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OPENING REMARKS

I’ve stated it before but not often or forcefully enough: The LGBTQ community nurtures many of the most effective and motivating voices in the fight for prison abolition. LGBTQ people are frequently subject to the harshest and most dehumanizing treatment at the hands of the prison system. It is from this position that activists and formerly incarcerated individuals have mobilized against the prison industrial complex.

In the news, it is the circumstances of transgender people in prison that are most often described and decried. For clear reasons: imagine being held within a male facility when you identify as female. Or in a female facility when you identify as male. Read up on the situations of Marius Mason and Vanessa Gibson. In Pittsburgh, Jules Williams, a transgender woman suffered sexual and physical assault and harassment multiple times while detained at the Allegheny County Jail, a mens facility.

Very, very few prison or jail systems place transgender folx in facilities where they are free of victimization and predation. During her three years of incarceration in the Georgia Department of Corrections, Ashley Diamond was repeatedly assaulted, once after GDC officials placed her in a cell with a known sex offender. Diamond took the radical step to appeal directly to the public via “illegal” YouTube videos from her prison cell made on a contraband smartphone.

Diamond won freedom following a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the conclusion was that the GDC didn’t want to deal with the expense and supposed inconvenience of providing the hormone treatments she’d been on for 17 years prior to her imprisonment. Similarly, in California, Michelle-Lael Norsworthy was freed unexpectedly when her lawsuit for access to healthcare threatened the CDCR with huge medical bills. Shiloh Quine won the right for sexual reassignment surgery, but hers, all too unfortunately, was an exceptional case.

(For an instructive overview of the experience of female trans prisoners, read Kristin Schreier Lyseggen’s book Women of San Quentin: Soul Murder of Transgender Women in Male Prisons which details the stories of nine women, including Janetta Johnson, Tanesh Watson-Nutall, Daniella Tavake, Diamond, Quine and others.)

While transgender people are winning more and more hard-fought recognition in open society, prisons occupy the other end of the spectrum—closed, rigid systems unable to safely house the majority of prisoners and certainly unprepared and, more often, patently unwilling to recognize prisoners with gender dysphoria and their specific needs. (Trans issues are at the forefront in the military again. The regressive and punitive White House is banning transgender personnel from service. Unsurprisingly, DJ Pee-Tape is largely at odds with much of the military command.) Historically, the marginalization and criminalisation of LGBTQ people has funneled them into the criminal justice system, too. That point needs to be made.

Transgender prisoners are just one group within the LGBTQ community. Lesbians and gays face daily vilification within the criminal justice system. The tactics for resistance of different groups within the LGBTQ community necessarily vary in specific ways, but the enemy is common.

In a push back against the homophobia and transphobia embedded within the criminal justice system we should look to leaders such as CeCe McDonaldDean Spade and Reina Gossett. Their intersectional critique of policing and prisons connects the dots between discriminations of all types. Prejudice and inequality exist within our society; certain groups, including LGBTQ and particularly LGBTQ persons of color, are valued less than others. The root causes for racism, sexism, imperialism, militarism are the same, and those root causes not only emerge out of capitalism but are, in many ways, its foundations. The complete abandonment of LGBTQ persons’ needs in prisons brings into sharp focus the fact that the systems, and our society from which they grow, deem this group more disposable than others.

“Prison abolition means no one is disposable,” says Reina Gossett. Exile is not a solution to the shortcomings of a society; exile allows wider discrimination to perpetuate.

“We should not model what the state’s logic is about who is disposable,” Gossett continues. “Challenging and dismantling structures of violence. [We need] relationships modeled on a different logic, not on the logic of white, heteronormative hegemony.”

Seen through a queer lens, the violence of the prison industrial complex is laid bare. Prisons are sites of waste and sites of survival; sites into which those outside the dominant norm are discarded. True to capitalist, carceral logic, the only economic benefits prisons bring about are for the state, law enforcement unions, corporations and craven politicians. We, the taxpayers, hand over this wealth at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of all those locked up. In the modern U.S., prisons are not about “time out” or rehabilitation; they’re about control in order to instill order. Prisons crush humanity and they assault diversity.

Prison abolition is about identifying structures of violence and working against them; about prefiguring a better world in which you want to live. In reviewing the book Queer (In)Justice (Ed. Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock), journalist and activist Vikki Law notes the authors’ contention that “deep-seated prejudices and fears of queer people cannot be dismantled via hate crime legislation.” Social attitudes are the strongest underpinning to a just society, not the latter-stage adjudications of the law.

“The authors say,” continues Law, “that ‘many of the individuals who engage in such violence are encouraged to do so by mainstream society through promotion of laws, practices, generally accepted prejudices, and religious views,’ and they note that homophobic and transphobic violence generally increases during highly visible, right-wing political attacks.

(For an introduction to community organising toward abolition, read James Kilgore’s recent piece Let’s Imagine a National Organizing Effort to Challenge Mass Incarceration.)

Prison abolition is about pushing back on all the structures that manifest the suspicion, dismissal and abuse of people who counter the white patriarchal status quo. That includes visual structures. That includes, as Critical Resistance states, “the creation of mass media images that keep alive stereotypes of people of color, poor people, queer people, immigrants, youth, and other oppressed communities as criminal, delinquent, or deviant.”

That is why Lorenzo Triburgo’s project Policing Gender is so important. Triburgo, a trans man, is not only advocates for the larger LGBTQ rights at stake, but also makes images that bring the weight of photographic history and analysis of images’ power to bear on his decision-making and design. His is a queer perspective. Policing Gender is enigmatic and beautiful and devastating. Triburgo’s personless portraits point us past what the images are in-and-of-themselves and toward a critique of what images have done in the past in service of, and to damage, LGBTQ-identified people.

I can make no apology for the length of these introductory remarks, because these photographs are built upon years of Triburgo’s conscientious thought, and on decades of queer activism by countless others. Context is important. From here, I’ll let Triburgo himself explain the conceptual underpinnings of Policing Gender and just add how grateful I am for our extended conversation. Scroll down for our Q&A.

