Post Road Magazine #13

Journal: Erasing Gender: A Woman's Journey Through Men's Lockup

Tracy Slater

Day 1

When the alarm rings, I swat it with my hand, brush sleep from my eyes, run my fingers through long, tangled hair, and swing thin legs over the side of the bed. I walk to the bathroom, give the mirror a bleary stare, and begin my task.

What I take off: the remains of last night’s black eyeliner, accented with a sparkly pink shadow whose residue blinks in the glare of the bathroom light; the excess mascara that has clung to my lashes through a latenight shower and eight hours of sleep; the slick silver disk and satin cord I wear laced around my collarbone; and, most timeconsuming of all to remove, my deep purple nail color, its shine accessorizing each gesture I make before wiping my fingertips bald.

Once I’ve stripped each layer of carefully polished femininity, I face the mirror, ready. For my first day in a men’s prison.

I’m going behind bars as an educator. Today is my first day teaching at MCINorfolk, a mediumsecurity men’s prison located 50 minutes outside of Boston, where Boston University funds the Prison Education Program, offering courses for inmates working towards college degrees. I’ve been hired to teach an interdisciplinary senior seminar entitled “Gender, Identity, and Violence.” Together, my students and I will confront theorists who argue that gender is a social construct and those who claim it is a biological imperative; explore what “drag kings”—women who perform as men—have to teach us about alternative forms of masculinity; read essays by an Ivy League scientist who contends that there are actually five dominant forms of chromosomal “gender”; and ponder why the media and legal system react differently when men and women kill.

I’ll be exploring these concepts with a group of men whose individual sentences and convictions I neither know nor wish to learn, but I’ve been informed that the class likely contains a mix of murderers, rapists, drug dealers, gang members, and thieves. A few participants in the BU program are in for life, but, despite the severity of the students’ crimes, Norfolk is a relatively calm and progressive prison—one of the few in the nation that still allow collegelevel education. The men in my class have all been permitted to attend this semester’s classes because of a longstanding pattern of good behavior at Norfolk. This thought calms me, especially when I learn that they’ll be no correction officer (CO) or camera in the classroom, although a CO will circulate the halls and check in on me every few minutes. I’ve been told that this is how the BU program has always been run, and I’ve been assured that no faculty member has ever been hurt.

I also know from my research that the students will likely hold extremely conservative attitudes about gender, and that the world of lockup, while perhaps safe for BU faculty, is ruthlessly gendered for the inmates. The strong are considered “men” and the weak “women,” the latter meaning either passive, unable or unwilling to fight, gay, or victims of some kind of coercion: financial, emotional, and/or frequently sexual. I know that to be “gendered” in a male prison—either to be labeled a woman or to have to fight to assert one’s manhood—is highly stressful, and for the inmates, there’s usually no choice. Moreover, once you’re labeled a “woman,” “bitch,” or “punk,” the label is immutable. Masculinity can be taken, but femininity never shed.

When I first learned of this gender division in male prisons, after the shock and sadness, my next thought was simply, “how strange.” For in terms of my own gender performance, I’ve always experienced the daily accoutrements of my femininity as both a lighthearted choice and a viable political statement. For most of my adult life, I’ve indulged in my shaped heels and sparkly makeup with both joy and the appropriate selfdeprecatory humor. I tell myself, and others, that these are markers of my freedom to play with my gender, and I will be unapologetic about them, I will even revel in my ability to be both girly and mature: a woman with a PhD who teaches at a wellrespected university, as well as a woman who spends too much on shoes.

This is all part of what draws me to teaching gender studies in a men’s prison, where to be ascribed “femaleness” is a mark of total failure, and where there is constant pressure on the inmates to be relentlessly masculine. Of course, I also want to teach these men, to help them get degrees that may keep them out of prison a second (or third, or fourth) time, or help their children get back the parents they have had to learn to live without. But perhaps more than this I want to give them some of the choice I think I’ve inherited with my own, more fluid attitudes towards gender. Even if it’s much too naïve for me to think a course can change the ruthless rules of lockup, I hope that broadening their horizons about gender will make them just a bit more accepting of others, and of their own utterly human vulnerability. In my most grandiose moments, I even imagine freeing them of the brutality of their own performances.

