Published: Feb. 1, 2011 By

I think I hear at least every other day: “You’re not normal!”
You only like women because you’re in prison!”
–Karen Batton, personal correspondence

[1]  Prisons in the United States regulate the ways in which people in them can build a home and construct intimate, sexual, and family lives.  These prisons are often geographically isolated from the cities from which they draw residents.  In addition, they are segregated by assigned sex, allow only the most heavily monitored visiting, and are characterized by very limited personal privacy.  These conditions combine to deny most prisoners access to their previous domestic lives.  In addition, they severely limit the ability to form new romantic relationships.  While this is more obviously true for heterosexual relationships, the ability of prisoners to form romantic relationships with one another has also been restricted through both explicit prohibition and intense monitoring.  Through their structures and rules, prisons deny people the right to a private space that could include partnering, sex, and opportunities to raise children.

[2]  Despite this targeted attack on prisoner’s personal lives, incarcerated people do partner, have sex, and build families.  Cheryl Dunye (2004) described her perception of women prisoners in a workshop she facilitated.  “They weren’t radically changing who they were because of being in prison.  They were still functioning as they would in the context of family and relationships.”  When incarcerated women resist state attempts to deny their private lives by building sexual intimacy or family with other prisoners, the prison becomes a queer space.

[3] Women have queered the space of prisons in different ways through time.  This paper explores the ways that people involved with women’s prisons constructed lesbian identity and the queer space of prisons between 1970 and 1980, at a historical moment shaped by the rise of gay and lesbian liberation, second wave feminism, and prisoner’s rights movements.  Women in prison at this time, especially those who defied prison rules by forming romances and families behind bars, seemed poised to bring together the concerns of these various movements.  However, rather than serving as an example of the commonality of liberation struggles, incarcerated women remained on the margins of feminist, gay liberationist, and anti-prison movements. Why were these women not recognized as leaders in the struggle against sexism, homophobia, racism, and punitive state control?

[4]  The daily battles were certainly there.  Over the course of the decade, women were often punished for their ability to queer the space of prisons.  In one example, women entering a Los Angeles jail in the 1970s were thrown into a maximum-security “Daddy Tank” if they were perceived to be butch or lesbian.  In other locations, “players” who defied the norms by expressing sexual desire were punished by both guards and other prisoners.

[5]  Understanding how incarcerated women interacted with activists on the outside requires  an engagement with both identity and space.  This paper explores diverse understandings of sexual and gender identity, particularly lesbian identity, inside women’s prisons.  These identity constructions often rest on a false dichotomy between “real” and “situational” lesbians.  They also provide the challenge of discussing multiple, conflicting, and shifting identities as they rub up against state systems’ attempts to classify, order, and contain in the space of the prison.   How different parties understood and negotiated queer space in the prison is then explored through an examination of the Daddy Tank.  This discussion includes both the ways that women in prison negotiated the space of the Daddy Tank, as well as the L.A. lesbian-feminist community’s protests against “separate and unequal” housing for perceived lesbians.  As an example of how outside activists engaged with women prisoners, the story of the Daddy Tank also provides clues about the lack of broader solidarity struggles with queer women in prison.  This history occurs at the intersections of popular cultural understandings of sex and gender, the state, racialized gender and sexual identities, and discourses of pathology and criminality.

[6]  In approaching a specific study of the history of women’s sexuality in prisons, there is a danger of promoting the idea that sexuality and intimacy are somehow fundamentally different within the prison.  This is a mistake that has been made often.  The sexual practices and identities of women in prison were a subject of concern in both sociological literature and the popular press in the years between 1970 and 1980 (Bagdikian, 1973; Burkhart, 1973; Charlton, 1971; Propper, 1981; VanWormer, 1978).  Their discussion typically emphasized the “alternate universe” framework of prisons—a belief that sexualities expressed in prison are not indicative of orientation, but are instead situational adaptations to the absence of other companionship.  This approach was initially supported by psychiatric literature.  The 1968 edition of theDiagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders contained a distinction between “true homosexuals” and “situational homosexuals” (44).

