In San Francisco during the month of June, rainbow flags fly down Market Street from the Castro district all the way down to the Ferry Building. Pride Month is a big deal here as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people celebrate and honor our history of resistance. In San Francisco, big business thrives on Pride Month, which can lead to the mistaken impression that gayness is now socially accepted everywhere. But the death of Matthew Shepherd in Wyoming and the continued assaults of lesbians in San Francisco make us painfully aware that we have a long way to go.
When thinking of our lesbian and transgendered friends in prison, “celebration” may not be the first word that comes to mind. Often people wonder if some women inside “become lesbians” while in prison, or if they were lesbians before doing time. The answer is yes, to both possibilities and all possibilities. Each person inside has her own experience, and looks for support however she can find it – from whoever can give it to her. Sometimes this support comes from romantic relationships or close friendships with other women inside.
In CCWP, we have met women prisoners who are partnered with other women, as girlfriends and even life partners through marriage. They tell us openly about their relationships, and are not fearful of how the guards or prison administration view their sexuality, although they are also painfully aware of how difficult it is to be open about their sexuality in a completely repressive environment. The support that they give to their partners is strong, beautiful, necessary and inspiring.
Any positive expression of sexuality can lead to retaliation by prison staff. Always looking for ways to tighten control in the prisons, guards may separate lovers from each other and move them to different units, often arbitrarily and with the knowledge that this will only bring disappointment and anger to the couple. According to one prisoner, “homosecting” is the number one reason that women are sent to the SHU (Security Housing Unit) to endure horrible time in solitary confinement.
Homophobia is used to control and stigmatize women in all areas of the criminal injustice system. For instance, when women who are lesbians, or who are viewed as “manly,” are on trial, their sexuality and/or gender deviance may be brought into their trials, even when the information has no relevance to their cases. The results are often guilty verdicts with harsher and longer sentences than what other women or men might receive.
We recognize that there is not only one “queer experience” inside women’s prisons, and that lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered persons inside should not be grouped into one large category of people. We welcome more information from people inside about queer life and experiences, so that we can learn and support each other in whatever ways we choose to live our lives.
And we are proud of all LGBT people doing time – struggling, loving and surviving.