic -- a means of protecting yourself from violence in a hyper-masculine, aggressive environment. But intentionally or not, engaging in any relationship behind bars can also be an act of resistance and self-determination in a place that's set up to be totally void of love.

For me, hearing stories like Regina's has cemented how devastating the problem is. The swallowing up of certain bodies, like trans people, by the prison industrial complex is pervasive, and it's happening with more speed and sophistication as time goes by.

To use Critical Resistance's definition, the prison industrial complex (PIC) translates as the government and business interests that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems. Abolition of the PIC would mean creating alternatives to punishment and imprisonment. (Put the millions of dollars that go to laying the concrete for a new prison into drug rehab or jobs training, for example.) Captive Genders tells the mostly hidden histories of queer and trans people affected by the complex, from the resisters of police raids on gay bathhouses in Toronto, to Victoria Arellano, a Latina trans woman who died after administrators holding her at an ICE detention center denied her HIV meds.

Eric, Ralowe, and I left Jersey for Philly, and at UPenn Eric had a public conversation with Angela Davis, the scholar and former outlaw who came out publicly as lesbian in a 1997 issue of Out magazine. It was one of the first events where Angela, who does countless speaking engagements every year, spoke exclusively to the problems facing LGBTQ people in prison. She warned against prison reform as a cure for these problems: "We don't want to have a curriculum on gender and 'transgender' that is going to in some way promote the permanency of incarcerated genders, but rather one that leads to abolition."

When we got to New York, we stopped at Zucotti Park for the Sylvia Rivera Law Project's (SRLP) teach-in on how to include trans people as part of the Occupy conversation -- or as part of any social justice fight.

There over the human mic, among straight, white, able-bodied Occupiers as well as people who don't fall under any of those categories, SRLP's Reina Gossett told the story of New York's first Gay Pride in 1969. At the time it was called the Christopher Street Liberation Parade, and was held on the one-year anniversary of the night that queers came to blows with cops at the Stonewall Inn. That original parade (organized in part by SRLP's namesake, the trans activist Sylvia Rivera), stopped at a women's prison in protest of mass incarceration -- something most people who attend today's corporate Pride celebrations probably wouldn't know. I didn't.

A few hundred miles west of one of our tour stops in Virginia, prisoner organizers of the hunger strike that started May 22 in that state's Red Onion State Prison made history by putting sexual orientation front and center in their manifesto:

Regardless of sexual preference, gang affiliation, race and religion, there are only two classes at this prison: the oppressor and the oppressed. We the oppressed are coming together. We're considered rival gang members, but now we're coming together as revolutionaries.

Supporting trans and queer prisoners is a crucial way we can continue the legacy of liberation-minded people like Angela Davis and Sylvia Rivera. We need to work toward a world where no one has to come out once, and definitely not twice.

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