About my own gender performance behind bars, I have similarly revisionist intentions. Following Department of Correction guidelines for women working in the prison, I will not call attention to my body, despite my usually decorated state. No makeup, no jewelry, flat shoes, baggy pants, oversized shirts: no trace of the usual care I put in to my appearance, except the care to seem totally unaware of it. This will be easy, I tell myself, because my gender flourishes have always been motivated by playfulness, not driven by compulsion. I assume I’m above the need to perform femininity in a proscribed manner—and that my transcendence of this need is what will allow me to prod these men into rigorous thought about gender.

What I’ll discover this semester is that my decision to forgo my “playful” markers of femininity will be appropriate, but will come with a price, one that has much to teach me—a heelwearing, Foucaulttoting, urban American woman—about gender, both in and out of prison.

As the semester progresses, I’ll develop a new understanding of the ways in which the excessive display of masculinity in male prisons is both destructive and redemptive for the men who live there. Alongside this realization, teaching these men teaches me how deeply attached I am to my own performances of femininity—that for me they are much more than simple play bolstered by fluency in academic theories—and that even while I recognize them as performances, I have no idea how to define myself outside of them.

In any case, on this first morning, as I get ready at my apartment, I tie my hair up in a severe knot, leave my face devoid of artificial color, put on a heavy, bulky shirt and baggy pants, and slip into plain, slightly scuffed, flat shoes. I get in my car, then stop at 711 for some tea before making my way onto the highway for the longish drive to Norfolk. As I leave the store, a teenaged boy holds the door open for me, offers a bored “you’re welcome” in response to my thanks. And suddenly I sense shame rising to my cheeks, realizing that I’m not a woman to notice but an inconvenience. And then I feel ashamed that I care.

When I get to the prison, I check in at the CO’s desk, a thick glass partition separating me from the men and women behind. They wear blue jumpsuitlike uniforms and incline their heads to hear me as I speak loudly through the opening in the window under which I slip my ID. They joke roughly with each other, chuckle and wisecrack, as if there’s nothing more mundane than their routine of unlocking gates, searching visitors, and guarding souls. They photograph me, ask me to sign in, and signal me through.

Once inside the prison—once through the metal detector; the three heavy, solid iron electric doors; the extra locked wroughtiron gate that leads to the yard; and then through the yard itself, where the cell windows face the large circular walking path I have to cross alone to get to the school building—I survey the classroom. It looks built for elementaryschool students, a wide room with a scuffed linoleum floor, halfempty bookshelves lining one wall, a blackboard along another, and, spanning the other two walls, large windows that overlook the yard and the barbedwire beyond.

The students enter as I sit at a large, scarred wooden desk, pretending to intently review my notes. Although I look up and nod, smiling a muted welcome to each, I don’t speak until they’re all seated and I begin to take attendance. When I’m done, they say they are excited about the semester. Sitting with legs akimbo, sticking out under the minidesks attached to their toosmall chairs, they say that just pondering the course name has prompted them to think about gender. This is especially surprising, some of them tell me, because they never even realized that gender was something to think about.

I’m stunned for a moment, although I try to act like nothing can surprise me, and wonder if what they say is true. Then I wonder how it could be, if they’re just humoring me to get on my good side, or, conversely, if my middleclass academic world is so different from theirs that I cannot see my own privilege in having time to question deeply what, for them, is just a fact of life.

