Promoting LGBTI Tolerance in Prison: The Hardest Challenge

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Photo by Krytofr via Flickr

With every successful social movement, there are segments of society that remain resistant to the changes it brings.  Committed advocates are essential to maintain the gains that have been achieved in the face of dissent from those whose values and beliefs are challenged by change.

But just as important are powerful allies—from corporate executives to government officials to federal judges—who can impose policies and practices that further a social movement’s objectives.

From that day forward, change inexorably comes.

Prisons are no exception, and Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Washington State, where I currently live, illustrates this phenomenon.

In early 2016, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex  (LGBTI) prisoners found a powerful ally in Stafford Creek’s new superintendent, Margaret Gilbert.

With her blessing, the first LGBTI awareness event took place.  Among the speakers were the Associate Superintendent, Jeneva Cotton, who stressed the need for both prisoners and staff to be more “open” and “accepting” of other people’s differences; and a professor who spoke on his life experiences in the gay community and the history of sexual identity.

There were 50 or so prisoners in attendance.  As for the rest of the prison population, most scorned the event.

When the inaugural LGBTI Support Group meeting took place on December 1, 2016, it too was shunned—even though it was meant to “provide a safe platform for dialogue,” as the flyer stated.

This should come as no surprise.

In many respects, prison is similar to high school with its well-defined social groupings.

A high school population contains jocks and nerds, emos and goths, stoners, gamers, and the popular kids. In prison, there are White Boys and The Blacks, Norteños and Sureños, Bloods, Crips, and religious fanatics.

What these prison groups share in common with one another—aside from poor educations, drug abuse, and poverty—is their hyper masculinity.  They embrace it. They cultivate it.

Just as for teens, image is everything for these groups.

Homosexuality is therefore perceived to be “soft” and “weak,” something to be despised—the proper response to which is derision, disdain and contempt.

Often, I wonder how much of this invective is pretense, so as not to be ridiculed and ostracized.  Regrettably, I myself have put up a false front in order to maintain my status.  I kept my heretical views to myself, smiling and laughing at appropriate times, no matter the inappropriateness of the comments.

I finally came out of the closet, so to speak. But it will take an army of others to follow suit to make this prison “open” and “accepting.”

I am no social scientist, but I have a theory: When one’s heterosexuality can only be manifested by words, not deeds, maybe intolerance for gender-nonconformity and “sexual deviancy” is a natural response to an unnatural environment.

Whatever the roots of the intolerance, to expect the majority of prisoners to change their views would be nothing short of miraculous.

But changing hearts and minds is unnecessary to achieve diversity in a correctional setting.

As former correctional employee Robert Ellis Gordon explains in The Funhouse Mirror: Reflections on Prison:

  •  “Real diversity isn’t contrived, nor is it a matter of choice. Authentic multicultural interaction, in my experience, takes place when convicted felons or the working poor are thrown together and forced to co-exist by people in authority who, as a general rule, don’t give a shit about them.”

Not to be cynical, but I wonder how much of this push for openness and acceptance is in furtherance of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) which, among other things, requires correctional systems to take steps to mitigate vulnerable prisoners’ risk of sexual assault.

It would not be surprising for a federal mandate to once again be the impetus for a public agency’s promotion of diversity.

PREA aside, in a state where marriage equality was passed by referendum, administrative concern for LGBTI issues simply manifests the community’s values in a correctional setting.  That is just as things should be: Washington’s legislature decreed the correctional system should be managed in a way that reflects the values of the community.

Of course, many of those who live and work in the facility where I am confined object to the changes.  But the people in authority, as Robert Ellis Gordon explained, “don’t give a shit about them.”  The nature of prison is compulsion, not consent.

That said, “real diversity” will be achieved at Stafford Creek.  This I can guarantee.

Rules will be implemented.

Violations will be punished.

Jeremiah Bourgeois

Jeremiah Bourgeois

Those not “open” and “accepting” will pay, dearly.

The declaration that “ACCEPTANCE IS HAPPINESS” on Stafford Creek’s diversity flyers can be seen as an Orwellian warning.

Jeremiah Bourgeois is an inmate at Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, WA, where he is currently serving 25 years to life for a crime committed when he was 14. He will be eligible to go before the parole board in 2017. He welcomes your comments.

One thought on “Promoting LGBTI Tolerance in Prison: The Hardest Challenge

  1. Great article…the federal office I work for is trying to help juvenile facilities become more diverse and tolerant to LGBTQI-GNC issues and their special considerations. It is always a good thing when you have the administration on your side. Ensure you keep working with your external stakeholders too; like other pro-LGBT and human rights organizations to keep the momentum going. I also wanted to comment on PREA, yes the federal gov’t does provide incentives to states that implement such standards, but it is truly the actors on the local level that make it successful. PREA effectiveness is only as strong as the persons that are implementing the law. The regulations are expansive, but the financial support is constricted. With that being said, I think PREA is great tool, but there is probably a lot more people in the WA system better aware of LGBTI issues in your state and are pro-actively making adjustments where they can to address this population in addition to those PREA reqs. Keep writing and educating the public and our governments, great article!

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