Recently, I came across an amazing organization that spoke to my heart on multiple levels: LGBT Books to Prisoners. For over ten years, LGBT Books to Prisoners has been working to combat some of the hardships faced by LGBTQ people who are incarcerated. It is a donation-funded, volunteer-run nonprofit located in Madison, Wisconsin, that sends books and other educational materials, free of charge, to incarcerated LGBTQ people across the United States. They have sent books to over 8,000 people in that time. These books educate, entertain and empower.
LGBTQ people, particularly people of color and poor people, experience high levels of policing and criminalization, leading to arrest and incarceration.
Once inside prison, LGBTQ people are subjected to constant violence by both prison staff and other prisoners. In addition to these abuses, a recent survey of LGBTQ people in prison conducted by Black and Pink found that 70 percent of respondents experienced emotional pain from hiding their sexuality while incarcerated or throughout their interactions with the criminal legal system. Only 20 percent have access to LGBTQ-affirming books, and only 29 percent have completed high school upon entering prison.
Financial and book donations allow LGBT Books to Prisoners to respond to the specific needs of incarcerated queer and trans people, thus affirming their dignity by giving them their choice of reading material, which allows them to learn and grow as they desire. These efforts also acknowledge and combat the oppressiveness of the prison system by shifting some control back into the hands of individuals.
With these concerns in mind, I knew I had to become involved. I went to the group's volunteer training, which will forever change my life. The training was held in the basement of the Social Justice Center, alongside a small library of books, organized by genre. We volunteers learned about the program, took a brief tour, and then jumped right in to help.
The process goes like this: First, a volunteer takes a letter from a bin that that has been catalogued in a database and screened for what can and can’t be sent to that prison. Prisons have various restrictionsand they must be adhered to or shipments of books can be returned or destroyed. Each letter contains a note from an LGBTQ person in prison requesting books. Many also tell a story about the person’s life, though that is voluntary. Most people request an LGBTQ book,and an unlimited number of LGBTQ/queer nonfiction books can be sent, but because of high demand, only a limited number of books in the categories of gay fiction, gay erotica, bi books, and trans books per package can be included.
After reading the request, the volunteer gathers up three to five books that best align with the request, and weighs the books to ensure the total mailing weight doesn’t exceed five pounds, which helps keep mailing costs down. (Some prisons limit the number of books incarcerated people can receive; the project sends the max number of books each letter writer can receive, up to five.) Next, the volunteer writes back to the person (which in some cases is the only contact the person in prison will have with people outside their facility), then binds the books with an order form that will allow the person to write back with genres of books they might like in their next order, and a reminder to disclose any new book restrictions that they are aware of. Once the books are entered in a database and restrictions are once again screened, the pile is moved to the table where they are wrapped for mailing. LGBT Books to Prisoners has the capacity to send up to two packages of books per person per year.
The efforts of the LGBT Books to Prisoners align with the broad goals of NCTE and of NCTE groups and programs such as the CEE Commission on Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline, the Gender and Sexualities Equality Alliance (GSEA),the Cultivating New Voices among Scholars of Color (CNV) Program,the NCTE Black Caucus,and the CEE Commission on Social Justice in Teacher Education Programs.
These have all called, in various ways, for those in our field to disrupt inequities for students of color, for LGBTQIA*+-people, and for students who are, may become, or were formerly forced unwillingly into the School-to-Prison Pipeline.
I know that NCTE members will want to support LGBT Books to Prisoners, and will provide books—preferably in good condition and softcover. Please consider collecting books and reaching out to your peers, friends, colleagues, and students. To make arrangements, email email@example.com.
The types of books sought by LBGT Books to Prisoners include, but are not necessarily limited to, the following:
· LGBTQ (especially trans, gay and bi materials, nonfiction and fiction alike)
· Dictionaries (English, English-Spanish)
· Drawing or art or crafts (preferably how-to)
· Books in Spanish for native speakers
· African American, Latin@, and Native American history or nonfiction
· Contemporary fiction (especially urban fiction, crime fiction, and thrillers)
· Mythology, occult, and alternative spirituality books
· Prison issues
You are also welcome to make a financial donation. Visit https://lgbtbookstoprisoners.org/
For further information, I encourage you to read related statements from NCTE groups:
Resolution of the CEE/ELATE Commission for Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline
Statements from the NCTE/CCCC Black Caucus
Resolution on Social Justice in Literacy Education
CEE/ELATE Position Statement
Beliefs about Social Justice in English Education
Resource Repository GSEA/NCTE
Please don’t hesitate to contact me for additional information. And know that your efforts will make a difference.