Trying to ease into the topic, I ask them what gender has meant in their lives, what kinds of expectations have been put on them as men, and what kinds of expectations they have put on the women in their lives because they were female. One student answers obliquely, explaining that he grew up in a family of two sisters and a brother, and his mother was the disciplinarian. Then he looks down shyly, a thatch of brown hair at the top of his head all that remains in my line of vision. His gesture suggests he’s almost ashamed that he’s spoken, and I’m struck by this small but strong, wellmuscled man, a prisoner perhaps in for a violent crime, a veteran of the system, no doubt a man who lives by the rules of toughness day in and out. I sense how easily he’s enveloped by timidity— not the bravado I anticipated—at having spoken in a college classroom, bared his memory to a woman. Not the tough prisoners I expected.

Two Weeks In

The second day, hoping to start class with a bang, I begin by asking if there’s gender in their prison. At first the students seem not to understand me. They look at me blankly, as if to say, “We’re all men here; why ask your question?”

But then we make a chart on the wall, mapping their social hierarchy. On the plus side, there’s having strength; being a lifer (a contested category); and number one, they all agree, is having “fightgame,” the constant willingness to battle. On the minus side, lowest are snitches and punks: the latter referring either to a homosexual or someone who has “let” himself be coerced, sexually or otherwise, and is now seen as nothing more than a woman. “No offense,” a student explains, “that’s just what happens when a guy lets his manhood be taken. He becomes, you know, like a. . . female.”

There’s silence for a moment, but I forge ahead, pretending not to be the least bothered by this lack of status my gender holds, that I am simply a group of concepts, not a woman alone with twenty convicts. Looking at the list, they come to agree that yes, it is gendered, at least in adherence to

stereotypes about women being dominated; men, in control. “Why?” I ask. “What purpose do these gender binaries serve?” Catching my stride, I push further. “What do you all gain from devaluing ‘femaleness’ to such an extent—and is it worth it?”

And a student, all legs and arms and muscles, shoots up his hand, and as I turn to face him, my body in midrotation, he begins to speak. “What you have to understand,” he bursts forth, his gestures arcing lines of emphasis and impatience, “is that when we come in here, we become less than people. We become subhuman; our humanity is taken away and replaced with a number. Many of us lose contact with our families, girlfriends, kids, parents. Our manhood is the only thing we have left.” Then he sits back, arms crossed like armor over chest, lips pursed in grave finality. He looks at me guardedly, dark eyes narrowing. And for a moment I sense what he’s seeing: not a woman, not a professor, perhaps not even a white person “teaching” a class of mostly minority men: just a soul steeped in the foolish innocence of the free.

In response, no one speaks, but almost every student nods.

I nod too, but that’s just a cover for having no idea what to say. At first, I want to suggest an alternative. Why not simply cling to being human, or humane?, I wonder. But then I remember my own shame a week earlier, how in that moment of pure indifference from the teenaged boy at 711, I longed to be a woman worth noticing, made significant by my surface. And in this second, I see no challenge I can make with integrity. So I swallow instead of speaking, turn to the essay I’ve assigned for homework, and change the subject.

Two hours later, as the class ends, this student swoops over to my desk, inclines his head, and says “see ya, Doc.” A peace offering, I think, and one that elides my femininity, whether consciously or not I cannot tell. Yet I’m relieved this man refers to me as a gender blank—not a woman, but a professional title, and one shortened to connote familiarity, not distance. But simultaneously I wonder, are we both equating the erasure of my femaleness with acceptance? When I receive his farewell with relief, am I collaborating in some warped structure aligning womanhood with humiliation? And where does that leave me, a free, white, middleclass woman in this place? Should I powerfully insist on my pride in being female, or try to deny I have either authority or gender?

I have no immediate answer but am nonetheless moved at this man’s attempt to connect. So I nod once again, this time in thanks for the grace of his gesture, a simple sentence carrying so many meanings behind these bars.

Four Weeks In

Today, as I make the long drive out to the prison along the flat black highway, flipping between NPR and the Top 40 Pop countdown, I think

ahead to the task that awaits me: handing back the students’ first set of papers. Their assignment was to write about gender and performance in various texts we’ve read so far and in their lives, including time spent in lockup. I whisk down the freeway, the white dotted lines bleeding into one sharp stripe under my wheels as I muse on what my students have written.