 

 

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): We first met in Portland around 2012 or 13. We published a conversation in 2014. At that time you’d just picked up research for a photographic project on the topic of mass incarceration. You explained then that you’d wanted to do portraits of families, but the warden explained that the visiting room had a program for such portraits. The idea was shelved for a while, as you made Transportraits, but you knew you’d come back to it. Family portraits are very different to these curtains and aerial landscapes. How did you get from there to here?

Lorenzo Triburgo (LT): When I began Policing Gender I collaborated with the queer prison abolition organizations Black & Pink and Beyond These Walls to become pen pals with over 30 LGBTQ-identified prisoners.  I wrote and talked with my pen pals for months and months before deciding on what the project would entail visually.

Keep in mind that I also worked to gain access to various prisons and jails. I was doing my *photographer’s due diligence*. However, after getting inside, I thought, “F##k that. I’m not going to create photographs that could potentially strengthen the association between queer people and criminality.”

I kept obsessively thinking, “I want to make portraits, but not portraits. Portraits, but not portraits.” I was wracking my brain. The reasons were twofold.

First – ethically, as a queer person, feminist, and artist I am particularly sensitive to issues of representation and exploitation. I could have made the portraits but, to what end? How radical can a straightforward portrait really be? Would portraits of queer prisoners bring anything to the world besides an opportunity for viewers to gawp or sate their curiosity and voyeurism?

One of the hellish qualities of prison is the complete lack of privacy. Random administrators, politicians, teachers and students might make visits to a prison and get led on “tours” where they can peer-in on any prisoner through a tiny window and just watch. Did I want to replicate that experience with my camera lens? No.

Furthermore, how would I know for sure that I was getting informed consent from participants? In what world would our exchange be equal? Even more importantly, in what world would the exchange between any prisoner and viewer be equal?!

Secondly, conceptually, I felt my project demanded a complex approach that would embody the depth, pervasiveness, scale and abuses of the U.S. prison system. It needed to be more than a single-layered visual representation; more than a straightforward portrait.

 

 

LT: I started to think about making portraits with no figures.

What if instead of putting my incarcerated pen-pals on display, I go a quieter more contemplative route and conjure a sense of absence? The next step was to figure out what the figureless portraits would look like. I recalled a lecture by Cathy Opie where she cited renaissance portraitist Hans Holbein as a major influence. Holbein and Opie use fabric as a symbol of wealth, power and beauty.

PP: But to different ends.

LT: Yes. Opie appropriates formal aesthetics in order to queer the photographic portrait. I saw that I could use fabric and create connotations of portraiture and, for some of us, make a nod to queering the portrait through the use of form. It felt I’d found an answer to the inevitable imbalance of power between prisoner and viewer that I wanted to avoid perpetuating. Figureless portraits point toward this thorny ethical ground.

While thinking all this through, I was discussing my ideas with activists and researchers including Dr. Susan Starr Sered, co-author of Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility. Dr. Sered and I had a conversation that solidified my decisions.

PP: On your work’s figurelessness, an editor with whom I spoke recently referred to your work as “withdrawn”. It wasn’t a criticism per se, but I wonder about your reaction to that assessment?

LT: My pen-pals are trans and queer, and young and old, and out and not out, and coming out for the first time, and helping others come out for the first time all behind bars. I wrote and talked with them for months and months before deciding on what the project would entail visually. The decision to exclude people in the images is not ONLY about theoretical distancing from prisons and a challenge to photographic voyeurism. It’s also about anonymity for safety reasons and my pen-pals not always being able to come out without endangering their safety, and about recognizing that prisoners are a protected subgroup and not always able to give knowledgeable consent.

The figurelessness is about the absence of 2.3 million prisoners from society.

It’s difficult to communicate absence through photography but that was a risk I wanted to take. I believe we are at a stage when absence can be just as powerful as presence because there is so much photographic presence.

The work isn’t withdrawn. It’s emotional. It’s meditative. It’s quiet. I’m asking the viewer to take a minute and reflect: on their position in the world, on their assumption that they get to “see” whatever they want to see, and on the people who are missing from our society.

The lighting in these pieces was a meditative process for me. It was a way for me to process what I was learning about from my pen-pals. It’s not a vapid conceptual piece in reaction to the prison system. Each fabric represents a set of circumstances that was told to me by my pen-pals and is therefore named after them — each is a combination of their names.

 

 

PP: And what about the aerial shots?

The aerial images are about surveillance. The construct of imprisonment. The natural contained. Creating these was also an emotional process. I was in the hot air balloon …

PP: Wait! You were in a hot air balloon?!

LT: Ha! Yes. I photographed from a hot air balloon.

Balloons were an early method used by photography in the service of surveillance. During the U.S. Civil War, hot air balloons were used to create the first aerial reconnaissance images. I was looking for a way to undermine the idea of surveillance and to portray a grandiose notion of the ‘natural’. But once I was up there I couldn’t escape the feeling of my social position, the feeling of sadness and anger and unearned privilege and wishing that I could bring my pen-pals up in the air with me. The aerial photographs ultimately reflect these emotions and, metaphorically, the inescapable presence of surveillance.

All of my emotional experiences have a direct correlation to my conceptual interests in photography. It’s how I process the world.

I think about portraiture all the time. I feel the experiences of my various identities and ways I present myself to the world and the way I’m “seen”. I see oppression based on identities and I process that by creating photographs, and in the case of Policing Gender, audio art, too.

Photography is a way for me to make sense of the world and for me to present ideas to the world. These ideas are emotional as much as they are political and theoretical because I feel like I live them. I’ve had someone else’s camera pointed at me because I seemed “interesting” and it feels like crud.

 

 

PP: How are LGBTQ identified  people affected by the prison industrial complex?

LT: Right now there are 1.6 million youth facing houselessness in the U.S. We know that 46% of these youth are LGBTQ identified. Add to that, cities across the U.S. are increasingly passing laws that ostensibly make it illegal to be homeless. Over the last ten years, there’s been a steady increase in the number of cities that have made it is illegal to lay down, sleep, or even sit in public and (in cities like Houston) to share or give food to people. Once queer youth are arrested and detained they are more likely to be sentenced to jail time and serve longer sentences than their non-LGBTQ peers.