[7]  Of course, such a distinction ignored the fact that all sexuality occurs in a specific location.  Prisons do not exist in an alternate universe—they are specific (and expanding) locations in American society.  Studying queer prison spaces within this framework recognizes the diverse array of genders, sexualities, and ways of structuring intimate relationships present in different locations throughout American culture.  It also highlights the role of state power and resistance to state power in structuring sexual behaviors and identities.  Asking questions about how identity was constructed and shared, we learn more about how possibilities for solidarity across geographic and social locations are opened and foreclosed.

Sexuality and Identity

[8]  In the 1970s, people in women’s prisons who had sexual relationships with other prisoners explained their identities in a variety of ways, claiming multiple or even contradictory identities at the same time.  Their testimonies are available in some sociological accounts of women’s prisons, as well as a series of letters written between 1977 and 1980 from women incarcerated in Raleigh, North Carolina to volunteers at the newly-formed Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York.  The fact that these prisoners chose to correspond with the Lesbian Herstory Archives is one compelling statement about their self-identification.  In their letters, they describe their lives as players, boys, and gay women.  From all of these identities, they wrote to claim a place in lesbian history.  However, those whose voices emerge in sociological studies may not have felt the same connection to a broader lesbian community.

[9]  In attempting to write about the lives of women prisoners, one necessarily confronts the question of who or what is a lesbian, as well as who or what is a woman.   My approach engages with the lives of those who were marked as lesbian by the state,  those who marked themselves as lesbian, even if only temporarily and situationally,  and/or those who engaged in behaviors that were considered lesbian by their peers and captors.  While this approach to lesbian history is geared towards inclusivity, demarcating the term lesbian isn’t simple and  my approach has several drawbacks.  In looking at lesbians in women’s prisons, it doesn’t include transgender women who may have been housed in men’s prisons but identified as lesbian.  It also insists on the inclusion of those who may not consider themselves lesbian, but who participated in queer sex acts.   Lesbianism is both an identity and a practice—the history of one cannot be told in the absence of the other.  In addition to these difficulties, I struggled to ensure the use of accurate nouns and pronouns, as my subjects don’t always indicate stable gender identities and never indicate pronoun preferences.  Although some of my subjects’ relationship to the categories of female and woman is clearly complicated, I do use “she/her” to refer to them throughout my work, with the caveat that all pronouns are imperfect placeholders for complex individuals.

[10]  In the available sources, people in women’s prisons presented a diversity of sexual and gender identities.  Some identified as gay or lesbian.  Some identified as men or boys and claimed their partners as wives while simultaneously claiming a gay or lesbian identity.  Some felt that lesbianism was degraded by prison conditions, and used the label of “players” to identify those who engaged in butch/femme, casual sex, or exchanging sex for other resources.  At times, those who had been put down through being labeled as “players” reclaimed the title for themselves as a point of pride.  Some women claimed to be “situational homosexuals,” straight women who were simply making the best of the situation.  While some women claimed multiple sexual identities, others rejected the notion of labeling altogether.  The categories of the situational homosexual, the player, and the true lesbian manifest tensions within the idea of lesbian identity.  These tensions can be examined more fully by turning to the words of the women who claimed them.

[11]  One tension that existed was around the borders of who could lay claim to the title of gay or lesbian.  Within the prison, certain types of people were identified as being too queer to be real lesbians.  Ruth Kelly, a woman interviewed by Kathryn Burkhart, suggested that there were very few “true homosexuals” in prison (370).  She argued that most of the women involved with other women were not lesbians.  They were either masculine “players” or straight women attracted to the players’ masculinity.  Kelly made a strong distinction between players and gay women.  She stated that real gay women “think that women who dress and act like men are sick.”  Therefore, the player could not be considered gay.  To make her case, Kelly highlighted the other “non-lesbian” aspects of the player’s sexual practices:  a player “gets involved very quickly with people she’s attracted to” and sometimes uses sex to get commissary from other women.  Constructing players as aggressive and dangerous outsiders, Kelly policed the boundaries of the category “true lesbianism” and sought to exclude players from lesbian community.

[12]  Debbie Goff repeated Kelly’s distinction between true homosexuals and players in a poem she sent to the Lesbian Herstory Archives:

Then the women make ugly mocks
Of the beautiful woman to woman relationship
Their imation [sic] love
Is full of games that your soul they will rip
And worst of all
They all sware [sic] they’ve always been gay
But if so, how can they turn love from a rose to a weed?