While correcting their papers over the past week, amid the comforting din of my favorite café in Cambridge, I’d been struck by how some of the essays betray moments of ignorance and intolerance, while others are threaded through with ripples of grace and wisdom. But this is relatively common in undergraduate papers, to tell the truth. What’s been so provocative to me is that in this class, many papers contain both— striking ridiculousness balanced in the very next line with hardearned maturity; foolishness shot through with moments of insight; pathos spiked with cruelty.

One student, whose slight stature has earned him some derision among his wellmuscled classmates, describes his first days in lockup and being warned against wearing tooshort shorts: “I recalled an exgirlfriend once referring to her highheeled shoes as ‘comefuckmes’: similarly, the term ‘canteen shorts’ implies that one is dressing provocatively in an attempt to solicit sexual favors in exchange for canteen (prison commissary) items.” He then goes on to describe the pressure to work out, to become strong and look tough, and reflects on getting older in prison and how that eases some of the pressure: “Now that I am somewhat older and my body has filled out, and I have adjusted to the culture, I like to think that I am not susceptible to these social pressures; however, when ordering clothing last month, knowing full well that a large is my size and a comfortable fit, on the form I checked XL.”

As I read these lines, I once again feel a mix of reactions. One is subtle contempt, because this man, slight enough to wear no more than a men’s medium, is so transparently posturing about his size even as he writes with supposed candor about his physical insecurities. But simultaneously, I recognize a feeling of kinship for this inmate, whose words described the tension I feel in my own soul between performance and honesty—and my inability to separate the two each time I walk through the gates of Norfolk.

Another student’s paper explores his path to becoming a thug and the sense of power this gave him as a man. He describes the first time he pulled a gun on someone, after knocking on the door of a drug dealer’s apartment in preparation to rob him: “I stepped out with my pistol, and looked the man right in his eyes. He appeared as would a deer staring into an oncoming car’s headlights. The raw aggression of my aura consumed his. I didn’t have to say a word. I just gestured for him to back up into the apartment; and, he capitulated. . .I took total control of the situation without having to use physical violence, and walked away with four large trash bags filled with drugs and money.”

Whether this last line is meant to communicate admiration for himself for not using “physical violence,” or chagrin at his willingness to threaten someone’s life with a gun, he never clarifies. Instead, he goes on to describe what happened next, as he is chased by other dealers and a shootout ensues, ending with a bullet to his face. The significance of this moment becomes crystal clear in the paper, for this, he writes, is the first time in his life he ever became aware of his own vulnerability: “All of the years that I spent altering the lives of others with my raw aggression; violent ways; and savage approach to life was diminished the moment that first bullet left the barrel of that gun and crushed my face.”

And amazingly, after pages of writing about his violent past, his tough swagger as a man intimate with the intimidation of others, he closes with simply, “I never gave masculinity much thought until now.”

Five Weeks In

I get to the prison late today, because the weather on the Boston highways is awful, roads slick with an icy rain, huge trucks barreling past me and throwing showers of muddy slush onto my windshield.

When I get there, visitors, allowed in to visit family members or friends in the afternoons, are gathered in the entry room, submitting their IDs, waiting on the scratched, hard wooden benches to pass through the series of three gates that will funnel them out to the visitor’s building.

Young mothers sit shushing small children who wriggle with impatience; some older adults wait quietly, preparing to visit, I imagine, their biological or foster children or some of the prison’s older inmates. Some visitors watch the floor or look quickly away when my eyes scan past them, as if embarrassed to be seen here. Others sit staring bored at the wall or around the room, the novelty—and the shame—of visiting a prison seemingly long ago worn off.