We also know that people who have been arrested have a higher chance of returning to jail or prison. So, these youth grow up to be LGBTQ identified adults with a much higher chance of spending time in U.S. prisons. This is especially true for people of color, youth, immigrants, differently abled, and poor people. So, are queer people in prison because they are queer? If we look at the systemic level, rather than a matter of individual choices, the answer is yes.

PP: Which LGBTQ-focused individuals and organisations are working specifically and effectively against mass incarceration?

LT: The book Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex edited by Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith is an invaluable resource for just this question. It was published by AK Press soon after I began Policing Gender; this book came to me at exactly the right moment and is an invaluable resource.

Captive Genders includes first person narratives, research, and political analysis with an emphasis on writing from current and former prisoners.

I personally worked most with Black & Pink and Beyond These Walls.

Black & Pink is a grassroots organization that has been working in support of LGBTQ prisoners and towards prison abolition with nationwide chapters for over ten years. Their website is also an incredible resource. Beyond These Walls is Portland-based and is another grassroots prison abolition effort with a focus on supporting queer prisoners.

In the intro of Captive Genders, Stanley writes, “It is also important to highlight that women, trans, and queer people (specifically of color) have done much, if not most, of the anti-PIC organizing in the United States.”

Case in point: Miss Major Griffin-Gracy has been an activist for over 40 years and was the first Staff Organizer at The Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP). TGIJP is based in California and began as a legal project with leadership by formerly incarcerated trans women of color. Miss Major is recently retired from TGIJP but continues to be a badass inspiration to us all. (I recently saw her on the panel for the release of the book Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility at the New Museum).

The Sylvia Rivera Law Project, formed by civil rights activist and attorney Dean Spade in 2002, must also be mentioned here. SRLP provides legal aid to low-income trans, gender non-conforming, and intersex people and “is a collective organization founded on understanding that gender self-determination is inextricably intertwined with racial, social, and economic justice.”

 

 

PP: You once expressed an interest in photographing prison guards/correctional officers. Do you still?

LT: No, but I think someone should. The abuse that prisoners face at the hands of correctional officers is abhorrent — and — it is crucial to recognize that the job of correctional officer is basically designed to produce and enable a monstrous abuse of power. If we are to understand the prison industrial complex for what it is – an entire system of oppression upheld in part by the narrative that people of color, poor people, and queer people are dangerous – we also need to recognize systemic/social/economic conditions that lead someone to become an officer and the mental trauma associated with this job.

According to one study (Stack, S.J. & Tsoudis, O. Archives of Suicide Research, 1997) the risk of suicide for correctional officers is 39% higher than their peers in other professions and other studies show increased PTSD, divorce, and substance abuse. (See: Denhof, Michael D., Ph.D and Caterina G. Spinaris, Ph.D., Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, 2013.)

The effects of unchecked power, a career culture that encourages and rewards racism, homophobia, sexism, and xenophobia and corruption that goes all the way up the chain are traumatic. Hello Stanford Prison Experiment!?!

To go out on a limb, and to quote Michelle Alexander , I think of the job of the correctional officer as one manifestation of the many “efforts by the wealthy elite to use race as a wedge. To pit poor whites against poor people of color for the benefit of the ruling elite.”

Alexander continues, “Many people don’t realize that even slavery as an institution—the emergence of an all-Black system of slavery—was to a large extent the result of plantation owners deliberately trying to pit poor whites against poor Blacks. They created an all-Black system of slavery that didn’t benefit whites by much, but at least whites were persuaded that they weren’t slaves and thus were inherently superior to Black folks.” (‘The Struggle for Racial Justice Has a Long Way To Go’, The International Socialist Review, Issue #84, 2012.)

Keep in mind that people who take these jobs are predominantly working class, often with no other viable option for work because other industries have been (systematically) replaced by the prison industry in towns across the U.S. I feel myself holding my breath and my heart racing in anger as I say this.

 

 

PP: You have said repeatedly and in public that you’ll respond to any LGBTQ prisoner who writes to you. Kudos to you. That’s a serious commitment. It must also be quite the emotional experience—good and bad. Tell us about letter writing.

LT: So much here. I don’t know where to start exactly. In previous interviews I ducked the question out of fear of sounding schmaltzy, because it is super emotional and I don’t want to come off sounding all “we are the world” or like, neoliberal humanist or something.

That said, it has been fucking incredible.   

There’s something astonishing about getting to know someone slowly, over time, through written word. How often do we have the opportunity to get to know someone completely from scratch? With no photo to go by, no list of basic likes or dislikes, not knowing their preferred name or gender, or where they are from. I got to know my pen-pals’ handwriting and that is a specific intimacy unlike any other type of exchange.

I never ask my pen-pals why they are in prison. Instead, I ask about what they think are the most pressing needs of LGBTQ prisoners and what they think an artist can do. Very often the response is that a way to share their stories and their truth would be a huge help. In the audio for Policing Gender you hear one of my pen pals say, “At least out there you’ve got cell phones to record this stuff [abuse by officers], in here it’s complete secrecy.”

I’m not interested in “giving voice”—my pen-pals all have voices! But I am interested in giving their voices a platform outside prison.

By not asking about why they were in prison I aim to, at minimum, create a space for my pen-pals to talk to someone who didn’t see them first as a criminal and second as a person. I challenged myself, to be honest, to allow myself to be vulnerable, to share my thoughts, and to allow our conversations to develop without pre-judgements.

We talked about the prison system of course, but we also shared our coming out stories, what it was like during high school, whether our family was religious, our siblings, our parents, their kids. Some of my pen-pals were younger than me and grew up in the “Glee era” while others were baby boomers and couldn’t imagine being accepted as queer when they were younger. One of my pen-pals was really into Shakespeare. I am not. And we would joke about that. 

I love getting to know people and their stories—so it was just wonderful in that regard. I would also simply Google information and send it upon request. It is so easy to take our access to information for granted! I would send variations on photo assignments I give my college students, making them into creative writing or drawing prompts.