*+means the interdeterminacy of identity
sj Miller is the Coordinator of the MS Program, Dual Teacher Certification Program in Secondary English Education and English as a Second Language, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is currently writing two books: Gender Identity Justice: Sowing Seeds for Transformation in Education(Teachers College Press) and Navigating Trans*+ and Non-binary Genderidentities (Bloomsbury). sj is editor of the new column “Beyond Binary Gender Identities” for English Journal.
LGBT Books to Prisoners often circulates excerpts of letters with personal information removed, to protect the identities of those who write to the project. Here are some examples of recent letters received by LGBT Books to Prisoners.
Hello how are you all doing? I hope this letter finds you all blessed! I really do want to thank you all for the books. I want to say that since I've reached out to the community I've found so many places that are there for us. I had no clue! I feel overwhelmed. Since I have come out I feel more alive and myself even in the confines of this prison it cannot hold my soul. Plz keep up keep up the great work and stay strong and hold your head up high!
___________________________________________________________Hay.... I would like some love story for LGBT inmates they have nothing in our library for us and its not fare. Thank you for your support. ___________________________________________________________
Dear Celine, Matt and others of your organization,
I know that it says thank you notes are not necessary but they should be. The work that you do ALWAYS shines a light in this darkness. I can NEVER truly express my appreciation for this. I am an aspiring author and I was truly moved by the writing that Jandy Nelson used in 'I'll Give You the Sun' that you last sent me. Her use of dual voices and alternating perspectives has inspired me to give it a go. I am unable to take a creative writing course so I use these books you send to hone my craft.
I always enjoy the little notes you also send along as they remind me that I am truly not alone. I also really appreciate you taking time out of your day Celine to look up and tell me about Becky Albertalli's 'Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.' I have yet to get my hands on a copy but I am trying and having this info is very helpful.
I really want you to know how much you help me through this tough time. I recently was finally able to work up the courage to come out to my mother. It's a small step but it is a start and it's all thanks to kind hearted individuals like you. Please take care of yourselves.
To: Books to Prisoners
First of all I would like to thank you (this company) for reaching out to the gay prisoners + showing us support by donating books to us. It really is a help to us that do not have family or any outside help. I was just told about your company by a gay friend of mine here at Jefferson C.I. + he told me that you sent him some composition notebooks + some novels to read so I wanted to try to get a couple of the composition notebooks + a couple of suspense/thriller books from you. There is a group of us at this camp that have a reading club + we let each other read each others books as we finish them so a couple of new novels will be very appreciative + 2 composition notebooks will be a big help for my writing that I do. Thank you for your help + all of your support.
In response to Chimamanda Adichie’s remarks about trans women being a type of woman, I made a decision and posted a sensationalist newspaper article (that was limited in scope) and made a uni-dimensional comment that was far too casual and brimming with ignorance about trans women and their lived experience. For a population that experiences more gendered violence and structural harm than any other group on earth, my comment lacked deference and made light of a very serious issue. I admit that I spoke over, and on behalf of, trans women-- which was not my right. By minimizing Adichie’s comments, I both dismissed her use of violent and destructive language and granted its security to be fastened into the very structures from where it sprang, thus empowering its reproduction to discriminate and fuel structural violence against trans women’s bodies. I majorly over-stepped. My post was brought into focus by a trans woman of color who I deeply respect. In truth, I am grateful to have her lived experience to call out my privilege and bring it to my attention. Though, that is part of the problem right there: She should not have to do that. It is not her job: It is my work. It is our work. To my friend, I am sorry. We all need to be educated, and part of that process is, I hope, that a trans education can be transformative for all of us.
On March 10, 2017, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said she “finds it difficult to equate the experience of trans-women with that of women” (see http://www.okayafrica.com/in-brief/chimamanda-adichie-trans-women/). By framing trans/women’s identities as separate and distinct, she reduces gender not only to a biological reification, she also signals that trans women are a “type” of woman, not a “woman,” by “classical” views. When we say something is a “type” of something, it indicates there is a mothership-identity and everything else is compared to, or must dock on it, to refuel and gain power. In other words, it has no credibility unless it draws from the default. Her status as an award-winning and respected author and speaker bears considerable weight and impresses on her audiences as truth. An irony inherent in her status is that what she claims not to do in her now famous Ted Talk (which by the way, as of this writing has 11,888,475 views), The Danger of a Single Story,” (see: https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story), and in which she admonishes the viewer to never reduce or collapse the human experience into one narrative or to see people in a group the same because it dilutes realities and creates fictitious stories, is the very issue she has now produced and created an anxiety around.