But there’s one figure who moves quickly and purposefully, a slim but curvy young woman who walks past me on her way to submit her ID at the security window. She swivels her hips, pulling lightly on her tight, form fitting blazer, clicking across the floor with confidence, highheeled boots sticking out from skintight jeans. I imagine the reaction of her boyfriend or husband when he sees her, envision him puffing out his chest in pride while other inmates throw appreciative—perhaps jealous— glances at her, eyes intent on following her sultry sway. In the split second she crosses my path while I rush towards the first gate for admittance, I experience a mix of reactions to her: I feel chagrin and worry for her, wondering if it’s foolish to put herself on display like this, wondering if it costs her any dignity to so studiously objectify herself for someone else’s pride, feeling slightly smug that I’m here for a different reason; but simultaneously I can sense my own defensiveness limning the border of smugness, the jealousy prickling through it with shame at my own plainness, bordering on frumpiness. And then comes a last brief flash of a different kind of shame, shame that I am not above this strange mix of emotion, this smugness in the face of a woman who chooses to objectify herself, all the while tinged with the wish that I could do so too, and pull it off as successfully as she.

And then the huge door draws open, rumbling as it yawns to admit me and clanging as it shuts behind. And I’m off down the hall to the metal detector and next set of doors, mind turning determinedly to the men I’ll begin teaching in a minute, to the texts I’ll encourage them to analyze, to the project I’ll urge them to embrace for the next two and a half hours: that of rising above the constructions of their own masculinities to interrogate what these constructions mean, how they fit and serve them, and how they don’t.

Six Weeks In

It’s been a month and a half since the class started, and I’m getting a little more used to the routine. Today as I go through the fourth gate, the last one before entering the yard, I talk to a male CO for the first time, joke with him a bit. But all the while, I’m still conscious of lacking my usual feminine flourishes. As in the 711 weeks earlier, this makes me feel like a child, humble, blank, an insignificant entity. I hold my whole body differently now, more tentatively, simply because I’ve left off some of the decoration I usually use to cover it.

Later, in the drab teachers’ lounge outfitted with an institutional table and old metal chairs, I talk with the fulltime instructors who teach basic literacy, GED, and ESL. Retreating to one of my psychological comfort zones, I lapse into a dry academic analysis of the documentary we’re going to watch that day in class, punctuating my explanation with animated gestures. Then one of the male teachers, an ESL instructor with a flair for humor, tells a joke, makes a comment about my eyes, slightly flirtatious. And for a moment I feel all back to normal again, a woman, not a blank. The room shifts, its lines converging into brighter focus, and then relief washes through me, as if in release of a breath I never knew I was holding.

When I enter the classroom a few minutes later, I allow myself for the first time to wonder fully what the students think of me. I realize that in all our discussions about gender, we’ve never once referred directly to the fact that my gender is different from theirs. But now I wonder whether they, like the ESL teacher, have ever thought about me specifically as a woman, or thought my eyes were nice. In silent answer to myself, I feel dueling emotions: pride that I’ve “erased” my femininity to the extent that at least they’ve never commented on it; shame that I’ve actually been able to do so, that my body holds the capacity to be so plain

so easily; hopeful that perhaps they’ve thought I’m pretty but have neve r said anything; and finally consternation at myself for this last thought. But this tangle of emotion makes me realize that I’ve never questioned, even to myself, this pretense we’re all acting under—that there’s no significance to the gender difference in the room, that my womanhood doesn’t really exist or have any bearing on the topic—and that this is both a relief and somewhat stifling for all of us. I feel like my femininity is the elephant in the room, and none of us has been either brave or stupid enough to mention it.

What I realize next is that I’ll never be courageous enough to mention it. For more frightening than teaching this group of men without a CO or camera in the classroom is the possibility of laying out my own gender insecurities for dissection by them. Looking at the spiked barbed wire that lines the yard, thinking of the sheer weight the concept of “woman as victim” holds within these walls—and perhaps behind each set of male eyes arrayed in a jagged circle before me—I realize I’d rather be in a room alone with twenty inmates than admit how I may struggle with my own body, vulnerability, and desires behind these bars.

