‘We are disproportionately abused’: Formerly incarcerated activist, scholars discuss queer incarceration at NPEP roundtable


Daily file photo by Evan Robinson-Johnson

A rainbow stole held in front of the Supreme Court building on June 15, 2020, the day the Court extended civil rights protections to LGBTQ employees. Research shows LGBTQ individuals are disproportionately targeted by incarceration and the criminal legal system.

Tal Schatsky, Assistant Campus Editor

Evie Litwok — a formerly incarcerated queer activist, lesbian and daughter of Holocaust survivors — has only been out of prison for five years.

Litwok was arrested in 1997 on allegations of tax evasion, during a legislative climate that recently supported the Defense of Marriage Act, which illegitimized same-sex marriage, and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” allowing an unofficial LGBTQ military ban to easily fly under the radar. On Tuesday, Litwok addressed the Northwestern community via Zoom in a roundtable on queer incarceration hosted by the Northwestern Prison Education Program.

“Being a queer person was not only the subject of my arrest and the charging document, but played a huge role in my incarceration,” Litwok said.

Litwok said homophobia followed her through her sentence. The abuse she faced included false accusations of sexual harassment, inhumane sleeping and working arrangements and death threats from fellow inmates.

Litwok said she also experienced sexual abuse and witnessed it on a regular basis. She said women were often threatened by officers and given a choice between performing sexual favors or being sent to solitary confinement. LGBTQ individuals were especially targeted, Litwok said.

“Sexual violence in confinement hits the LGBT community the worst, and it’s not a subject we talk about enough,” Litwok said. “We are disproportionately abused in prisons, jails and detention centers.”

Litwok’s sentence and the targeting she faced for her identities — her status as a convicted felon, her age and her sexual orientation — followed her, even after she was released. Finding it impossible to get a job, she was homeless for 16 months. After receiving a year’s worth of monetary support from a friend, Litwok was able to get back on her feet and founded Witness to Mass Incarceration, which centers women and LGBTQ people in the fight against mass incarceration.

The roundtable also featured scholars Stephen Dillon and Ilan Meyer, who presented studies on queerness and incarceration. Dillon quoted from his book “Fugitive Life: The Queer Politics of the Prison State,” which links queer power and prison abolition.

“Sexual liberation required a politics that saw the police as one of the forces that made the future impossible for queer and trans people,” he read, referencing the activist group Street Transvestite Action Revolutions, a New York-based organization founded in the 1970s.

After Dillon spoke, Meyer presented his research showing while male sexual minorities composed just 3.6 percent of the U.S. population in 2011, they comprise 6.2 percent of jails and 8.8 percent of prisons.

For female sexual minorities, the numbers are even more striking, Meyer said, with sexual minorities making up an estimated 3.4 percent of the population, but 35.7 percent of jails and 42.1 percent of prisons.

“What this tells us is that lesbians, bisexuals and gay people are targeted for incarceration in the United States,” Meyer said.

Meyer’s research also indicated incarcerated transgender people experience disproportionate levels of assault, solitary segregation and psychological distress while in confinement and that sexual minorities as a whole are more likely to be severely punished with longer, more restrictive sentences.

The roundtable ended with panelists sharing their highest aims in mitigating harm perpetuated against incarcerated people. Litwok dreams of “revolution.”

“As a child of two people who survived the Holocaust, you have to understand that, for me, prison is just another form of genocide,” Litwok said.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @binahschatsky

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