When I began this project I became pen pals with 32 LGBTQ-identified prisoners. The emotional aspect of corresponding with prisoners presented unexpected moments of self-reflection, genuine laughter, genuine tears, and the knowledge of oneself that only arises when working to understand another’s experiences. I never ask my pen pals why they are in prison. Instead, we share our coming out stories, childhood triumphs, failures, and fears, and goals for a better future - both personally and for our communities.
In Policing Gender, as in my previous body of work Transportraits, I employ visual connotations of landscape and portrait photography to cast a critical lens on notions of the “Natural” and the politics of queer representation, this time in service of prison abolition as a crucial queer issue.
Policing Gender is an installation of photographs and audio. The photographs are abstract metaphors on absence and imprisonment and the audio component is a compilation of voices of LGBTQ prisoners with whom I have been writing on a long-term basis.
The photographs of draped fabrics recall the lush backdrops in renaissance portraiture, (such as “Venus and Cupid” by Hans Holbein), and adopted by photographic portraitists such as queer icon Catherine Opie. However, instead of granting the viewer the opportunity to gaze upon a subject these “portraits” are figureless, leaving the viewer to contemplate the absence of our community members who are behind bars.
The aerial landscapes were photographed from a hot air balloon and metaphorically describe the construct of prison and punishment. The aerial viewpoint connotes a position of power, and while looking down on the visually-disorienting scale of the landscapes one notices that where there should be sublime grandeur, there is instead containment.
The title, “Policing Gender,” refers to the surveillance, policing, and punishment of LGBTQ bodies in the United States—a phenomenon most commonly visualized by the violent police raids of gay and lesbian bars in the 1950s, 60’s, but that started at least a century earlier and continues today. Consider the unwarranted arrests of transgender women (especially women of color), the disproportionate regulation of “public indecency” laws that target gay men (particularly of color), and the longer prison sentences given to queer youth as compared to their gender/sexual normative peers (Grant et al., 2011; Mogul et al., 2011).
I am grateful for the generous project grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council of Portland that made this project a reality. I also remain in awe of and indebted to the education, passion, and radical politics of the people at Beyond These Walls, Black and Pink, and Critical Resistance Portland.
Grant, Jaime M., Lisa A. Mottet, Justin Tanis, Jack Harrison, Jody L. Herman, and Mara Keisling. Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Washington: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2011.
Mogul, Joey L., Ritchie, Andrea J., Whitlock, Kay, Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States, Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 2011.