Men Against Sexism's Fight Against Rape Culture
Saturday, September 15, 20120 Comments
Trigger Warning: this article discusses rape, sexual slavery, and violence.
On Friday, September 14 at Square Guelph, located at 86 Wyndham St. N., an event was held at 7pm about a group called Men Against Sexism (MAS). Men Against Sexism was made up of almost entirely queer and trans prisoners that confronted rape, homophobia, trans phobia, and sexism within Walla Walla prison. MAS was active in the 1970’s at the prison, that is located in Washington State.
Matty was the main speaker at the workshop and asked to have their last name kept private in this article. The presentation was well prepared and very informative. A slideshow included pictures of Walla Walla Prison with everything from prisoners with tattoos of swastikas, to members taking part in prison visits with loved ones, to pictures of openly Queer and Trans prisoners, that felt comfortable being open about their gender and sexuality because of the hard work from MAS within the prison. The pictures showed the environment at the prison during the 1970s. The presentation also provided excerpts from the main founder of MAS, Ed Mead, and his experiences with confronting sexism and misogyny within Walla Walla Prison.
Matty quickly warned participants in the workshop that the discussion would include the topics of rape in prisons, sexual slavery, and violence in prisons. Participants were told they could leave or take breaks at any time. The same trigger warning applies for this article.
Ed Mead was captured after a failed bank robbery and sentenced to two lifes in prison. He robbed banks to fund a group he was a part of called the George Jackson Brigade. George Jackson was a famous African American activist, radicalized by the Black Panthers while he was in prison, and well known for his writing about life in prison, including his book, Blood in my Eye.
Ed Mead’s first day at prison was shocking and terrifying. He was brought to prison along with a young man. They both had cells beside each other and on the first night, a group of predatory prisoners that were trusted by the facility and allowed to get out of their cells at night, attempted to rape the young man.
The crew of predatory prisoners, along with the help of a prison guard, tried to open up the new prisoner’s cell to rape the victim. The victim fought to keep his cell door closed and succeeded even though the ‘trusted’ prisoners threw scalding water at the young man to try to make him give up his fight.
During the attack, excerpts from an interview of Ed Mead, show the fear he was brought to. Mead was flabbergasted by what was happening, but could not muster the strength to yell at the prisoners to stop. He was too frightened that if he yelled, he would have been attacked himself.
The next day, during prison exercises, Mead attempted to speak with prisoners he knew that saw themselves as progressive. The prisoners were sympathetic, however because of fear, only one prisoner he spoke to volunteered to help him start the group MAS.
One old timer that he spoke to shrugged and said, “that’s just the way it is.”
When one of the predatory prisoners had found out that Mead had been talking with other prisoners about the group to confront rape culture within Walla Walla prison, the prisoner spent his recreational period staring at Mead in his cell, skipping rope as an intimidation tactic. During Mead’s recreation period that was held at a different time, he went to the predatory prisoner’s cell and jumped rope staring at him, emphasizing that he would uphold his principles against sexism and rape, and not go down without a fight. His tactic was successful, and the prisoner did not bother Mead again.
At one point in the presentation, Matty talked about Carl Harp. According to Harp, in Walla Walla Prison along with antagonistic lines around race, “the main antagonistic lines that were drawn were around queerness.” As well, “Rape was a tool to gain status in the institution.” Carl Harp, a prisoner convicted of shooting people on a highway killing one and injuring another, who maintained his innocence during his entire time in prison, wrote in the Walla Walla Prison Magazine. His writing focused on critical analysis of the prison system, that included analysis of the rape culture in the prison. This culture included the systematic rape in the institution because of cavity and strip searches done by guards, and deemed as rape because they were not consensual.
