Commentary Human Rights

‘Coming Out of Concrete Closets’: LGBTQ Criminalization as Reproductive Injustice

Verónica Bayetti Flores

The data in Coming Out of Concrete Closets sheds light on the ways in which systemic discrimination of LGBTQ communities—particularly low-income communities and communities of color—forms a dragnet of criminalization for the most marginalized.

Last week, Black and Pink—a network of LGBTQ prisoners and allies on the outside—released Coming Out of Concrete Closets, a survey of 1,118 LGBTQ prisoners. Designed in conjunction with prisoners themselves, the groundbreaking report reveals critical information for LGBTQ liberation movements and movements striving to fundamentally change the criminal justice systems in the United States. But perhaps most importantly, it illuminates a clear bridge between people of color-led LGBTQ liberation movements and reproductive justice: criminalization.

The data in Coming Out of Concrete Closets sheds light on the ways in which systemic discrimination of LGBTQ communities—particularly low-income communities and communities of color—forms a dragnet of criminalization for the most marginalized individuals, compromising bodily autonomy, self-determination, and family creation in its path. It is the first-ever national survey of LGBTQ prisoners—the largest survey of LGBTQ prisoners of any kind, as Black and Pink explains it—and what the researchers have to say is deeply tied to critical issues central to reproductive justice organizing.

It is essential to note, as confirmed in the report, that the criminal justice system preys most heavily on the poor, with far-reaching and devastating effects for LGBTQ individuals and families. Of the prisoners surveyed, 39 percent reported having been unemployed prior to their incarceration—nearly seven times the general unemployment rate in 2014—and only 52 percent reported living in a home of their own before incarceration, with nearly one-fifth having been homeless or transient and 29 percent living in the home of a family member or a friend. In some ways, these results are consistent with what we already know: LGBTQ people, particularly youth, are disproportionately homeless. And without national employment non-discrimination protections, it remains perfectly legal to dismiss an employee for their sexual orientation in 28 states or for their gender identity in 31.

Institutionalized homophobia, transphobia, and racism mean that low-income LGBTQ folks and LGBTQ people of color often turn to underground and criminalized economies to survive; 39 percent of respondents reported having traded sex for survival needs, and over half of respondents reported selling drugs for money. Black respondents were nearly 20 percent more likely to have participated in the drug trades, an overrepresentation that points to the inherent racism of the “war on drugs,” the report highlights, as white people are actually more likely to sell drugs. The criminalization of the main paths to meeting survival needs, combined with having to be in public space at all times, puts homeless, transient, and low-income LGBTQ people—particularly LGBTQ individuals of color—at high risk for interactions with the police, criminalization, and incarceration.

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Despite the dominant narrative around LGBTQ people being largely childless, 45 percent of respondents reported having children through these tough economic conditions. But only 29 percent of these parents reported having any kind of contact with their children. These data reveal that the devastating effects of layers of systemic discrimination on LGBTQ communities of color and low-income communities lead from job discrimination, to policing and incarceration, to separation from both biological and non-biological families and networks of kinship. “Not only is it about the reproductive possibilities of people getting locked up,” said Jason Lydon, national director of Black and Pink, to Rewire, “but also the people who are parents of incarcerated people watching their children getting locked up, and the families that care about folks that are incarcerated. It often gets framed as Black mothers and Black young men, which is critical, but it’s also bigger than that.”

And over a decade after the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was signed into law, prisoners also reported a disturbing, if unsurprising, amount of sexual assault. “I’ve been raped at nearly every level 5 camp in [Missouri],” one respondent said, referring to maximum-security institutions. “PREA is a joke.”

LGBTQ prisoners were six times more likely to be assaulted than the general prison population, and 100 percent of respondents had experienced strip searches. And though most who reported having been sexually assaulted inside said it was at the hands of another prisoner, 76 percent reported prison staff intentionally placing them in situations where they knew they would be at high risk for sexual assault. “Prisoners are responsible for most assaults,” Lydon said, “but prison staff create the culture and environment in which sexual violence thrives.”

At the same time, prisoners are being punished for consensual sexual activity, and being denied condoms and other barrier methods they need to stay safe.

Moreover, the survey confirms that LGBTQ prisoners are routinely deprived of access to health care. Of all transgender, gender-nonconforming, and two-spirit respondents, 31 percent reported being denied gender identity disorder diagnoses when they requested them to receive services, and 44 percent reported being denied hormones. Over 80 percent of prisoners reported having to pay a fee to see a doctor.

The connections are clear: Whether we’re talking about raising children with dignity, sexual violence, or access to health care, the issues that LGBTQ prisoners report facing on the inside are reproductive justice issues.

In the past ten years or so, the reproductive justice movement has increasingly come to clearly articulate the needs of LGBTQ people and families. Grounded in principles of a human rights framework, which seeks to ensure everyone’s ability to have the children that they want, avoid having those they don’t, and raise the children they have with dignity, a growing number of reproductive justice organizations have made criminalization a central part of their work. 

“[Criminalization] is definitely impacting the ways we think about family or can create family,” said Monica Simpson, executive director of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective. “Is your child going to die on the street? Are you going to lose the father of your child to your prison industrial complex? Are you as a pregnant woman struggling with substance abuse going to end up behind bars? We have to see that as reproductive oppression.”

It’s important to note that it is not a coincidence that most LGBTQ groups led by people of color are working in some way on issues of criminalization or state violence. LGBTQ people of color, as reported in Coming Out of Concrete Closets, are both disproportionately criminalized and face enormous amounts of violence when coming into contact with all levels of the criminal justice system, and particularly the prison system. These are some of the most pressing issues of our time for LGBTQ communities of color organizing today.

Taking on criminalization and incarceration is not just politically expedient at a time when #BlackLivesMatter, a movement pushing to challenge systemic oppressions on all levels, is changing political narratives—or even just a useful bridge that connects movements for LGBTQ liberation to reproductive justice. It presents a clear connection for people of color-led movements to build power together, in the name of bodily autonomy, self-determination, and justice.

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