There was one person with whom I lost contact and that was devastating. The last I heard of her she had been raped, then left in solitary confinement for 24 hours, then finally taken to a hospital —four hours away—given antibiotics on an empty stomach, then driven back to the prison while handcuffed in the back of a van. If you’ve ever taken antibiotics you know that they are nauseating in the best of circumstances. I don’t like to talk about stories like this too much. They are important but I also don’t want to sensationalize my pen-pals’ suffering.

I wrote with over 30 people on a monthly basis for almost two years. I still write with a small number of people and I continue to pair every incarcerated pen-pal who gets in touch with me with someone to write with on the outside. So far I’ve connected about 40 people with new pen-pals.

 

 

PP: I know you’ve designed a course on gender and photo at SVA, so if it’s not revealing any too much info, can you give us a few important titles and articles from the course reading list?

LT: My course at SVA is a studio/portfolio course where we incorporate queer studies concepts in the development and critique of projects. (The class is offered online through SVA Continuing Education. Therefore, anyone interested in exploring these ideas in their artworks can register). I also developed a graduate level seminar that I teach online for Oregon State University with a focus on representations of gender and sexuality from a feminist perspective.

Here’s a greatest hits list of texts:

  • Barthes, Roland. “Rhetoric of the Image.” Image, Music, Text. Ed. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 32-51.
  • Blessing, Jennifer. “Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography.” Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography. New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 1997. 7-38, 67-119.
  • Halberstam, Jack. “Technotopias: Representing Transgender Bodies in Contemporary Art.” In a Queer Time and Place. New York and London: New York University Press, 2005. 97-124.
  • Jhally, Sut. “Image-Based Culture: Advertising and Popular Culture.” Gender, Race and Class in Media: A Critical Reader. 3rd ed. Eds. Gail Dines, Jean M. (McMahon) Humez. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2011. 199-204.
  • Lorber, Judith. “Night to His Day: The Social Construction of Gender.” Paradoxes of Gender. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994. 13-36.
  • Mercer, Kobena. “Reading racial fetishism: the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe.” Visual Culture: The Reader. Ed. Jessica Evans, Stuart Hall. London: Sage Publications, 1999. 435-447.
  • Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Visual and Other Pleasures (Language, Discourse, Society). 2nd ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 14-30.
  • Rosler, Martha. “In, Around, and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography.)” The Photography Reader. Ed. Liz Wells. London: Routledge, 2003. 261-274.
  • Sullivan, Nikki. A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory. New York: NYU Press, 2003.
  • West, Candace, and Don H Zimmerman. “Doing Gender.” Gender & Society Vol. 1, No. 2. (1987): 125-151.

 

 

LT: I also want to give a shout out to these texts that strongly shaped my aesthetic and ethical decisions in Policing Gender:

  • The Subversive Imagination: Artists, Society, and Responsibility, Carol Becker.
  • Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 2011. Grant, Jaime M., Lisa A. Mottet, Justin Tanis, Jack Harrison, Jody L. Herman, and Mara Keisling. Washington: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
  • Queer (In) Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States, Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock.
  • Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith.
  • Are Prisons Obsolete, Angela Davis.
  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander.
  • Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility, Susan Starr Sered and Maureen Norton-Hawk.
  • Punishment and Social Structure, Georg Rusche and Otto Kirchheimer.

PP: Wow, thank you, so generous. So many new texts for me. Have you a resource list of organizations working in solidarity with LGBTQ prisoners?

LT: Absolutely, these are organizations as listed in the book Captive Genders:

All Of Us Or None
1540 Market Street Suite 490, San Francisco, CA 94102
415.255.7036 [ext 308, 315, 311, 312]
info@allofusornone.org
http://www.allofusornone.org

ACT UP Philadelphia
P.O. Box 22439, Land Title Station, Philadelphia, PA 19110-2439
actupp@critpath.org
http://www.actupphilly.org

Audre Lorde Project
85 South Oxford St., Brooklyn, NY 11217
718.596.0342
http://www.alp.org

Bent Bars Project
P.O. Box 66754, London, WC1A 9BF, United Kingdom
bent.bars.project@gmail.com
http://www.bentbarsproject.org/

Black and Pink<
c/o Community Church of Boston, 545 Boylston St., Boston, MA 02116
http://www.blackandpink.org

BreakOUT!<
1600 Oretha C. Haley Blvd., New Orleans, LA 70113
http://www.jpla.org

Critical Resistance
1904 Franklin St, Suite 504, Oakland, CA 94612
510.444.0484
http://www.criticalresistance.org

FIERCE!
437 W. 16th St, Lower Level, New York, NY 10001
646.336.6789
http://www.fiercenyc.org

generationFIVE
P.O. Box 1715, Oakland, CA 94604
510.251.8552
http://www.generationfive.org

Gay Shame
San Francisco, CA
gayshamesf@yahoo.com
http://www.gayshamesf.org

Hearts On A Wire
(for folks incarcerated in PA)
PO Box 36831, Philadelphia, PA 19107
heartsonawire@gmail.com

INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence
P.O. Box 226, Redmond, WA 98073
484.932.3166
http://www.incite-national.org

Justice Now
1322 Webster Street, Suite 210, Oakland, CA 94612
510.839.7654
http://www.jnow.org

LAGAI—Queer Insurrection
lagai_qi@yahoo.com
http://www.lagai.org

Prison Activist Resource Center
PO Box 70447, Oakland, CA 94612
510.893.4648
http://www.prisonactivist.org

Prisoner Correspondence Project
http://www.prisonercorrespondenceproject.com

Prisoner’s Justice Action Committee
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
pjac_committee@yahoo.com
http://www.pjac.org

Sylvia Rivera Law Project
322 8th Ave, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10001
212.337.8550
http://www.srlp.org

Tranzmission Prison Project
P.O. 1874, Asheville, NC 28802
tranzmissionprisonproject@gmail.com

Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex Justice Project
342 9th St., Suite 202B, San Francisco, CA 94103
415.252.1444
http://www.tgijp.org

Write to Win Collective
2040 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL 60647
writetowincollective@gmail.com
http://www.writetowin.wordpress.com

PP: Brilliant. Again, thanks so much.