According to Goff, being “seriously gay” was extremely hard for women in prisons.  These accounts suggest that these women believed in a hierarchy of appropriate sexualities and gender expressions.  True lesbians were the best, and the authenticity of someone’s gay identity, as well as the value of their romantic attachments, could be challenged if they fit certain criteria: being masculine, participating in butch/femme relationships, having recently adopted a gay identity, having casual sex,  trading sex for commissary, or hurting someone else  in the context of a romantic relationship.  This mindset may reveal the influence of lesbian-feminist rhetoric that argued that lesbian love was essentially liberating.  The use of sex for material gain or the dishonesty implied in “playing games” did not fit with this view of lesbianism, so Goff questioned the validity of these people’s gay identities.    Her poem argues that true lesbians, women who have “always been gay” are incapable of “turning love from a rose to a weed.”

[13]  In her poem, Goff also discusses the fears that a lesbian might face in the outside world.  Their fears of “coming out” are contrasted to the fears that lesbians in prison face: “Fear of the threats of court, an additional sentence, lock up, and even parole denial/ But most of her fear is of the terrible heart breaking games that are played.”  In comparing the concerns of lesbians on the outside versus lesbians on the inside, the poem emphasizes that lesbians face different oppressions based on their different social locations.  It also suggests that harms inflicted by other lesbians can be as damaging as harms inflicted by lack of greater social acceptance and the state.

[14]  Goff’s poem has two major arguments. It creates a negative “player” other against which a “real lesbian” in prison can be defined. It then creates an argument that real lesbians on the outside should stand in solidarity with real lesbians in prison who face a greater degree of oppression.

[15]  Though both Kelly and Goff characterized players in a negative way, Goff did not share Kelly’s dismissal of those with masculine identities.  For her, the category “player” applied to those who  “played games,” regardless of gender presentation.   Goff expressed a masculine gender, identifying as a boy, while continuing to also use the name Debbie and correspond with the LHA.  Goff suggested that her own gender identity and sexuality were correlated, writing to Joan Nestle, “I have been gay for almost as long as I can remember.  I have been a boy since the age of 2, and women have always attracted me.”  Goff’s formulation of her identity destabilized the idea of women and boys as two mutually-exclusive gender categories, as Goff laid claim to being both a boy who liked women and a woman who was part of lesbian community.  Though others may have sought to exclude her from lesbian community based on her complex and masculine gender presentation, she clearly indicated, through her correspondence, that her letters belonged in the Lesbian Herstory Archive as a part of the historical record of lesbian life.

[16]  In addition to occupying their genders in complex ways, some women reclaimed and complicated the notion of marriage through their relationships.  Kathy Stokes had two “wives”:

One I’ve had for 8 months, the other over a week. The second one is named Delois […] she wrote me a letter from lock-up last week saying that she has loved me for 4 years now and she wants to be my lady, now as I said she is my wife.

The use of the terms “lady” and “wife” reflect the ways that women appropriated traditional terms to describe their own lives.  Stokes’ description of her life rewrites marriage as a non-monogamous lesbian structure.  Stokes also destabilizes the idea that marriage necessarily implies state and religious endorsement of a relationship.

[17]  In contrast to Goff and Kelly’s negative appraisal of players and situational homosexuals, Stokes argued in favor of embracing an inclusive approach to lesbian identity.  This may have been connected to the fact that she had multiple wives, one of whom had become gay, or “flipped,” in prison.
She claimed both situational homosexuals and players as lesbian identities.  “The way I see it, being gay hasn’t a lable [sic] for this one or that one, all that matters is we are two women who love each other, right?”

[18]  Whether or not they were included in our claimed lesbian identity, many women in prison also strongly identified as heterosexual.  Women who had sex with other women in prison reinforced their heterosexual identities by stressing the differences between their experiences of sex with men and sex with women.  One woman described the difference:

When I was with my man outside, I felt big and strong and like a woman. …But inside this place, when I do something with a girl, usually I feel like a little girl and someone’s comforting me and just making me feel good. It’s not really a sex thing, even when it’s sex… because in here you feel so damn little and alone (362).

