Imagine yourself at a bar on a night it's raided by the police. Or what if you got busted for that ounce of weed in your freezer or for ripping off the 7-Eleven one too many times? What if you were in prison?
Even as increasing percentages of federal, state, and local budgets are earmarked for prison maintenance and construction, it is easy to forget the people who live inside these gigantic, impersonal, often far-away structures. But we queers should question our impulse to forget or ignore. We have a particular interest in prisons, not least because of the large numbers of lesbian, gay male, bisexual, and transgender people who live in them.
The history of queers in the United States is filled with run-ins with the law. Stonewall is perhaps the most famous incident, but there have been many other bar and adult bookstore/theater raids by the cops. Such invasions of queer space, with accompanying charges of "public indecency," continue today. As does police violence and brutality against drag queens, butch/femme couples, queer activists, your "average" dyke and fag, white, and in particular, of color. Sodomy laws, which still exist in 21 states, HIV transmission laws, and witch hunts to rout out gays and lesbians from the military are other examples which illustrate how the lives of queers are deeply and negatively impacted by the law the police, military and civilian courts, jails and prisons. The same homophobia institutionalized in the above laws affects queers in prison as well. Queers are harassed and assaulted by guards. Queers are denied "conjugal" visitation rights. Sodomy laws have been eradicated in over half of the states, but still exist in all US prisons and jails. HIV+ prisoners, queer or otherwise, are denied adequate health care and are rarely granted compassionate, medical release.
There are additional reasons why queers have a significant interest in the skyrocketing incarceration rates. The government's plan for people it has marginalized primarily people of color, poor people, immigrants, queers has historically been to imprison them. The logic is the same today. The internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II is an example from more than 50 years ago; more recently, the Bush and Clinton administrations held HIV+ Haitians in concentration camps at Guantanamo Bay, for over a year, denying them health care. A stark reminder of earlier days of the AIDS epidemic when politicians and pundits were screaming for strict quarantine of people with AIDS a different kind of prison. AIDS activists fought the calls for quarantine, and won, but we should never forget that such measures were considered.
People in prison are disproportionately Black, Latina/o, Native American, and poor. The rate of incarceration for women is increasing at a faster rate than for men (although we should remember that women have always had high rates of incarceration in psychiatric wards.) Most of the people who have been imprisoned during the 1980s and 1990s are in for drug-related offenses; meanwhile, there are waiting lists for people to get into substance abuse treatment programs. There are over 150 people imprisoned in the US and given disproportionately long sentences because of their radical political commitments and actions. Yet, despite all this, many prisoners have managed to organize against the prison industry from the inside. As queers, we must learn from their example, and recognize that the criminalization of homosexuality is deeply connected to the criminalization of Black and Brown people, of political dissent, of poverty, of addiction, of homelessness, of sex work, of hunger.
The enormous increases in incarceration rates in the United States in the last 15 years are an indicator of, as well as a factor in, the growing repression throughout society. In a time of fiscal austerity, the state is putting ever larger amounts of money into the maintenance and building of prisons, money which of course could instead go toward education, health care, AIDS research and treatments, queer teen suicide prevention. The explosion in imprisonment rates is the most apparent manifestation of the state's desire to control some people's movements, bodies, and lives. As queers, we are well aware of others' desire to control OUR movements, bodies, and lives. We should never forget that our history is filled with resistance to such control. Let's join with other movements in opposing this increasing repression in our society.
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