LT: Thank you, Pete.

 

 

 

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Thomas Roma‘s book In The Vale Of Cashmere is probably familiar to you. It has had enjoyed widespread press and positive comments. And rightly so. It’s one of my favourite books of the year. I just did a review of the book and project for Vantage.

Roma’s arresting photos go inside the Vale of Cashmere a renowned casual hook-up spot that has, for decades, hidden in plain sight on the northern side of New York’s prospect Park–an overgrown, knotty pocket of criss-crossing paths that is of Brooklyn’s most active gay cruising spots. The Vale of Cashmere is commonly, but not exclusively, frequented by African American and Caribbean men.

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Not only are Roma’s portraits–that take us on long and repeated walks through the foliage and dappled light–wonderful so too is the contributing essay by G. Winston James. Between the two of them we are able to encounter, pass or pause with the men who meet among those trees.

I write:

James reminds us that sex is an activity designated for private spaces, namely the domestic space of the home. But for gay men living in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, homosexual sex could not be expressed at home so it became a public act in public space. Crucially though, gay cruising and meeting spots only function as such at designated times.

“The most defining characteristic of queer space is its temporality. Queer space is not a permanent fixture of the urban landscape, but a sudden transformation that briefly renders traditional public spaces as something more dynamic,” Shaw once wrote.

James adds, “It is precisely this process of transformation (witnessed by a relative few), this dynamism, this history, that Thomas Roma has photographed.”

Read the full review: Loving Portraits Of Gay Black Men Cruising In Prospect Park

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GRAVE ISSUE AND A GRAVE VIDEO APPEAL

Prisons are hostile, and potentially lethal, environments for transgender individuals. The acute need for understanding, medical care, and protection from predatory abuse is made visible for us through the remarkable efforts of Ashley diamond, a woman incarcerated in the mens’ Georgia State Prison.

Hearing her case and the evidence put forth by her advocates, The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), it is a wonder Ms. Diamond is still alive. She has suffered no fewer than seven serious sexual assaults in the three years of her term.

Georgia’s prison system is notoriously dysfunctional and brutal. The prison in which Ms. Diamond is incarcerated is Georgia State. It had more sexual assaults between 2009 and 2014 than all but one other state prison. Ms. Diamond’s access to safety is merely one of her request in the recent lawsuit. Mainly, Ms. Diamond asks that her medically diagnosed condition of Gender identity disorder (GID) or gender dysphoria is recognised by the Georgia Department of Corrections and that they provide her the hormones that she was taking for 17 years prior to imprisonment.

Ms. Diamond describes her incarceration to this point as nothing short of torture. Her gender identity is held in contempt by the authorities and her vulnerable situation is in no way accommodated. Bravo to her for forcing a lawsuit against the state in order to secure recognition, medical hormones treatments. This is a fight that will not only elevate the visibility of the severe issues facing LGBQT in prison but may secure human rights hitherto ignored or trampled.

Ms. Diamond and transgender prisoners like her are in a perilous position.

In reporting on the case and the subsequent Federal level support for it, The New York Times says, “Many face rejection by their families, harassment at school and discrimination in the workplace. Black transgender people have inordinately high rates of extreme poverty, homelessness, suicide attempts and imprisonment; nearly half those surveyed for the National Transgender Discrimination Survey had been imprisoned, compared with 16 percent of the study’s 6,450 participants. Transgender women in male prisons are 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than is the general population, with 59 percent reporting sexual assaults, according to a frequently cited California study.”

When budgets for non-profit advocacy groups are so scarce and the resources and intractability of the state opposition is so large, media outreach and messaging has to be perfect. Bravo to SPLC for delivering a message in which Ms. Diamond is front and center. From a contraband cellphone, Diamond makes a direct plea to the public. The illicit nature of the act adds a sense of urgency to the appeal. It is as if all other avenues have been cut off and desperate times require desperate measures.

It’s a bold move and possibly not without its consequences. I would not be surprised if the GDOC was to retroactively punish Ms. Diamond for possession and use of a cellphone. Given the daily threat to which Ms. Diamond is subject, it hardly seems sanction for possessing a cellphone would be high on her list concerns. Whatever the extent of “risk” is involved in publishing this cellphone video it is another significant lens through which we can see this case, this story and this political action.

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Video still from Ashley Diamond’s prison cell video.

ALLIES

It is also crucial that other prisoners are present in the video. It is empowering to see anonymous prisoners feature as allies and supporters. It balances the narrative of prisoners only being predators. Prisoner-led self-organisation is the most quickly silenced but the most effective of resistance against the state and prison industrial complex. I wonder if videos such as this could potentially add further to future struggles?

A FEW QUICK THOUGHTS ON PRISON VIDS

I’ve been promising myself for years to in some way put together an analysis of contraband cellphone photo and video footage. The only definitive thing I can say is that I’ve not seen the vast majority of it and never will.

99.99% of prisoner made recordings are shared between devices, between loved ones and never uploaded to the internet for public viewing. If they do make it to social media they are on the internet behind passworded social media accounts.

Often when prisoner made cellphone videos emerge it is to villianise the prisoner further. News stories peddle in public consternation — we abhor prisoners who might be seen to be thumbing their noses at authority. We also like to frame the stupid or “foolish criminal” and mock them when their video gets them caught. But the truth is, prisoners are very, very sensible with their videos and digital distributions. Why do you think we see so few prison videos?

Prisoners have an interest in protecting their assets — this applies to cellphones that are expensive to acquire and very, very useful. Prisoners have zero incentive for making it publicly known they have or had have had a cellphone. Most prisoners use cellphones to contact families as a cheaper alternative to a price-gouged market. And, let’s remember that phones — like any contraband — get into prisons through the hands of staff as much as they do because of family visitors or civilians.

If the cellphone becomes an issue for the prison administration then their complete lack of understanding of the complaint is exposed — it’d prove the point being made by Diamond and SPLC that the Georgia DOC has demoted human rights to the point of endangering lives.