This woman’s understanding of her sexuality steps away from questions of lesbian identity, emphasizing instead the ways that people use available intimacies to combat stress and isolation.  While women who use same-sex intimacy to mitigate stress certainly exist outside of prisons, prisons may be unique in that women having lesbian sex and relationships inside prisons are often assumed to fall into the category of the “situational homosexual.”

Situational Homosexuals

[19]  The construction of the “situational homosexual” creates a new dichotomy of sexuality.  Rather than homo- versus heterosexuality, the dichotomy is “real” as opposed to “situational” homosexuals.  Just as constructions of homosexual identity reinforce the notion of an original and natural heterosexual identity, constructions of fluid “situational” homosexuality in the prison reinforce the idea of a universal, inborn, unchanging “real” homosexual identity that remains outside of the prison.

[20]  Within the community of those who claimed to be real lesbians, situational lesbians were devalued.  However, prison administrators switched the hierarchy, using the same distinction to identify and target certain women for increased policing.  The idea of innate homosexuality was cited as a reason to target policing on women who were identified as real lesbians.  Defending rules that forbid touching between inmates in Oregon state facilities, Oregon Women’s Correctional Center Superintendent Lee Gierloff stated to the activist publication No More Cages:

I’ve seen a lot of touching, a lot of hugging, and the staff does not deal with it as sexual activity. It depends on who’s doing the touching and who is doing the hugging. … There are some who have been known to engage in homosexual activity. They’re probably going to be watched more closely, and they may feel harassed.

According to Gierloff, it was more important to police “known homosexuals” than to police sexual activity.

[21]  Looking at the people whom staff assumed were “doing the touching” points to the racialized and gendered ways in which women were identified as “known homosexuals.”  In several locations, women who were identified as butch were separated from the general population (Seattle Gay News, 1979).  Their behavior and presentation within the prison were also more strictly regulated.  Prison regulations strictly policed the use of “masculine” clothing, including prohibitions on wearing “masculine socks” (Burkhart, 315).  Butch or masculine prisoners in women’s prisons faced multiple attacks: some lesbians claimed that they did not deserve support from “true lesbian” community, while at the same time their gender presentations were targeted for increased scrutiny and harassment from prison officials.  Marilyn Isabell reported in an interview in theChicago Defender that in Dwight Correctional Facility in Illinois, “all homosexuals are thought of to be black—c.o.’s [correctional officers] don’t believe that whites indulge in it” (Faller, 10).   This comment suggests that the romantic lives of African-American prisoners were more heavily policed within the prison.  The exclusion of women of color from the white feminine ideal, as well as the stereotype of the Black family as inherently pathological promoted through the Moynihan report (1965), may have contributed to the guards’ increased policing of  African-American women’s romantic lives.

Queer Space in the Daddy Tank

[22]  Discussing women’s motivations for claiming queer space in Buffalo, New York lesbian bars between 1930 and 1960, Davis and Kennedy state, “Our narrators taught us that although securing public space was indeed important, it was strongly motivated by the need to provide a setting for the formation of intimate relationships” (450).  Queer space in women’s prisons is not simply space that affirms lesbian or homosexual identities, and it is not always public space.  Queer space is also the space that allows women to create relationships, and it is the space that women claim for their private lives.  This space is constructed against the near-constant surveillance and attempts by the state to contain it.

[23]  Interactions with lesbian feminists on the outside highlighted differences in the ways that various actors understood the value of queer space.  It also brought into relief the shifting relationship between the categories of queer and criminal.  Examining the Daddy Tank at one Los Angeles jail is instructive in the ways that incarcerated women negotiated space, as well as the relationship between lesbian communities across prison walls.

[24]  The Sybil Brand Institute was the Los Angeles county jail built in the early 1970s to replace the previous jail facility on the 13th floor of the county courthouse.  The new facility, hailed as a “model jail,” had five separate sections: Maximum Security, Minimum Security, Mental Observation, Lock Up, and the Daddy Tank (“We Mean Business,” 1).   Although the origin of its name is unclear, its purpose was commonly acknowledged: the Daddy Tank was a maximum security cell block designated to separate those who were perceived by staff to be lesbians.  Most often, the determination was made based on whether or not women appeared to be butch or masculine during the booking process.  This segregation seemed to be an attempt by the prison authorities to contain the queering of prison space by separating and punishing perceived lesbians.  According to a Lesbian Tide article,

Women in the Daddy Tank have the least privileges; the filthiest jobs; get thrown in Lock Up without warning; and are constantly being made examples of. The Daddy Tank is used by prison officials as a disciplinary threat against women in other cell blocks (1).

