Prisoners of homophile conscience

IssueDecember 2001 - February 2002
Feature by Pedro Enrique Polo Soltero

I can't offer a historical analysis of the situation for the gai or lesbian community in prison. I do not have any statistical information regarding the total number of lesbians and gais in prison, neither information about their sentences, nor information about their crimes, and even less information about the law. The only resources I have to draw on are from Amnesty International and other human rights groups.

Editors note: before reading this article you might find it helpful to look at the notes written at very end, where some of the words used are explained in detail.

As a gai and an antimilitarist, I'm writing this article from my own experience, even though I have not been to prison. I'm writing it as a reflection of the experiences of many friends who have been: because for them, being in prison as a result of taking nonviolent action was a frightening experience, and they had many questions about the process that were not answered.

Homophile identity

There is no agreement about the existence of a particular identity for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) population. To the contrary, the LBGT community has a diverse range of cultures, ideologies and the way they express their emotions. In fact, it is the experiences of discrimination, humiliation, aggression and many other awful things, which have unified us. This kind of treatment is experienced in all kind of political and economic systems, be they democratic, dictatorial, capitalist, communist. The experience of discrimination and aggression is part of the history of our community. It has had a big impact on how we interact with wider society: sometimes confronting the people who attack us and sometimes hiding from them, sometimes we are just part of that society.

Defending everyone's right to be

In the State of Spain this context has generated a "homophile collective concept" to defend the rights of gais and lesbians, where heterosexual and LGBT people came together as a group of activist to support the LGBTcommunity through publications and nonviolent actions.

To create a homophile concept means that we acknowledge the differences among people, and we use those differences to benefit society. We defend the right to be different in every sense, whether culturally, ethically or ideologically. We work against discrimination and racism and in favour of a pluralistic society.

A threatening identity

In many countries around the world it is still illegal to have any “homosexual relationships” and those who do are threatened with and receive a variety of punishments. Some people are sent to prison, others are tortured, and in some cases given the death penalty. On the other hand "homosexual relationships" are legal and tolerated. But while they are not actively legislated against, they are discriminated against by homophobic institutions such as the military or ecclesiastical institutions. When people work against those institutions they are often punished by the state. As has been highlighted over many years, this kind of treatment has been experienced all over the world, and we continue to work for change.

Developing support structures

In the State of Spain several heterosexual and LGBT people from different backgrounds formed a group to support the struggle of those who have been imprisoned for proselytising or protesting against homophobic institutions.

But the homophile struggle does not just limit itself to fight for the rights of the LGBT community. It also joins the struggle against the death penalty; we support people in prison who have contracted HIV and AIDS, people who do not received any special medical treatment. In general we take nonviolent action in support of prisoners' rights and against the concept of prisons as centres of punishment. People from LGBT communities, from different places around the world, are being imprisoned, tortured and assassinated, while at the same time many countries are denying political asylum for the LGBT community. Our struggle is against xenophobic institutions, against racism and the asylum laws of many countries - which are used to prevent poor people from getting into their counties. This is all part of the homophile struggle.

Many activists who are fighting against discrimination are sent to prison. We consider all of them to be homophile prisoners of conscience.

However some people in the LGBT community are in prison, not because of proselytising but because of the crimes they have committed. But irrespective of their crime, the treatment that they often receive in prison is abominable, and the conditions in which they are forced to live are severe, solely because they have expressed their sexual preference. We believe that the authorities responsible for this kind of treatment lack awareness of gai identity.

Homophile prisoners

The image that wider society has about us is influenced by the media and for many, movies are the only source of information they have about the gai community, and movies usually impose stereotypes. Like the gai in prison who has aggressive behaviour and who is part of a group of prisoners who rape new inmates and who does not respect other people's sexuality. The other image frequently presented is that of a demented killer, who detests society. I have never seen a movie that has a character with a homophile conscience.