SPLC’s strategic use of Diamond’s video testimony is deliberate, timely and well-advised. It accelerated and humanised the issue. I, for one, hope it might be a method repeated in the future to benefit the crucial legal battles of prisoners. If so, it could also change our appreciation of prisoner-led political actions.

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THE VISUAL CULTURE OF PRISON RESISTANCE

Liz Pelly‘s conversation with Josh MacPhee in The Media is a wonderful read. It coincided with MacPhee and his cohort’s incredible exhibition of prisoner made protest materials going all the way back to the early seventies.

MacPhee urges us to dismantle the idea that prisons are separate from outside society. Crucially, he’s not making, in the first instance, a moral point about how we’re all the same, prisoners and all. MacPhee makes an observation of the structural characteristics of the prison system.

“It’s getting harder and harder to hold up the pretense that prison is somehow distinct from the rest of society,” says MacPhee. “When there’s this many people going in and out all of the time, there’s no way that our lives out here don’t leak into there, and that their lives in there don’t leak out into the rest of society. The idea that these are completely separate realms needs to be dismantled.”

Of course, once the structural facts of the system are revealed, the moral point that we are all one-and-the-same, prisoners and all, is indisputable.

I contacted Pelly and asked if I could republish the conversation. It originally appeared as Inside/Out: On Prison Justice, Art of the Incarcerated, and Interference Archive’s New Show in Issue #44 of The Media (October 10, 2014). It is a privilege to feature Pelly and MacPhee’s interview in full here on the blog.

A LITTLE BACKGROUND

Between September 11th and November 16, 2014, Interference Archive exhibited, Self-Determination Inside/Out: Prison Movements Reshaping Society a look back at the visual and material culture of prisoner-led political movements.

Organized by Molly Fair, Josh MacPhee, Anika Paris, Laura Whitehorn, and Ryan Wong, Self-Determination Inside/Out includes sections on the work of incarcerated AIDS educators, the experiences of women and queer prisoners, prison and control unit prisons. The exhibition features prison newsletters, pamphlets, video and audio interviews, prints, photography (!!!) and magazine covers — starting with materials created during the 1971 Attica Rebellion, a massive prisoner uprising in upstate New York, and concluding with work made by current political prisoners, the show highlights moments of self-organization within the prison industrial complex.

You can buy a booklet and a poster for the exhibition.

Interference Archive is a volunteer-run archive in Gowanus, Brooklyn, dedicated to preserving cultural ephemera related to social movements.

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Inside/Out: On Prison Justice, Art of the Incarcerated, and Interference Archive’s New Show

Liz Pelly (LP): What initially inspired the creation of Interference Archive, which mostly houses ephemeral material like posters, t-shirts, and newsletters?

Josh MacPhee (JM): For the different people involved, there are different answers of course. For me, I grew up making this stuff through DIY music, cultural stuff, politics. Through the act of doing, I started collecting it. Flyers, t-shirts, buttons, the ephemera that gets produced by people who are organizing. It was a combination of wanting to understand the history of what I was doing and then at the same time, I was getting really interested in this idea of how people make art and culture in the context of trying to their lives. It’s distinct from art that’s produced purely in the realm of self expression, and the art that tends circulate within the contemporary art world.

This kind of material gets lost. It’s often not clearly authored. Institutions that deal with art don’t quite know what to do with it. Since it’s so political, places like history museums don’t know what to do with it either. It sort of falls through the cracks. But we can see during times like Occupy, or Tahrir Square in Egypt, or with the Maidan in the Ukraine, that this is the stuff of life, [created] when transformation starts to happen. When people have their arms shoulder deep into the constructions of representations of a new world, and the way they want things to be articulated.

For me, doing an archive was a way to say, “just because these moments come and go, and movements have ebbs and flows, doesn’t mean that once the peak has been reached that this material isn’t still valuable to us, to where we’ve come from and therefore where we are going.”

LP: That said, how do you think this sort of exhibit in particular shines light on the experiences of prisoners?

JM: There were five of us who organized this exhibition, and most of us have been engaged with issues around prisons in different ways, whether having been formerly incarcerated, or working with prison activism programs. As far as I know, nothing like this has ever been done before.

We live in a moment where over two million people are in prison. It’s getting harder and harder to hold up the pretense that prison is somehow distinct from the rest of society. When there’s this many people going in and out all of the time, there’s no way that our lives out here don’t leak into there, and that their lives in there don’t leak out into the rest of society. The idea that these are completely separate realms needs to be dismantled.

We thought it was important to marshal primary source material to show that people aren’t just objects of repression or study or someone else’s activism. But they have done immense amounts of organizing inside themselves. Often times that organizing takes place at the same time, or sometimes even ahead of, what people were doing on the outside. Some of the focus we have on organizing around AIDS and AIDS education in prison was really fascinating and important because it shows how people that had the least access to medical care were doing in some cases the most organizing in order to try to deal with a problem that at the time the government was not even acknowledging existed.

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LP: Can you tell me more about your own experiences with prison reform activism?

JM: I first learned about how the prison system functions in the early 1990s. It just sort of blew my mind that there was a whole world of people who largely because of race and class were basically being warehoused. And that, at the time, it was completely absent from the radar of public In the 90s, the only thing discussed in relationship to prisons and criminal justice was this sort of “tough on crime” thing. There was no acknowledgment that a massive increase of the prison population going on, and that it wasn’t actually working. And that the system that decided who went in and out was so manifestly unjust, random often.

That sent me on a path of doing organizing around prison issues. I started in Ohio, and then did some work in Colorado, and then in Chicago. A lot of the organizing I did was around Control Unit Prisons, basically trying to stop solitary confinement. [Organizing around] these men and women who were spending twenty-three-and-a-half or twenty-four hours a day alone in their cells, and the psychological damage that causes and how it basically goes against international conventions of torture, yet it’s completely commonplace in this country.