In the example of the Daddy Tank, then, the prison officials appeared to use the perceived threat of lesbianism as a tool to keep other prisoners in line.  In this way, we see the way that the presence of queer prisoners simultaneously threatened the order of the prison and was used to reinforce it.  They threatened prison discipline because they formed intimate private lives in a space that denied that right and disobeyed gender policing.  However, the guards used their presence to reinforce order among heterosexual prisoners: playing up fears of lesbian aggressiveness and the threat of becoming a “situational homosexual” against one’s wishes.

[25]  The Women’s Center Prisoner’s Collective and the Los Angeles Area Lesbian Feminists staged a protest against the Daddy Tank on Father’s Day of 1972.  About fifty protesters picketed the prison and handed out leaflets to visitors.  One protester’s sign, featured on the cover of The Lesbian Tide, read, “End the ‘Daddy Tank’ now.  End discrimination against gay women.”  The theme of ending discrimination and securing equal treatment for all lesbians was highlighted by the protesters.  In doing so, they placed women in the Daddy Tank within the larger struggle for lesbian liberation.  In their view, the Daddy Tank paralleled other forms of discrimination against gay women.

[26]  In December of 1976, several years of protest from the activist lesbian community in Los Angeles were met with partial success.  Sybil Brand Institute moved the Daddy Tank into a medium security dorm (Cordova, 6).  The women housed in the new Daddy Dorm were eligible to take occupational classes and participate in recreational programs.  While the Daddy Tank was occupied solely by women who appeared butch or masculine to jail staff, women with more feminine presentations were also housed in the Daddy Dorm.  This move reflects the expansion of jailers’ understanding of lesbian identity to also include feminine-presenting women.

[27]  Feminine women moved into the Daddy Dorm in several different ways, according to former Daddy Tank resident Robin Coke.  Some feminine women purposefully “outed” themselves as a way of being moved into the same location as their butch lovers.  “Others, the officials just place under observation, and if they’re caught touching someone, I mean, even rubbing someone’s shoulder, they get sent” (Cordova, 6).  The regulation of a specifically-designated “queer space” by prison authorities was used as a means of classifying, punishing, and controlling all women at Sybil Brand, in addition to being used to contain queer sexuality.  However, some women were able to negotiate these boundaries through “coming out”–claiming the Daddy Dorm as a place where they belonged.  In doing so, they were able to live with their lovers and be surrounded by other queer women.

[28]  Interestingly, lesbian feminist activists on the outside argued against the maintenance of separate gay spaces inside the prison.  This might seem contradictory, since separatism was one of the dominant ideologies in lesbian feminist communities at that time.  This apparent contradiction could be explained by the clear difference between chosen and forced separatism.  Lesbian feminist activists may have simply been sensitive to this distinction.  However, their arguments centered more on themes of “equal treatment” than on increasing available choices for negotiating the space of the prison.  These arguments would suggest that the issue of choice was not the activists’ primary concern.

[29]  The activists also suggested that the Daddy Dorm was a “set-up,” since it created an environment in which women could more easily violate rules against sexual contact (Cordova, 7).  Heterosexual women were not entrapped in the same way, therefore the treatment was unfair.  This interpretation ignored the fact that opportunities for sexual contact may have been exactly what some women were seeking.  The activists continued to push for equal treatment, which, to them, meant the end of any separate housing space for lesbians.  The loss of one way to negotiate space for sexual opportunities was not prioritized in comparison to achieving an equal system of assigning housing without regard to sexual orientation.

[30]  Lesbian feminist arguments against the segregation of gay women in prison were tied to a growing separation in popular discourse between “lesbians” and “criminals.”  Speaking about the Daddy Tank, an anonymous source from the Status of Women Commission of the County Board of Representative stated, “the Commission opposes the assumption that a whole group of people are dangerous because they made a life choice that is not a crime” (Cordova, 38)  While the source’s description of homosexuality as a “life choice that is not a crime” suggested that it had never been criminalized, the decriminalization of sodomy in California had only come into effect on July 1 of the previous year (Eskridge 2008, 200).  The logic of equal treatment for lesbians in Sybil Brand appears to have been tied to a larger strategy to reframe gay identity as compatible with responsible citizenship.

