This August, Chicago is poised to make queer history.
From August 4-6, the Windy City will host one of the largest gatherings of formerly incarcerated LGBTQ people and their allies. They will be coming together for a national gathering sponsored by Black and Pink, a national organization with over 12,000 members behind and beyond bars.
Although in recent years, many in LGBTQ communities have celebrated the U.S. Supreme Court striking down sodomy laws in 2003 and upholding a universal right to marry in 2015, queer and trans people continue to suffer from systemic oppression and discrimination in the criminal legal system. Queer and transgender people, particularly those of color, continue to be disproportionately profiled, targeted, prosecuted and convicted, contending with anti-queer bias and entrenched transphobia at every stage of the process.
Even though there are too few studies examining the dynamics that fuel punishment and incarceration of queer and trans people, there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence and some empirical evidence that demonstrates that queer and trans people, particularly queer and trans people of color, are disproportionately ensnared in the criminal legal system.
According to the National Inmate Survey conducted in 2011-2012, 7.9% of individuals in state and federal prisons identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual, as did 7.1% of individuals in city and county jails. This is double the percentage of all American adults who identify as LGBT, according to a Gallup Poll ( 3.8% ).
A Lambda Legal survey of LGBTQ people found that 5% percent of respondents reported having spent time in jail or prison, a rate that is markedly higher than the nearly 3% of the U.S. adult population who are under some form of correctional supervision ( jail, prison, probation, or parole ) at any point in time.
The numbers are even more stark where trans folks are concerned.
According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 16% of trans respondents indicated they had spent time in jail or prison, with higher rates for transgender women ( 21% ) and lower rates for transgender men ( 10% ).
Once incarcerated, queer and trans folks are the prime targets of sexual violence, physical abuse, harassment and pernicious discrimination by prison officials, guards and others who are incarcerated.
Black and Pink conducted the largest ever survey of LGBTQ prisoners, and released the results in 2015 in a report entitled Coming Out of Concrete Closets. According to the report:
LGBTQ people surveyed were six times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the general prison population;
85% of those surveyed have been punished with solitary confinement at some time during their imprisonment. Approximately half spent two or more years in such severe isolation;
The vast majority of respondents experienced discrimination and verbal harassment by prison staff, and more than a third were physically assaulted by prison staff.
The unfortunate reality is that too many of our queer and trans community members are suffering alone in silence behind bars.
All prisoners are forcibly removed from their families and communities, isolating them from necessary human relationships and support. Once torn from their families and community, many prisoners have little or no contact with anyone on the outside. This is particularly true for LGBTQ people, many of whom may already have more precarious relationships, particularly if they have been rejected by their families due to homophobia and transphobia. Without personal or financial means of support, many LGTBQ people are isolated in prison, which is a recipe for exploitation, harm and prolonged incarceration.
Thankfully, Black and Pink engages in advocacy, education, direct service and organizing on behalf of incarcerated queer and trans people. As part of this work, Black and Pink works to find and connect people to become pen pals with queer and trans folks on the inside.
The mere act of becoming a pen pal, and writing to someone on the inside, is a radical, transformative act that can break down the walls of silence and isolation. Communicating by letter creates a meaningful relationship and emotional support. What's more, the mere act of receiving a letter in prison can have a profound ripple effect.
As Jason Lydon, the founder of Black and Pink explains, mail in prisons is often distributed in communal settings by guards. When an incarcerated person's name is read at mail call, it lets guards and prisoners alike know that this person has someone on the outside who is contact with them and cares for them. That alone can decrease the level of extra punishment and suffering a queer or trans person may face
Come join Black & Pink by becoming a penpal and begin a correspondence that could change lives, yours included.
Find out more about the work of Black and Pink by coming to a Community Celebration kicking off the national gathering on Friday, Aug. 4, 2017 from 6-10 p.m. at 1901 W. Carroll Ave.
If you can't join us on Friday night, donations in any amount help grow the work and ensure that more and more of our family behind bars has support and community: secure.actblue.com/contribute/page/blackandpink .
No matter which option you pick, you will be joining one of the biggest remaining fronts in the fight for queer liberation.
Joey Mogul is a partner at the People's Law Office and co-author of Queer ( In )Justice: the Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States ( Beacon Press 2011 ). Debbie Southorn is a Wage Peace Program Associate at American Friends Service Committee and member of Black and Pink.