In late spring of 2003, nearly 15 years ago now, I was classified to a bunk at Ft. Devens prison with a man named Douglas. We later learned that we were intentionally bunked together with the hope that we would have conflict with each other. Douglas was the leader of the Nation of Islam in the prison at the time and working on a 17-year sentence. I was a 20-year-old vocal white gay kid with a short sentence. The guards thought that we would irritate each other and end up with at least one of us being sent to solitary confinement. What they didn’t expect was that we would become close friends and maintain that relationship until today. What they also did not count on was that Douglas was a closeted gay man. I, too, was closeted, or so I liked to tell myself. Sometimes one does not need to actually proclaim their queerness to be seen for who we are. While Douglas and I did not talk explicitly about our sexuality while we were locked up, the shared efforts to keep quiet that which might cause us more harm was a foundation for our bond.
Over the last few years, it has become common knowledge that the United States has the largest incarcerated population in the world. Thanks to the popularity of books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, progressives are increasing their awareness about the way the incarceration system is designed to target and incarcerate Black people. From police practices to sentencing, the racial disparities are all too clear and enraging. The prison system functions as an essential tool for the state to maintain white supremacist power and regulate Black bodies.
As attention is given to the white supremacist power of the carceral state, it is essential that we bring an intersectional analysis to our work. After my own incarceration I reached out to many of the mainstream LGBT organizations, like Lambda Legal and the Task Force, to share about my experiences inside and about the violence LGBT people, particularly Black trans women and gay men, were experiencing. I was disappointed by the responses I received in 2004. I was told, “we don’t work on prison issues.” There was concern in tone, but no action. Thankfully some of these organizations have changed over the last decade. However, the larger LGBT movement has much work to do in order to truly center a racial justice framework in our efforts.
The Unitarian Universalist faith movement has been incredibly active, over the years, in the mainstream LGBT movement. Our congregations were front and center in the campaign to secure expanded marriage rights. Our congregations are also striving to align with the Black Lives Matter movement. We see UU leaders trying to reckon with the ways white supremacy manifests itself within our faith. My hope is that as we rebuild an LGBTGNC movement within our faith with an intersectional analysis, we are not simply trying to make congregations welcoming to white LGBT people, but engage in liberation work that centers the struggle to dismantle white supremacy. Part of that work must be an attention to the US prison system.
I call upon us to learn the stories of Michael Johnson, Kai Peterson, Ashley Diamond, the New Jersey 4. I call upon our Welcoming Congregations to write letters to LGBTQ prisoners. I call upon us to deepen our understanding of collective liberation, to work towards prison abolition, and to keep learning. In a faith that upholds universal salvation, a rejection of punishment, we must learn about transformative justice, ensure we are clear about our theology, and take action to live our faith in all aspects of our lives.