[31]  Descriptions of lesbianism as a “life choice” that was specifically “not criminal” reflected attempts to separate the liberation of lesbian-identified women from the liberation of other criminalized groups.  Joan Nestle, one of the founders of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, eloquently argues against this strategy, which she witnessed in other lesbian feminist communities during the same time period.

By allowing ourselves to be portrayed as the good deviant, the respectable deviant, we lose more than we will ever gain.  We lose the complexity of our lives, and we lose what for me has been a lifelong lesson: you do not betray your comrades when the scapegoating begins (123).

Though lesbian feminist organizations were advocating for lesbians in prison, they were doing it within a framework structured around their lives, their priorities, and their vision of liberation.  These outside activists simultaneously needed women in prison to testify to lesbian feminist claims of universal lesbian identity and needed to separate themselves from the complex realities of these women’s multiply criminalized lives.

[32]  A 1976 comic strip by Roberta Gregory that appeared inWimmen’s comix #7: Outlaws addressed the tensions in lesbian activists’ approaches towards lesbians in jail through a trip to the Daddy Tank.  The strip, titled “Protecting Yer Morals,” told the story of two friends arrested for kissing in public outside the Lavender Lioness, a “you-know-what-bar.”  One of the arresting officers tells the main character, Norma, “There’ll be lotsa chicks just like you there” as he takes her to jail.  This implies that lesbians and women in prison are the same in the eyes of the state.

[33]  However, Norma is not sure that she agrees with the officer.  Once inside the Daddy Tank, Norma looks around at the butch dykes and thinks, “Wonder if they have feminist consciousnesses?”
Her friend nervously says, “h.. hi, sisters…”  This exchange humorously highlights their confusion about how women in prison fit into constructions of lesbian feminist identity.  Do the women of the Daddy Tank fit the test of universal lesbian identity?  Or are they something else?  They dress differently, engage in butch/femme, and view the world through a different ideological lens.  The moment of confusion is solved by the appearance of the lesbian-feminists’ old friend Doris.  Doris is visibly butch and working class, with a tattoo of a bull on her chest and a motorcycle helmet in her hand.  She hugs Norma while saying hello to the other women in the Daddy Tank.  She then explains:

I’ve been in the slammer 34 times—lots of it for the same reason you got in (though the last time was for bustin’ a cop’s jaw)–it’s no disgrace—not with these chickenshit laws they got against us!

Doris acts as a bridge, testifying to the “sameness” of all lesbians.  Doris’ markers of butch and working class differences lend authority to her insistence on their shared lesbian identity.  The authentic “other” has spoken, to say that she is just the same.  The protagonists are relieved to learn that the “other” lesbians that they feared are part of the same universal lesbian identity.

[34]  Gregory’s comic domesticates the prison, and in doing so it erases the reality of incarcerated women’s complex lives.  Instead, it paints an easy picture of a lesbian community united against a common enemy: the state.  In “Protecting Yer Morals,” the Daddy Tank is imagined by Gregory to attest to the common oppression and essential connection of all lesbians.  In doing so, the rich differences between the women’s identities and experiences are ignored.


[35]  True lesbians, situational homosexuals, players, prison authorities, and outside lesbian activists all play a role in the queer history of women’s prisons.  This history is important for several reasons:  examining these lives in the context of queer history challenges the idea that these women exist in a “separate universe.”  This work also offers an important counterpoint to examinations of the relationship between the state and sexuality outside of prison walls by exploring state power at moments of most overt displays of bodily control.

[36]  Juanita Diaz-Cotto has argued that writing on women in prison too often focuses on sexuality to the exclusion of considerations of race, guard/prisoner relations, and relations with outside.  It is understandable to be cautious about fetishizing or sexualizing women in prison.  However, historical  distortions of women’s sexuality suggest the need for more analysis and better research.  It isnecessary to write about women in prison in ways that do not erase, criminalize, or pathologize their sexual and romantic lives.  To do so, one must be willing to shift one’s own conceptions of normality and identity, to examine continuities and discontinuities across the walls of the prison, and to address the operation of various systems of power.  It is necessary to engage with women’s prisons in a way that examines sexuality in relation to complex identities and locations within both the institution and the larger culture.  

