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Ten Days of Prisoner Justice History: Day 9

“We were some tough faggots.”

— Former MAS member, Ed Mead

In the late 1970s, a multiracial group of mainly queer and trans people inside Washington State Penitentiary formed a solidarity group, called Men against Sexism (MAS), to fight rape culture inside the institution, including the buying and selling of prisoners for sex.

Ed Mead, former MAS member incarcerated as part of the George Jackson Brigade, states that the organization (sometimes referred to as a radical gang) was built upon the energy of a 47-day prisoner’s strike that was accompanied by a 14-point list of demands (#1 being rectifying conditions in solitary confinement).

According to Mead, MAS was active and successful in its many political endeavors on the inside--everything from demanding queer- and trans-centered film screenings and fundraising for equipment; to a “safe cell” program to protect queens and other trans women and genderqueer people; a guardian system to protect elderly prisoners; regular protests against Christian services that preached the “sins” of homosexuality; and acquiring women’s underwear and dresses (with prison administration’s approval!) for trans and genderqueer prisoners.

Mead also reminds us this was an era before AIDS, and tells stories of how queer and trans people were able to get together—with either each other or with volunteers from the outside—to engage in sex that was consensual, pleasurable, and plentiful.

A black and white photo of two people sitting together, against a wall and on top of a cell bed. There is a poster above the bed. Kim’s arm is wrapped around Leomy’s shoulder, and Leomy’s body is nestled into Kim’s. Both are wearing different colored robes and are looking at the camera.
(Source)

Mead’s account highlights the organized nature of consciousness-raising that was spreading inside prisons throughout North America in the 1970s, no doubt influenced by political organizing on the outside (Black Power, Red Power, Brown Berets, Third World Liberation Front, women’s liberation, gay and queer liberation, etc.)

Notably, he states that many of the practices they created to protect themselves and other vulnerable prisoners were sanctioned by prison administrators, including MAS as an organization. However, Mead is no reformist. MAS was formally dismantled when some of its members attempted to break out of prison.

For MAS, it was clear that prisons themselves were the core problem.

Prisons, no matter how hard they try to tell us otherwise, are not exceptional spaces. Rather, they are sites that magnify and amplify existing social conditions, including racism, homophobia, and transphobia.

In other words, prisons reproduce violence.

A colored photograph of Washington State Penitentiary’s watch tower from the outside, as seen down a concrete corridor. High fences topped with barbed wire line each side of the corridor.
Washington State Penitentiary (Alan Berner/Seattle Times)

Trans and genderqueer people, especially people of color, continue to be some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. They have some of the highest incarceration rates, as well as the highest rates of violence done against them both outside and inside prisons.

The history of MAS reminds us that 2SLGBTQIA+ people have always existed inside, and how hard they have fought to creatively find ways to exist, protect each other, and be themselves.

Abolition must be rooted in queer and trans liberation. None of us are free until all of us are free.

Sources

Mead’s account comes from a 2011 radio interview with him by Guelph’s Earful of Queer (CFRU 93.3FM): http://www.mediacoop.ca/audio/ed-mead-and-men-against-sexism-part-one/6910

https://earfulofqueer.wordpress.com/2011/04/11/ed-mead-and-men-against-sexism/

Ethan Hoffman and John A. McCoy’s Concrete Mama: Prison Profiles from Walla Walla (University of Washington Press, 2018; first published in 1981)

Further reading: Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith, eds. Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, second edition (AK Press; 2015).