As a trans person, not identified in a binary, but as (a)gender, and as someone who passes as male, I can occupy spaces of male privilege. I was not brought into a world where that was the case; it was something I began to benefit from when I began to look more male. I recognized that I was bestowed a set of privileges that I could never have even conceived of--let alone wanted to-- but now being read as male, certain presumptions about what I want to hear or have said to me, and decisions about how I will respond, are decided even before I speak. Such thinking is preposterous and speaks to more systemic issues about the socialization and culturalizing of men and their masculinities.
While I do not want to benefit from male privilege, it is a defaulted reality. I can abscond from relationships and attempt to divest from structures that reinforce and sustain binary gendered privileges, and I can live a life that embodies and is committed to eschewing such privileges, but the bottom line is my white skin color (though I am Semitic), and how I am read as male (sometimes heterosexual), not only primes me to, but positions me--of my choosing- to benefit from (only naming identities from which I can benefit) and have access to, a heterosexual, patriarchal, Eurocentric, white, able-istic, classed, and gendered system, which has architectured power for some while minoritizing others. It is a system that grants power, masked as state-sanctioned logic, thus falsifying security, and sustained by neo-iterations of change or reform. Such neo forms of segregation belie various forms of subordination. These logics continue to open different doors for some to access certain privileges, while generating lukewarm standards for others. When we participate in this system and accept these logics as truths, we continue to be re-socialized in such ways that maintain our arrogance and makes us think it is ok to speak over and for people, when we have no business doing so. It is from within this space, that I hurt some trans women, and want to right those wrongs. I recognize that no amount of writing can proxy for a system from which I will continue to benefit, but I know that standing for, up and always in consult with a trans woman’s experience is what can queue support for formation of incremental movement towards a trans women’s justice.
I cannot speak about this topic without reflecting on its implications for youth. So much of the work we need to take up to educate both ourselves and others about must start in pre-K on through the grade levels. When an identity is erased, discomfort and/or prejudice do not have to be visibly faced. Unfortunately, schools are beneficiaries of these logics, and can reinforce and reproduce the systemic erasure of non-cisgender identities through beliefs, policies and practices. This trickled-down logic then secures violence that locks our trans students out of accessing certain forms of recognitions they are entitled to and diminishes their access to social, emotional, and economic capital that could lead them to making informed and practiced choices. Rather than empowering cisgender students to be in support of, and understand how critical it is to stand with and for their trans peers, everyone is left with diminished capacities because of the messages and practices embodied by them, and have fostered less-than desirable choices in, and for, their lives.
Returning to my friend who brought my Facebook comment to attention, I want you to know that I am committed to closely working with others on shifting the conditions that have structured the schooling system that positions trans bodies as vulnerable. I stand committed to understanding how bodies are commodified as a pathway to dive deeper into interrogating the beliefs, practices, and policies that have created “gender-typical” glass ceilings. While we do see some changes happening in schools about beliefs, practices and policies inclusive of, and mindful to, the affirmation and recognition of trans bodies in schools, cosmetic changes do little to help establish more fair and equitable schooling environments. Our work must look at root causes, ways to rehabilitate and then change the exclusionary political, economic, and affective practices and the subsequent conditions that have created injustice in the first place. To truly decarcerate gender identity framing in schools, this work requires various levels of commitment from various stakeholders (e.g., students, teachers, administrators, staff and school personnel ((anyone who has contact with youth)), parents, communities, teacher education programs ((deans, professors, pre-service students)), researchers, and policy makers who orbit and dock in schools.
I do not speak on behalf of, nor do I claim to know the trans woman’s experience. It is their story to share, and theirs alone. I will not keep from asking questions, staying in the lifelong of the work, and I hope it invites others to do the same.
There is much more to be said about Adichie’s remarks. For deeper dives into understanding the implications of what she said, please consider viewing/and or reading:
BREAKING: On February 10, just two days after Jeff Sessions was sworn in as Attorney General, the Department of Justice took a first step toward dropping their defense of the transgender student guidance in court. While the guidance is still in place, this is a major signal that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is likely planning to stop defending the guidance entirely and may try to reverse the guidance. It is more important than ever to take action now to stop this from happening.
– National Center for Transgender Equality
A federal judge in Texas has ordered the Department of Education to temporarily stop investigating complaints related to trans students’ restroom and locker room access. Within two days of starting his job, Attorney General Jeff Sessions with the support of the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, have started to backtrack from defending the guidance in court, indicating that the federal government may stop defending against the lawsuit entirely. Technically speaking, the other parts of the guidance, not dealing with restrooms or locker rooms, are still in effect and the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights can still investigate complaints relating to those other types of discrimination. Right now, you can still complain directly to them (see link 1, below).