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LP: Over the past year, there has been lot of in the news about the racist criminal justice system. It’s an apt time for Self-Determination Inside/Out: Prison Movements Reshaping Society. But obviously there is a lot of history of racism in the criminal justice system that this brings to light. Were you inspired to put this together because of recent events, or has this exhibit been in the works longer?

JM: We worked on the exhibition for 6 months. As a space, as an institution, one of our goals is to take this material that’s perceived as marginal and present it in ways that will allow it to be in its own context, but also to actually show that it’s not marginal. Our primary audience is not people who already necessarily agree with everything that would be in this exhibition. We are conscious of, and trying to take advantage of, a moment.

The question becomes, how do we push [the discussion] farther? If we say mass incarceration is not okay, at what point is incarceration okay? If 2 million people in cages is not acceptable, is 1.9 million people in acceptable? Or 1.8? Once you start asking those questions it opens up the space to say, “this whole system is just absolutely corrupt.”

Mass incarceration accomplishes a number of things, none of which are its stated goals. It accomplishes deeply suppressing working class communities of color. That’s never been articulated as what the prison system is supposed to do. It’s just clear that that’s what it does. It clearly is completely ineffectual at actually dealing with crime.

LP: What are some underreported sides to the prison industrial complex that you hope this exhibit brings to light?

JM: The fastest growing portion of the prison population for years now has been women.

Increasingly there is a real gendered aspect of being able to look at how the criminal justice system works. Increasingly it’s used to enforce gender binaries. It’s a brutal system for queer and trans people that get sucked up into it. People are doing a lot of organizing around it now, but until recently, it was assumed if you were gender non-conforming, they have to choose where to put you, and then once they chose a men or a women’s prison, then almost immediately you’d get sent to solitary confinement. You’d do your sentence out in solitary confinement, in complete isolation, because the system is not prepared to deal with gender non-conformity. You are being punished because your very existence challenges the bureaucratic way the system works.

It’s really clear that women who refuse to be abused, who fight back against abusers, almost always get pulled into the criminal justice system. So we have things like Trayvon Martin being shot, and Zimmerman getting off. But any woman that stops an attack from an abuser is inevitably going to do time because that’s just absolutely taboo.

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LP: What were the biggest challenges to getting this exhibit together?

JM: Each exhibition has unique challenges and obstacles, and then there are ones that are sort of similar across the board. For this exhibition, was just that cultural material produced by incarcerated people is hard to access. A lot of it is made in prison and then just never leaves prison.

In general, one of the challenges for all of the exhibitions, is that unless we do something that’s very focused, inevitably there’s so much stuff it’s hard to know when to say “okay we’ve got enough” or to know when to draw the lines. It’s hard to know when to accept that you’re never going to have all of the stuff that you wish you could, that you’re never going to be able to tell the whole story, that maybe even the idea that you’re going to tell some sort of master narrative is questionable in its own right.

When you’re representing things that are so deeply underrepresented, people get attached to wanting their part of the story told, because it’s been marginal or silenced for so long. It makes it really hard to make those choices, because you don’t want anyone else to continue to feel [that way].

We are collecting material from movements that are marginal. Even though they often have extremely deep impacts, rarely is that impact known or visible when they’re most active. It’s kind of like an extra kick in the face when your ideas become commonplace 10 or 20 years later and you’re still written out of the history even though you’re the ones who came up with the ideas.

LP: What do you hope, in general, visitors learn from Self-Determination: Inside/Out?

JM: On the one hand, I hope this contributes to a shift [towards] the idea that prisons are maybe not the answer to the problems that they claim to be. And that locking people in cages is not actually accomplishing what we’re being told it is.

On another level, that incarcerated people are not just objects. They’re loved ones and family members and neighbors and community members. The thing that primarily defines someone as a human being is not whether or not they’re in prison. That people that happen to find themselves in prison, many for reasons that are and then also at the same time many for doing reprehensible things, doesn’t make them not human. It doesn’t mean they don’t have the same desires, life goals, and relationships that everyone else has. And as such, the way that they conceive themselves and their world is part of, needs to be part of, any movement for social transformation.

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THE PEOPLE

The Interference Archive is a collection of posters, flyers, publications, photographs, books, t-shirts, buttons, moving images, audio recordings, and other materials, made by participants of social movements throughout past decades. It is an archive “from below” — collectively run space, powered by people, and with open stacks accessible to all. The Interference Archive explores the relationship between cultural production and social movements. It provides public exhibitions, a study and social center, talks, screenings, publications, workshops, and an online presence, with an aim to preserve and honor histories and material culture that are often marginalized in mainstream institutions. It is at 131 8th Street, #4
, Brooklyn, NY 11215
 (2 blocks from F/G/R trains at 4th Ave/9th Street).

Josh MacPhee is an artist, curator and activist living in Brooklyn, NY. MacPhee is one of the founder of the Just Seeds Artists’ Cooperative, which organizes, creates and distributes radical art. MacPhee is the author of Stencil Pirates: A Global Study of the Street Stencil, which is dedicated to stencil street art. He co-edited Realizing the Impossible: Art Against AuthorityReproduce and Revolt and the upcoming Paper Politics: Socially Engaged Printmaking Today. In 2001 he co-organized the Department of Space and Land Reclamation in Chicago with Emily Forman and Nato Thompson. In 2008 he co-curated the exhibition Signs of Change: Social Movement Cultures 1960’s to Now with Dara Greenwald.

Liz Pelly is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn, NY. I lives and works at the all-ages collectively-run art space The Silent Barn, where she books (and sometimes plays) shows. She and her friends run the ad-free bi-weekly online newspaper The Media.

The Media is a webpaper covering alternative arts, culture, music, news, and grassroots activism. With contributors often embedded in the communities they cover, The Media aims to bridge the gap between underground presses and mainstream media. Crucially, it is AD-FREE and simply designed. “At a moment marked by short attention spans, decentralized click-bait articles, and newspapers in flux, rethinking the aesthetics of our news websites feels just as crucial as re-imagining their content,” says The Media. “We want our content to resonate on its own merit, free of frivolity and flash, and grounded by a homepage that’s striking in its radical simplicity.”

sfpride

There’s a brouhaha brewing in San Francisco. The Armory — home to legendary controversial fetish porn empire Kink.com — is to host an event to coincide with San Francisco Pride. The WE Party Prison Of Love is being billed as THE BIGGEST PRIDE PARTY … EVER.