MAS analyzed Queer phobic culture within prison. It sought to bring solidarity to Queer prisoners as well as all prisoners. After all, as Mead would articulate, prisoners would not be able to win any of their demands as long as there were so many antagonisms between them. MAS sought to inform prisoners that Queer phobia was a product of sexism, an all too prevalent aspect of society today, and confronted sexism amongst prisoners to seek to end rape, and Queer Phobic culture within the prison. MAS produced a magazine within the prison for the incarcerated to read confronting rape culture within it, and also had movie screenings that included anti-sexism, and anti-war films and documentaries.
The group brought in a Queer Friendly Church to Walla Walla. However, when the minister at the prison found out, the chaplain held a service in which he tried to argue that homosexuality is a sin. This service was protested against, with prisoners that were members of MAS showing up in drag, and confronting the chaplain.
Crises for MAS occurred during its time in the prison. At one point, a convicted pedophile was brought into Walla Walla. He was sold to a prisoner to become a sex slave. Vulnerable prisoners would be sold by pimps in the prison for packs of cigarettes, other smuggled materials, and even money. However, MAS intervened in this occurrence, and managed to get the convicted pedophile in a safe cell and out of a horrible situation. When Mead was asked by prisoners why he would intervene to help a convicted child molester, he explained that MAS would uphold it’s principles and fight against rape culture no matter what.
Another huge crisis resulted in an emergency meeting. The group was now focused on the liberation of a trans women in the prison from sexual slavery. MAS had managed to smuggle materials into the prison to make homemade handguns and hand grenades before the incident. A member of MAS, went to confront the predatory prisoners. At first he was told to leave, but soon he was sent back by MAS. The member threatened MAS would use any means necessary to save the woman, including taking up arms. Instead of fighting, the group of prisoners released the trans women to go to a safe cell, and according to Mead, after this incident there was not any rape within Walla Walla prison for 10 years.
Since this incident, MAS became recognized by prison administration. The group used various tactics to gain its demands. Many members maintained a Queer identity in their struggle. Through relationships with other prisoners, MAS sought to confront the incarcerated and challenge the dominant norms of masculinity within the prison. The group also pressured prison admin, through different tactics like hunger strike, to be able to gain access to women’s clothing. The group also took up spaces, that were safe spaces, and Queer and Trans friendly. It held socials and movie nights in safe spaces, provided vulnerable prisoners with safe cells, often by buying cells from other prisoners because of the groups ability to smuggle material inside the prison because of support from activists from the outside, and also protected and escorted vulnerable elderly prisoners in the prison. The safe cells were modeled off part of the women’s liberations movement that worked on providing safe spaces for women that were victims of violence.
MAS created publications that sought to raise consciousness amongst prisoners and provide them with education to be critical of rape culture. Finally, MAS was not afraid to use violence, and the threat of violence to intervene and get victims, often younger, more effeminate prisoners, out of horrible situations.
During Mead’s time in jail, he also took part in a 47-day prison strike. Prisoners in Walla Walla demanded to be taking out of segregation, where they spent 23 hours a day in their cells, and be put in prison with the general population. Prisoners went on hunger strike, banged objects in their cells as the general prisoners walked by to grab food in order to get them to join, which they eventually did, and also flooded toilets all over the prison to gain their demands. The strike was successful, and Mead got out of segregation.
The information in this article was provided by Matty as well excerpts from an interview with Mead. When Matty was asked why they created the Men Against Sexism workshop they stated: “I think it is just important to spread information and also to create spaces where we can discuss Queer history and discuss situations where we can relate struggles of the past and how the struggles aren’t done yet.” Matty emphasized their interest in Queer history, and also used the examples of Stonewall and the Bathhouse raids and that those historic acts of Queer resistance must be remembered.
Matty also stated they would like participants in the workshop to see that “the common thread of struggle that Men Against Sexism engaged in can actually apply to our struggle today.” And like Matty said, the struggles aren’t done yet. Sexism is still a major problem in North American society. Half of all women in Canada have experienced at least one act of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16. Societal norms that place masculinity over femininity, and greatly lack acceptance for people to be free to follow their own sexuality and act in the way they want along the gender continuum regardless of their biological characteristics are oppressive and should be struggled against.