During the Presidential transition, Vice President Pence and others associated with the Trump administration have said that they plan on reversing that guidance. As of now, that has not happened--but as noted above, Jeff Sessions and Betsy DeVos are indicating they might no longer defend that guidance in court. The National Center for Transgender Equality is fighting to make sure that the new administration doesn’t take away this guidance. Even if the new administration does roll back the guidance, that can’t change the Title IX law itself—and it doesn’t change those federal court opinions that say the law protects trans students.
There’s great uncertainty right now about what trans students’ rights are at school. The most important thing to remember is that no matter what happens in the new administration or with the Supreme Court, many schools will still be willing to support trans students. In many places, there are state laws or other protections in place to rely on, even if the federal protections are eroded. These links will help you access key documents below:
Please consider passing this along to colleagues, list serves, friends and family, and if you are teaching, ask your peers and students to write letters in support of transgender youth.
On behalf of the youth you are about to help, we all thank you. Please do not hesitate to contact me with any questions.
Please, please, pass on.!
sj Miller, Ph.D.
“And so I wake in the morning
And I step outside
And I take a deep breath and I get real high
And I scream from the top of my lungs
What's going on?”
-4 Non Blondes
“What’s Up?” In 1992, The 4 Non Blondes sang these lyrics “what’s going on” which were once (and still) prophetic but now, timely. Drawing from this song, I am reminded that our country has always been at war just in different ways and about different topics. So, why is “now” any different than then? As we say at Passover—slight turn of phrase- “Why is this election different than any other?” Well, here’s why.
Many people including myself, are struggling with sleep, reacting more hastily and with agitation than ordinarily. My anxiety is at an all-time high, my mind is racing 129 miles an hour. My head is spinning around like the head spinning doll in The Exorcist. I have become possessed by the government and my gaze is completely hijacked by the demagogue in DC. Lest I turn off the news, I fear that something else is going to happen and I want to, er, need to know, as much as I can— or, that is actually being shared with us—so I/we can take immediate action. The problem is, where to start? The Trump Plan is to uber-overwhelm the general population into protest fatigue, and wear ourselves so thin, that we will be divided, rather than united in our struggle for equity and equality. When a population is stunned into stratification, it ceases to dismantle the interlocking infrastructures that incarcerate and surveil. I find myself in a constant state of saying, “What now?” “Is this for real?” “Uhm, what’s going on?” but, my wish is to say, “YOU’RE FIRED!”
Taking up this litany of questions, we can find ourselves renewed by each other’s commitment to reclaim our country as we put foot to pavement, soil, dirt, trail, leaves, cobblestones, water, etc., and move ourselves into individual and collective actions. Looking at the massive protests spawned as a result of the feckless brush of a strangled pen, held by an impetuous man-child who lacks dexterity, our country and its allies around the world are not taking these executive orders lightly. We are finding common ground in spaces and on issues that many had not considered, or who had yet to stand up or in for. Now, people are coming out of the woodwork like termites, ready to use the natural materials and gifts of our earth to co-create universal sanctuaried-spaces and rebuild fissured and gutted infrastructures in the image they want it to be, need it to be. We are swarming like bees, and will make honey along the way. We will fight for our refugees, for our Muslim kin, LGBT folk, and any persecuted group now or in the not-so-distant future. We will leave the government to ask, “What’s going on?”
So, what do we do?
I leave you with these lyrics as you continue to build, protest, demonstrate, and sing:
“And I pray, oh my god do I pray
I pray every single day
For a revolution.”
In the struggle with you,
Recently I was watching my daily dose of Ellen and on came Katie Couric. Remember her? She’s the comeback kid who lost her husband prematurely to color cancer in at the age of 42. Katie, as you may recall is an American journalist who has appeared in a number of TV venues—and probably best known for her co-hosting role on the Today show (she has appeared on CBS News, ABC News, CNN, 60 Minutes, and Disney, to name a few). Currently, she is on Yahoo/ABC News and has spotlights on Good Morning America.
Ellen started the interview with lots of her usual funny banter, ramblings, and ice-breakers and then said, “Let’s talk about this documentary. I wish the audience could have seen the entire thing before you were on because it’s going to be on Nat Geo and I really hope everyone sees it. And I have to say, as a gay person, I don’t know anything about transgender or anything about… Couric inserts. “gender nonconforming” (See: http://www.ellentv.com/videos/0-9abon92l/). Couric continues, “There’s a whole new vocabulary that exists and I think it is there is such a generational divide…it’s much more open and accepted for people to not fall into this binary that I was raised with…I wanted people to have the tools and have a real conversation about it…hatred comes from fear and fear comes out of ignorance.” The documentary they were referring to is Gender Revolution and highlights youth who embody a spectrum of different gender identities.