The predictable format for the prison-themed discoteque includes chains, shackles, a dungeon, and likely a whole lot of improv domination roll play. The majority of the 3,000-strong crowd is expected to be gay men.

As a cisgender straight male, I tend not to have any opinions on gay culture worthy of public proclamation. But, a prison-themed rave does seem a little tacky, though. For San Francisco’s trans-community, the Prison Of Love Party is far worse than tacky; it is an affront and a politically-clueless venture.

The Transgender Gender Variant, Intersex Justice Project in San Francisco, in an open letter to San Francisco Pride at the Armory, points out that the prison industrial complex abuses transgendered people strategically and disproportionally.

The primary signatory is Miss Major, one of this years SF Pride Grand Marshals.

It reads:

This year at least three SF Pride grand marshals are trans women who have been directly affected by the Prison Industrial Complex. Chelsea Manning is currently incarcerated, Miss Major is previously incarcerated and was politicized at Attica just after the 1971 uprising, and Jewlyes Gutierrez was arrested for defending herself from bullies in her high school.

The prison industrial complex and the incarceration of generations of people of color, gender variant, trans people, and queer people is not a sexy trope to throw a play party around. It’s not that we don’t love sex, sex parties, sex workers, and kink. It’s that we love it as much as we love justice, and are appalled by the casual use of the Prison Industrial Complex, which destroys the lives of millions of people and kills thousands every year, as a party theme.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In our own LGBTQI communities, incarceration and significant abuses perpetrated by the Prison Industrial Complex constitutes no less than a crisis. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, nearly 1 in 6 transgender people have been incarcerated at some point in their lives. Among Black transgender people, 47% have been incarcerated at some point in their lives. These rates overwhelmingly reflect the experiences of transgender women and especially trans women of color, who are housed in men’s prisons and face catastrophic rates of physical abuse, psychological terror, rape and sexual assault, and death. According to Just Detention International, 67% of LGBT prisoners reported being assaulted while in prison.

Not only is our queer community being harmed, the War on Drugs and the increasing privatization of prisons has created a phenomenon of mass incarceration of young Black and Latino men, and increasingly women too, which has economically, socially, and politically devastated these communities.

We are not interested in yucking anyone’s yum or shaming anyone who has fantasies or fetishes about ideas of this real-life violence. We are not interested in censorship or policing anyone’s sex life. We are interested in public space and party themes that get us closer to liberation from systemic and administrative violence and do not recreate a culture that normalizes or continues our oppression. Our push back is about navigating the legal and extra-legal targeting and criminalization of our communities.

At a time when public discussion and media finally has an eye toward the daily systemic violence against trans and queer people, your party theme and promotions are especially harmful and trivializing.

As individuals and organizations committed to justice and equality for LGBTQI peoples, we are working to end violence in our communities, and particularly at the hands of law enforcement, jails, detention centers and prisons. We’ve been doing this for years, and we’ll be supporting our brothers, sisters and siblings behind prison walls while you’re hosting a sex and dance event on Pride weekend that trivializes themes of incarceration and abuse as a good time.

We’re calling on you to understand how important these issues are to every member of our community, even if you’ve had the good fortune to not be hyper-visible and profiled by police, locked up, and then trapped in a cycle of institutional violence perpetrated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, ICE, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

We’re calling on you to immediately change the theme of your party, and not use themes of arrest and incarceration, correctional officers beating inmates, solitary confinement, prison yards, or suggestions of prison rape in promoting your event.

As a step towards accountability and redress we’re also calling on you to donate a portion of the proceeds of your party to the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project, El/La Para TransLatinas, and Communities United Against Violence, all organizations that are dedicated to ending police, prison, and systemic violence against trans and queer people in the Bay Area and beyond.

Signed,

Miss Major, SF Pride Grand Marshal/Director of Transgender Gender Variant, Intersex Justice Project
San Francisco Trans March, SF Pride Community Grand Marshal
Janet Mock, SF Pride Celebrity Grand Marshal/Author of “Redefining Realness”
Transgender Gender Varian Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP)
Community United Against Violence (CUAV)
El/La Para TransLatinas
Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB)
Justice Now
California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP)
Community Justice Network for Youth
Sex Workers Outreach Project – Bay Area (SWOP)
All of Us or None
Dr. Annalise Ophelian, Filmmaker, Director/Producer – MAJOR! documentary
StormMiguel Florez, Musician & artist, Co-Producer – MAJOR! documentary
Courtney Trouble, Host of Queerly Beloved Pride Party, owner TROUBLEfilms

Well said.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the protests nor the #NotProud Boycott SF Pride movement will stand in the way of this Pride At The Armory shindig. Half the tickets have already sold. It’s large event long in the planning and those types of entertainment-ships don’t turn.

That’s a shame because facts are facts and the issue is undeniable.

  • LGBT teens comprise as much as 15% of the general population in juvenile justice facilities; among girls alone, 27% are lesbian or bisexual.
  • LGBT young people and adults face harsher penalties from the justice system. LGBT people face higher rates of abuse and assault in prison.
  • The two 2 leading risk factors for prisoner rape are previous sexual abuse and being LGBT.
  • Incarcerated homosexual and bisexual men are sexually assaulted at rates 10 times higher than their heterosexual counterparts.
  • The federal definition of “rape” didn’t even include men or non-vaginal penetration until 2010. Men assaulted in prison were not considered rape victims by the U.S. Department of Justice until 2010.
  • Incarcerated trans women in men’s prisons report rates of sexual assault nearly 13 times greater than that among groups of other people.

More depressing facts here.

Bad call. PR fail SF Pride.

As Jezebel puts it, “Call it Dungeons & Dragons themed, call it Party in Westeros, do something else that involves bars and chains and implements of “torture.” But this? Taking one of the biggest issues facing the LGBT+ community and turning it into a party?”

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