“They call it the ‘homo bin,’” Jason Lydon recounts of his stints in segregated cell blocks for gay, bi and trans prisoners. Arrested along with 100 compatriots protesting the School of the Americas near Fort Benning, GA in November 2002, Lydon received a six month sentence that took him through four Georgia county jails and a Massachusetts federal prison from February through August 2003.
During that time Lydon weathered treatment similar to that faced by many LGBTQ prisoners: sexual assault and harassment by correctional staff and fellow inmates alike, their sexual orientation leveraged by the prosecution to sway juries, all on top of the deplorable baseline conditions in which heterosexual convicts likewise find themselves.
Now a minister of the Community Church of Boston in Copley, Reverend Lydon experienced firsthand the glaring lack of support for LGBTQ individuals serving time, and initially tried to keep in contact with those he had forged connections with during his sentence. “Eventually I was writing to over 35 people all on my own, and it was just too much to do,” recalls Lydon. “So I invited people over for a potluck and tricked them into writing letters or licking stamps.”
Out of such illustrious roots grew Black and Pink, an “open family of LGBTQ prisoners and ‘free world’ allies” that connects over 1000 inmates nationwide with penpals on the outside through its online network. Since most prisoners have sporadic if any computer access, Black and Pink has spread steadily by word of mouth and in conjunction with prison books programs — inmates write in to be added to the listing service and to receive the Black and Pink newsletter filled with stories, advice and essays on the reality of being behind bars and LGBTQ.
Beside letters, Black and Pink headquarters and penpals on the outside began receiving artwork and sketches from incarcerated artists along with requests for supplies or monetary support. Last year Lydon and fellow queer activist Reed Miller launched Black and Pink Art to support over 150 of these prisoner-artists by selling their work online and at events like Boston Pride, Queer Women of Color (QWOC) Week, Wake Up the Earth and the Holiday Handjobs craft market. All proceeds from the sales are deposited into the artist’s commissary account to purchase toiletries, supplemental food, art supplies or stamps and envelopes to keep up with penpals. Black and Pink Art also provides $10 of seed money to get artists started. Perhaps most importantly the project validates the creativity and worth of prisoners often targeted for their identity.
“We get these touching letters from artists saying that the opportunity to create these works is saving their life, making it so they can face another day in confinement,” says Lydon.
“We also use the art installations [like the current exhibit up at the Papercut Zine Library in Somerville through September, where I saw the Black and Pink works for myself] as a public outreach and education tool,” continues organizer Miller.
“It opens an opportunity to reflect on how messed up it is that people so talented are wasting away behind bars, and what steps might be taken to dismantle the prison-industrial complex.”
Lydon and Miller are adamant on that last point: Black and Pink is not a service agency or art organization and it shies away from any “prison reform” label. “We recognize how racist and classist the system is, and how particularly the LGBTQ inmate population suffers in incarceration,” Miller explains. “Many folks are in prison for things like personal drug use or sex work that shouldn’t reasonably be criminal acts.” Lydon likewise describes the targeting of transgender women by police, who pick up trans individuals under “suspicion” of soliciting paid sex.
Art fits into the Black and Pink movement as a visual bullhorn, conversation wedge and organizational tool toward a justice system that is restorative. At this year’s commemoration of the 1971 Attica Prison riots hosted by Black and Pink at the Community Church on September 9, Lydon hopes to build on momentum gathered by the art project and other advocacy efforts.
“The long-term vision of Black and Pink is to abolish the prison system,” he says, “to mobilize the power of prisoners and strengthen their capacity to organize. And art is a fantastic medium for building that.”
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