I have to admit I loved the interview, and was taken in, which is hardly the case for me with mainstream interviews about gender identity and transgender people (yes, I know, I am one—just picky!). I then went online to the National Geographic channel and watched the trailer
(see: http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/gender-revolution-a-journey-with-katie-couric/videos/gender-revolution-sneak-peek/). Instantly, I was hooked and deeply impressed with those who are featured, surprised by the powerful and intentional questions asked, and enamored with the educative voice of Couric. So impressed that I immediately went to the online National Geographic store and ordered the DVD (it's not ready until June)( (https://shop.nationalgeographic.com/index.jsp?code=NG94425).
As I was clicking around the links on the page, I noticed that In conjunction with the documentary, the January issue of National Geographic published Gender Revolution (see:
http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/01/--- be careful though if you click to many times, they will make you subscribe) and the articles were equally fascinating and compelling. The National Geographic website) says, “We created the gender issue—as we do every issue—with the intent to research, understand, and explain.” As I scanned the topics, I could see that the issue was truly written for a wide audience featuring a number of voices and perspectives. (http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/01/gender-issue-reader-comments-faq/). The articles featured in this issue include “In Their Words: How Children Are Affected by Gender Issues,” “How Society Makes a Man,” “When Moms and Dads Share Parental Leave,” “A Challenge for Girls Today: Moving Beyond ‘How Do I Look?” and “For These Girls, Danger Is a Way of Life.” The one article that stood out to me--and I found it to be most eye opening-- was “How Science is Helping us Understand Gender” (National Geo Staff). The article features research to help us understand how gender identity is located in the brain. Dick Swaab, a researcher at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in Amsterdam found that “Sexual differentiation of the genitals takes place in the first two months of pregnancy… and…sexual differentiation of the brain starts during the second half of pregnancy.” The genitals and the brain exist in different environments and therefore receive different “hormones, nutrients, medication, and other chemical substances,” and this effects sexual differentiation.
Even more cool, is a downloadable discussion guide for parents and teachers. This discussion guide includes the following foci:
· Understanding Yourself to Understand Gender
· Gender Identity and Gender Expression: A Primer
· What Science Tells Us About Gender
· Shaping Gender in Childhood, Talking With Your Children About Gender
· Helping Families Talk About Gender
· Gender and the Larger Culture, Danger and Discrimination for Girls Around the World
· Next Steps, and to top it off
· Additional Resources!
What we now see in youth today is an innate sense of self that is remixing gender norms. They are putting gender in conversation with the other and recreating gender in their own images---self-determining how they want to express themselves, dress and be read as and in the world. They are gender blending, gender busting, gender shifting, gender criss-crossing, and gender demixing, all to arrive at a gender remixing. Similar to remixing music by blending sounds, beats, genres, instruments, and narratives, and arrive into a new shape and form, remixing gender is a deep felt sense of understanding how gender norms and stereotypes function as webs of imprisonment. By flipping and playing with them, without committing to either, and mixing clothing, norms and appearances in different contexts, they are recreating and refashioning the body. These youth, as Gender DJ’s, are teaching the rest of us--by just being themselves everyday-- ,ushering in a more expansive understanding of gender, but most important, leading the way into the future by demonstrating what gender could be. We, no doubt, are in a Gender Revolution.
Be sure to order this issue as it is no longer accessible on-line (https://shop.nationalgeographic.com/index.jsp?code=NG94425) and watch GENDER REVOLUTION: A JOURNEY WITH KATIE COURIC which airs February 6th 9/8c on the Nat Geo channel. I know where I’ll be that night.
 There is even a Canada and International Issue.
Though I cannot detail all of what will happen under ideologue rule here is what I know will happen- and because we will lose the majority in the Supreme Court and (have already) in the House and Senate:
1. A wall will be built between parts of the US and Mexico;
2. Trans folks (my dear brothers and sisters) will lose health care and body safety in public;
3. Same-sex marriage will be overturned;
4. Any governmental movement that attends to the earth and our global environment, i.e., regarding global warming will stop;
5. Undocumented people will be removed;
6. International students on temporary study abroad visas are unlikely to have long-term stay;
7. The US will likely go into a full scale war;
8. White Supremacy will come out in ways we've never even seen pre- Civil Rights-- and this puts ALL people of color at risk for their safety;
9. Roe v. Wade will be overturned;
10. The poor and working class, will lose health care; and,
11. Anti-Semitism is going to have a whiplash effect.
and that's just a start