[37]   A history of sexuality in women’s prisons highlights the ways that physical location interacts with sexuality, both in the process of identity formation and in the recognition of those people by others.  The environment of the prison impacts how women name and express their sexualities through the structure of the space, the enforcement or lack of enforcement of rules, and various cultural understandings of prison sexuality developed both inside and outside the prison.  Others see these women and understand their sexuality through both their claimed identity as well as their location as prisoners.  Specifically, in the case of prison sexualities, the state polices the expression of sexuality more strictly in the location of the prison, often using location as a rationale for regulating behavior, rather than identity.  Women inside prisons have resisted state attempts to deny their private lives by forming a variety of intimate connections within the prison.  In doing so, they have defied the limitations imposed by singular constructions of identity, as well as the restrictions imposed in the physical space of the prison.

[38]  Although some lesbian feminist activists on the outside claimed these women as a part of a universal lesbian identity, this claim has often been used to erase the complexity of their lives.  In the case of the Daddy Tank, the inclusion of women in prison in the fight for lesbian liberation was superficial.  Activists argued against “unequal treatment” among prisoners but never challenged the state’s ban on gay sex inside the jail.  The understanding of jail as a “separate universe” made this implicit agreement with state bans on lesbian sexuality possible.  The rules against sexuality were prison-specific, not anti-gay—that is, they targeted people based on their physical location rather than their identity.   However, our social locations shape the physical locations in which we find ourselves.   Difficulty working with this simple truth led outside advocates to see rules against sexuality in a same-sex institution as neutral, even though their effect was to ban gay sex.

[39]  Queer scholars must be careful not to mimic this superficial inclusion.  This means not acting as if queer sexuality has been decriminalized throughout the United States, when the state continues to enforce bans on the expression of gay sexuality in the place where over two million people spend their days confined.   Precisely because these spaces challenge typical formulations of lesbian or gay identity and progress, it is important for queer scholarship to engage with the history of the prison as a queer space.  In the words of Joan Nestle, “we need to go back to prison records and start exploring the lives we will find summarized in the terse sentences of the state” (170).  Centering the study of queer history around women in prison raises provocative questions.  It destabilizes “lesbian” as a universal category.  It defies common practices of thinking about the space of prison as an “alternate universe” with regard to sexuality.  It explodes the debate between “choice” and “inborn” models of queer identity by encouraging us to consider the not only the ways that people either choose or discover their queerness, but also the ways that they are violently excluded from heterosexual options.  When the formation of queer family occurs in the wake of such violent exclusion, queerness operates as a strategy for defying state violence.

[40]  Examining prisons as sites of queer history requires recognizing that the conditions for queer space are sometimes created and maintained by the state as it moderates access to heterosexual privilege.  As feminist scholars of welfare reform and the child welfare system have pointed out, this state moderation of sexuality and the right to construct family works to maintain racial and class hierarchies (Mink 1998; Roberts 2002).  The state enforces racism by replacing privacy with intense supervision and policing in poor communities of color, including prison communities.  When people in these communities claim private space, they are resisting state racism.  The history of prisons as queer spaces is therefore inexorably linked to the history of resistance to racism.

[41]  In a discussion of prisons as queer spaces, the recognition of different social locations, identities, and experiences is crucial.  Political action based on assumptions of shared identity can be damaging to the women whose lives are misrepresented in the name of sameness.  When moving between queer locations, activists need to recognize that their frameworks and goals are not necessarily universal.

[42]  As the mainstream  U.S. gay and lesbian movement continues its pursuit of equality in marriage, it seems impossible that certain populations of gay and lesbian people within the same country continue to face rules against kissing, holding hands, or having sex.  How have these people been left behind by the movement that purports to represent them?  In her now-classic work Gender Trouble,Butler critiques the foundational framework of identity politics, arguing,

[t]he internal paradox of this foundationalism is that it presumes, fixes, and constrains the very “subjects” that it hopes to represent and liberate.  The task here is not to celebrate each and every new possibility quapossibility, but to redescribe those possibilities thatalready exist, but which exist within cultural domains designated as culturally unintelligible and impossible (148).

