Situational Lesbians & the Daddy Tank: Women Prisoners Negotiating Queer Identity and Space, 1970-1980

Article excerpt

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. …

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