Teaching Sex Diversity in Prison

22 Nov 2012

It’s Thanksgiving Day, and seeing as how I don’t have to do any cooking (a fellow gluten-and-milk intolerant friend is having us for dinner later), I thought I’d write a short blog about one of the many things for which I am thankful: people who have used my work to carry out extraordinary teaching. One wonderful example:

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a fellow with a PhD in Sociology, a man named Reid Helford, who was writing to tell me he was planning to use my TEDx lecture in a “Gender and Society” course he was teaching in a minimum security prison at Washington State Penitentiary. Reid explained in a follow-up message that the men in the course are in an A.A. program privately funded by the Sunshine Lady Foundation, a very cool organization I learned about via Reid’s emails. I asked Reid to let me know how it went, and a few days ago he wrote to report back. His accounting really made my day, so I asked (and received) his permission to reprint it here:


Well, it has been an exhausting quarter for me in teaching this course. (-;  A few weeks remain, but I wanted to tell you how things went with your material. I would have expected to have written you a generic, “they loved it.  It was useful.They kind of paid attention…” or some such, yet things were much more interesting than that.

At the time we watched your TED talk, students were still very resistant to openly discussing non-normative sexualities and gender identities. As you can imagine in a men’s prison, hyper-masculinity is the going script. Yet, I pushed ahead and hit them with more material demanding that they at least come to an intellectual understanding of such matters. We all persevered…

Then, at the end of your TED talk, one student quietly raised his hand (he had yet to speak in class and we were two weeks in) and said something like, “So, this is our problem, not theirs?”  I include a question mark even though he was making a statement, yet his insecurity in saying the words made it come out as a question. I asked him what he meant.  He went on to explain to me, and the class, that “these people (intersexed, conjoined, etc.) are part of the ‘naturally’ occurring range of people in the world. It is our demands that they fit what we hope for or are comfortable with.  We change them to make ourselves feel better, not them.” This student then went on to compare the experience of the men in prison (for deviant behavior) to these people whose bodies/identities do not conform. Yikes. 

You can imagine the discussion that followed. They dove in. It is a complicated and perhaps troubling comparison, yet we had broken through the fear/disgust/posturing about threatening sexualities/bodies for a moment to actually get to the social constructionist punch line of a gender course. 

We had already watched a couple documentaries and read some articles, yet your TED piece got through. I suspect your position as an advocate for marginalized people in a legal setting (or, at least, against powerful authorities/experts) struck a chord. As many of these men work through what they did and why and figure out how to get their lives back, I think they too feel like a body that doesn’t fit their culture’s expectations. I understand the difference between deviant bodies and deviant, anti-social behavior, yet I found it fascinating that they achieved a way of making sense of groups that they fear, despise and want to harm using their own experience. Perhaps this is common in a liberal arts college classroom on the outside, but it’s not common in here! Yay.

Thank you letting me share this experience with you (and for being part of it!). It is these small moments among the longer periods of struggle that make my work with these men worthwhile.

I’m pretty sure I’m the one who owes thanks to Reid! And to the TED folks, who have made this kind of shared learning possible.