As long as women prisoners’ lives are interpreted towards the interests of other’s political gains and through the lens of other people’s worldviews, they will remain unintelligible.  Viewing prisoners as occupying a separate universe facilitates their disappearance from the history and the political struggles of this world.  It erases the fact that a significant number of queer people in the United States continue to negotiate environments in which sexual expression is a punishable offense.

[43]  Alternately, when identity is considered in the context of space, new possibilities for solidarity and understanding emerge.  Away from the struggle for a universal lesbian identity, a new framework of situational, fluid, and multiple identities emerges.  Engaging with the history of women in prison encourages one to understand all lesbians as “situational”–negotiating complex systems of power, occupying multiple, shifting, and sometimes contradictory identities, working towards competing priorities, and sometimes harming one another in their struggles to find freedom and love.


Thanks to Amy Villarejo and Mary Katzenstein in the Department of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Cornell University and to the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, New York.

Works Cited

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  • Bagdikian, Ben. “Female Homosexuality Prevalent,” The Washington PostFebruary 2, 1972, pp. A1, A10.
  • Batton, Karen. personal correspondence with Lesbian Herstory Archives.  July 11, 1980.  Prison Special Collection.  Lesbian Herstory Archives: Brooklyn, New York.
  • Brandenstein, Sherilyn. “Inmate Talks Candidly About Prison Life,” Big Mama Rag.   Vol. 3, September 1974, p. 3.
  • Burkhart, Kathryn. Women in Prison: Inside the Concrete Womb. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1973.
  • Butler, Judith.  Gender Trouble.  New York: Routledge, 1990.
  • Charlton, Linda. “The Terrifying Homosexual World of the Jail System,” The New York TimesFriday, July 9, 1971.  L37.
  • Cordova, Jeanne. “New Freedoms for Daddy-Tanked Lesbians,” The Lesbian TideMarch/April 1977, p. 6-7, 38.
  • Davis, Madeline D. and Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy. “Oral History and the Study of Sexuality in the Lesbian Community: Buffalo, New York, 1940-1960” in Vicki L. Ruiz and Ellen Carol DuBois, eds.Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S. Women’s History. Routledge: New York, 1994, pp. 450-462.
  • Diaz-Cotto, Juanita. “Race, Ethnicity, and Gender in Studies of Incarceration,” in Joy James, ed.  States of Confinement: Policing, Detention, and Prisons.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000, pp. 122-31.
  • Eskridge, William N. Dishonorable passions: sodomy laws in America, 1861-2003. New York: Viking, 2008.
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  • Freedman, Estelle. “The Prison Lesbian: Race, Class, and the Construction of the Aggressive Female Homosexual, 1915-1960,”Feminist StudiesSummer 1996.
  • Goff, Debbie. “Is there institutional love?” Personal Correspondence to Joan Nestle.  October 1980.  Prison Special CollectionLesbian Herstory Archives: Brooklyn, New York.
  • Gregory, Roberta. “Protecting Yer Morals” in Mel Gebbie and Dot Bucher, eds. Wimmen’s Comix #7: Outlaws.  Berkeley, CA: Last Gasp Publishers, 1976.
  • “Lesbians in Prison: Three Women Tell Their Stories,” Seattle Gay News, 27 April 1979, p. 6.
  • Mink, Gwendolyn. Welfare’s End.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.
  • Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. The Negro Family: A Case for National Action. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Labor, 1965.
  • Nestle, Joan. A Restricted Country.  Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books, 1987.
  • Propper, Alice. Prison Homosexuality: Myth and Reality.  Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1981.
  • Roberts, Dorothy. Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare.  New York: Basic Books, 2002.
  • St. John, Maria. “Making Home/ Making ‘Stranger’: An Interview with Cheryl Dunye,” Feminist Studiesvol. 30 no. 2, Summer 2004, pp. 325-38.
  • Stokes, Kathy. Personal Correspondence to Deborah Edel.  1977. Prison Special Collection,Lesbian Herstory Archives: Brooklyn, NY.
  • VanWormer,Katherine.Sex Role Behavior in a Women’s Prison: An Ethological Analysis.  San Francisco: R & E Research Associates, 1978.
  • “We Mean Business (predicting the end of a so-called model prison),”The Lesbian Tide, July 1972, p. 1.
  • “Who’s doing the touching…” No More Cages February-April 1980.