When any militant is getting ready to go to jail, the only reference point they have is those erroneous movies, and many people are afraid to go to prison because they think they will be raped and contract HIV and be isolated.

The reality of many gais in prison is that they are not allowed to have sexual relations with other prisoners, access to condoms is denied, their mail is opened, and they do not have access to books or any kind of political information, nor access to medical information, and their use of the phone is controlled.

Many friends have suffered as a result of the poor treatment they received in prison. For example, a prison doctor let one of my friends die, because he did not provide him with medical treatment. This was compounded by insults he received from the doctor until they day he died.

HIV and AIDS in prison

During the 1990s the authorities discovered that a high percentage of prisoners had contracted HIV and AIDS as a result of the scarcity of needles and consequent needle-sharing. By law the use of drugs and access to needles in prison is prohibited, however cocaine and heroin still get in and the use of it is not controlled. At the same time prisoners are sharing needles and this is the principal cause of the spread of AIDS in prisons.

For many years we have denounced the awful circumstances in which many people in prison are forced live. People from antimilitarist groups, homophile groups and anti-prison groups, have come together to work under the statement of "Prison: extermination institutions". Following demonstrations, statements and the provision of legal resources, the situation has been improving (I want to remind you here that I'm talking about a rich northern country, because the situation of the people in poor countries is much worse).

Nonviolent action in prison

Both World AIDS Day and the international day for Prisoners for Peace are on 1 December. We use this symbolic day to organise demonstrations: we hand out condoms and needles to the relatives of the prisoners outside the main entrances to the prisons so the families can give them to the prisoners. While we have never been able to carry out our actions on 28 of June [anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots in the US] we have organised symbolic actions outside prisons on other occasions to support the rights of gais and lesbians in prison. We protest for the right of the gais and lesbians to have access to condoms, the right to have a sexual relationship with their partner, the right to have their mail considered private, and the right to have access to books and all sources of information .

Achieving support

In order to carry out these kind of demonstrations within prison, prisoners usually use sheets and bitumen to make banners with - because in prison there is neither paint nor fabric easily available with which to make them. The resources of the prisoner are minimal and it is difficult to achieve support from other prisoners after the demonstration, or from people outside. As the mass media cannot take photographs of demonstrations from inside the prison, we prefer actions with placards in the prison windows or we like to place banners on the roofs of the prisons so they can be seen from the street. From the groups supporting outside the prison we use loudspeakers to let the prisoners know that we are there in solidarity. Nonviolent actions inside prisons need support from outside, particularly to minimise the repression of the authorities towards the prisoners who participate in the demonstrations.

In many cases after a nonviolent action in prison the prisoners are dispersed, with the authorities prohibiting communication amongst them. Sometimes, as a result, prisoners are prevented from having any type of communication with the outside and in some cases the authorities have prolonged their sentences too.

The globalisation of LGBT rights

Over the past decade many gai and lesbian groups in the State of Spain have forgotten about political support, while at the same time wider society has generally accepted sexual differences (not embracing it as something that brings benefit to society, but accepting it as something inevitable and at least now respectable).

The gai community is visible in many big festivities to celebrate this climate of tolerance, and in calling for social, labour or economic improvements. But rarely do they remember their brothers and sisters who are prisoners in countries of the south, living with with less tolerant legislation and within more repressive and militaristic societies.

Supporting each other

Now that there is a common struggle against economic globalisation, we must also support the struggle for the globalisation of human rights. We do not fight just for the rights of the LGBT communities of this rich northern country, we also support the rights and needs of communities in countries with dictatorial regimes and with repressive legislation.

We support the struggle against the death sentence in all the countries of the world. We work for the globalisation of standards of conditions in prisons, and we fight for preventive resources - such as condoms and needles - in order to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS.

We defend the right to medical treatment everywhere in the world, including access for people who are in prison.

We fight for the rights of people in prison, for their freedom, and for everyone around the world who we consider to be a prisoner of conscience for their gai activism.

Topics: Prison, LGBTQ+