“Trouble over Sex”: Racialized Gender Normativity and the Construction of Penal Sex-Segregation

Saturday, January 3, 2015: 10:50 AM
Conference Room B (Sheraton New York)
Elias Vitulli, University of Minnesota Twin Cities
Since the early twentieth century, gender nonconforming and cross-gender-identified prisoners have garnered intense scrutiny from prison administrators because they viewed these prisoners as particularly disruptive to penal institutions. Yet, gender nonconforming and cross-gender-identified prisoners have remained largely invisible in historical scholarship on prisons. As historians of the prison system ignore the existence of these prisoners, they naturalize sex-segregation and the work of classifying the sex of prisoners. This paper examines the experiences of cross-gender-identified prisoners who entered prison in the early and mid-twentieth century passing as one sex and were later “discovered” by prison officials to be another. Utilizing the critical insights of queer studies and transgender studies to denaturalize sex and make visible sex classification as well as critical prison studies’ work showing that the US prison system is a central site of US statecraft, social and racial formation and control, this paper thinks about what these “discoveries” and the subsequent sex reclassification and management of these cross-gender-identified prisoners tell us about the US prison system as a site of (racialized and sexed) bodily domination and control and as a productive site of power. I argue that these cross-gender-identified prisoners’ experiences make visible perhaps the most naturalized and basic element of prison organization—classification and management based on sex—and the response of prison administrators to these prisoners reveals a set of prison logics, which I call racialized gender normativity. In doing so, I argue, the prison system is a central site in the construction of sex difference in the US.