I met P over the summer, they dropped into the basement of the bookstore cooperative where a collective of us wrap packages of books to send to incarcerated LGBTQ people in the U.S. For decades, radical queer thinkers have pointed out how prisons and police disproportionately impact queer people, especially trans people, poor or working class folks, people struggling with mental illness and addiction, immigrants, and people of color.1 While mainstream gay and lesbian organizations often advocate for stronger sex offender registries, hate crime laws, and community police forces, while tacitly supporting the criminalization of HIV, immigration, and poverty, we feel that sending LGBTQ folks packages while they are locked up seems like the least we can do.
I was there with another organizer, K, talking and flirting, slowly wrapping stacks of books in old grocery bags. P wanted to help, and we were glad to have them. We talked about policing, prison abolition, and the fact that P had just moved to town and was looking for a job. P mentioned they’d been arrested for hitting a cop. They waited for us to flinch, I think. We didn’t flinch; we know there are plenty of reasons to fight back against the violent state apparatus. We talked about a bunch of things, and P eventually left to go grab a burrito from Food Not Bombs. We met up again on Saturday for tabling at the Farmers Market to advertise for the Books to Prisoners project. I liked P a lot; they had great politics and a gentleness that made me both feel at ease and like I really wanted them to like me. Plus, where I live, I long for connection with other queer people of color.
Summer got busy as it always does. I didn't talk to P much the rest of the summer; I got in touch a couple of times on social media, but we never met up again. A couple months later, I walked into the book co-op for a package wrapping session. My friend J was behind the counter. He had a worried look, and we don’t know each other that well so it alarmed me. “You okay?” I asked. “It’s P, they’re in the county jail.” J gave me the info, and I immediately went downstairs to wrap P a package of books. The county jail only allows approved vendors to send two, new soft-cover books at a time. I grabbed Ryan Conrad’s Against Equality: Queer Revolution, Not Mere Inclusion and Gloria Anzaldúa’s Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras. I had a feeling those books would provide some comfort to them. I wrote P a letter giving them my phone number and telling them we wanted to support them in whatever ways we could from the outside.
The phone rang a couple days later, a number I didn’t recognize. I answered to hear a recording telling me it was a call from the county jail and that I had one generous minute of free talk time because I couldn’t accept collect calls on my cell phone. “Hey, are you okay?” I asked. “Yea, I’m doing all right,” P said in a voice that was steady. “I’ll get minutes on my phone, so call me back in 20 min—” I got cut off. After I paid for some oppressively expensive connection fees and minutes, P called me back. I said K and I would come visit them, and they had a message for me for some other friends. We talked for just a few minutes and then I let them go.
K and I showed up at the jail two days later for our scheduled 45-minute visit. We emptied our pockets and turned over our driver’s licenses. P jumped up when they saw us. We hugged long and smiled. We live in a county that is 80% white, and every single person who was out to receive a visit was a person of color, mostly black men. We took the list of things P needs inside, and talked about some of the connections they are making, the abuses they are witnessing, and the struggles they are experiencing. None of it surprised us, but it is always hard to see what you know intellectually, reinforced materially on the skin of someone you care about. We had some laughs, shed some tears while lamenting the shittiness of public crying, and held each other’s hands. The time flew by. We promised a return the next week.
1See Amnesty International USA, "Stonewalled: Police Abuse and Misconduct against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People in the U.S."; Ryan Conrad, Against Equality: Prisons Will Not Protect You; Joey Mogul, Andrea Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock, Queer (in)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States; Dean Spade, Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of the Law; and Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith, Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Comple.
Amnesty International USA. "Stonewalled: Police Abuse and Misconduct against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People in the U.S." New York: Amnesty International USA, 2005. Web. http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/AMR51/122/2005.
Ryan Conrad, ed. Against Equality: Prisons Will Not Protect You. Lewiston, ME: Against Equality Press, 2012. Print.
Mogul, Joey, Andrea Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock. Queer (in)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 2011. Print.
Spade, Dean. Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of the Law. Boston: South End Press, 2011. Print.
Stanley, Eric, A and Nat Smith, eds., Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2011. Print.