In prisons, men are housed separately from wimmin, but gender oppression is still a very big issue behind bars. From sexual assaults on prisoners by guards and other prisoners, to the abuse of gay and trans people, gender oppression perpetuates disunity and furthers the social control of the criminal injustice system. In this issue of Under Lock & Key we have articles about rape and sexual assault in prison, the use of sexual orientation to divide prisoners, denial of health care, and several attempts to challenge and fight gender oppression behind bars.
Our readers should be familiar with the concepts of class and national oppression. Class is clearly related to work and ownership of the means of production. Those who are owners have the power to exploit those who are not. National oppression is also clearly visible with nations which have resources and militaries using those to steal from and control nations which don't.
We distinguish gender from class and nation because it is defined by leisure-time activity. Men (the group with power in the gender oppression dynamic) oppress wimmin through rape, sexual harassment, and a social structure that portrays wimmin as valued for their looks, not for their skills or knowledge. Gender is not so clear cut as "men against wimmin" though. We have an Amerikan history of lynching Black men accused of raping white wimmin, giving white wimmin significant gender power over Black men. The use of humyn bodies in the Third World for drug testing by pharmaceutical companies gives First World men and wimmin benefits from gender oppression. And overall health status and physical ability is tied up with gender privilege; professional athletes and models are both enjoying gender privilege while those with physical and mental disabilities are often times forced into homelessness or imprisonment.
Gender in Prison
In prison we see clearly that gender privilege is not just about biological definitions of male and female. Prisoners face rape and sexual harassment by both prison staff and other prisoners. According to the Department of Justice itself, 50% of sexual assault against prisoners is by staff (See the article "PREA National Standards: Symbol or Sword?"). Prisoners are vulnerable because of their powerlessness against abuse from employees, their lack of recourse to stop abuse from other prisoners, and also because of their lack of access to adequate health care. These vulnerabilities have an even bigger impact on prisoners who are gay or trans, those with physical disabilities or health problems, youth (especially those in adult facilities), and any prisoners who are perceived as weak.
Trans Oppression in Prison
A New York prisoner wrote to MIM(Prisons) recently:
"I'm a transgender woman. I'm writing this because I'm different from the regular male prisoners. I am 200% aware of the oppression that's being done to the heterosexual prisoner population. I've been raped, beaten, and starved. The main reason I've been oppressed is due to my sexual orientation. An LGBTQ individual has it bad [in prison]."
Trans people face gender oppression for their perceived sex role non-conformity, based on physical health status and needs, and for trans wimmin there is the added oppression for being female. As with other gender oppression, this interacts with class and nation, leaving Third World trans people to face the most severe oppression, while some First World trans people end up integrating well with their imperialist culture and enjoying its benefits. Trans prisoners are unique in the First World because the condition of imprisonment puts them in a situation that denies them class or nation privilege, resulting in increased danger specific to their gender oppression.
The root of violence against trans people lies in the strict enforcement of the gender system. People who are visibly trans, especially trans wimmin, are often singled out for social or physical violence. Trans people are automatically regarded as non-heterosexual, and violence against them often includes elements of homophobia. These factors can conspire with national oppression and class to produce disastrous and murderous results.
Trans people have a number of specific health needs, primarily hormones and surgery, but are commonly denied access to even routine healthcare.(1) An unemployment rate double the average(2) often leaves trans people without insurance; but for those who do have it, trans-specific coverage is often categorically denied, and aging medical standards allow doctors to restrict treatment to only those who conform to rigid standards of masculinity or femininity. The result of all this can be lethal. Approximately 41% of trans people have attempted suicide,(3) and trans wimmin are 49 times more likely to be HIV positive than the general population.(4)
Lack of healthcare is even more acute within prison, with hormones normally denied even to those receiving them before incarceration, and surgery completely out of the question. 21% of trans wimmin have been imprisoned (rising to over 50% for New Afrikan trans wimmin)(5) and for them, correct identity documents can mean life or death. Trans wimmin who are regarded as "legally male" by the state get sent to men's prisons. This leaves them much more likely than other prisoners to be victims of sexual assault, rape, and murder,(6) and has a number of other consequences like the assignment of cross-gender guards for strip searches, and incorrect clothing provisions.(7)
Unity is Key to Fighting Gender Oppression
Gender oppression is an integral part of imperialism, and we can't expect to eliminate it without overthrowing imperialism. Ultimately we fight for communism, a system where no group of people oppresses any other group of people (classes, nations or genders). But we can have an impact on some forms of this oppression now, including sexual violence and harassment, through a united struggle behind bars. We call on all prisoners to put an end to gender oppression between prisoners. We need to stand together and say no to prisoner-on-prisoner sexual assault, and no to harassment. Unite and stand up to defend those who can not defend themselves. If you do not face this oppression, it is your job to stand with your comrades who do, and ensure your fellow prisoners do not turn around and act as gender oppressors. Straight prisoners need to understand that gay and trans prisoners are comrades, not enemies. Don't let the prison divide us along gender lines.