For how could I face them if I admitted that my femininity makes me feel vulnerable in here, that I too, behind bars, have aligned my gender with feelings of helplessness? And how could I teach these men, maintain any semblance of authority, if I admitted that I’m as attached to my own gender performance as they must be to theirs?

Eight Weeks In

Today I’m handing back the second set of papers they’ve written , about cultural stereotypes surrounding gender and violence. The papers sit on my desk in a pile as the students file in, oblivious to the broken window letting in gasps of freezing air, making me pull my bulky sweater tighter around me and clasp my arms. The window has been broken for two weeks now in the middle of this December winter, but I’m the only one who seems to notice or think it strange, and I don’t inquire about it at the COs’ station for fear they’ll think I’m a spoiled, complaining BU professor who cannot deal with the world outside ivory tower classrooms. For the same reason, I act in front of the students like I don’t notice the spiked edges of the glass letting the winter wind tear through.

On top of the pile of student papers that sit on my desk is one that begins with an extensive quote from the famous correspondence in the 1970s between an inmate, Jack Henry’s Abbot, and Normal Mailer, whose book The Executioner’s Song tells the story of Gary Gilmore’s trial and execution. Thirty years later, my student has quoted at length:

It is an absurd contradiction in (at least) American society for a man to se e the sexual penetration of his wife (or female companion) as a consecration and expression of love—and then to see this same act of penetration, but of another male, as just the opposite: a desecration and expression of the deepest contempt. . .One of the first things that takes place in a prison riot is this: the guards are sexually dominated, usually sodomized. I’m not pretending I don’t understand this; we all do. . .But what is clear is that when a man sodomizes another to express his contempt, it demonstrates only his contempt for woman, not man. The normal attitude among men in society is that it is a great shame and dishonor to have experienced what it feels like to be a woman.

My student then goes on to connect this chilling quote with theorie s we’ve read about how difficult it is, for people in our culture at large, to see men as victims, and that this difficulty may in part contribute to the tolerance shown for rape in male penitentiaries. He quotes the sociologist Nancy Levit, who writes, “The indignities inflicted on men in prison are part of the larger pattern of society that permits (and perhaps at some level has come to expect) the abuse of men and the endurance of that abuse in silence. This is the dark side of patriarchy, yet it is one with the toleration of the abuse of women.”

Yet after making this trenchant connection, marked in its lack of selfpity, in its prioritization of women’s suffering, the student veers into surprising intolerance, echoing an opinion I’ve heard many of my students express repeatedly this semester: “There is a saying [in men’s prisons] that ‘It’s hard to rape the willing.’ Those who became punks and bitches in prison had a choice. They could have fought to the death if necessary. But instead, many (not all) are happy to be out of the closet.”

In response to his paper, I have asked in my comments, “Why this insistence that the victimized, when it comes to ‘losing one’s manhood,’ are willing? Why align victimization with homosexuality and femininity? And why, when faced with a choice between compassion and brutal blame, choose the latter?” In my own head, where it’s safer to bring up the possibility of my own students’ fear of being victimized, I go further, wondering to myself, what would it mean, what would it psychologically cost these men to consider that “manhood” or invulnerability were something that could be taken by force? Why are they so reluctant to admit this? Are they fooling themselves into believing in their own invincibility, that if only the willing loose their manhood, and they are not willing, then their manhood can never be taken from them?

And then I think, as I turn to face the students and begin the day in the cold classroom air, how could they go on in their environment if they didn’t fool themselves this way?

Ten Weeks in

I’m once again at the head of the classroom, grateful now that th e broken window has been fixed. Its cold air has been replaced by great blasts of warmth from the heaters that I welcome but that seem to agitate the students a bit, as they roll up their sleeves and lean forward to follow my somewhat abstract analysis. I’m discussing a text about drag kings by the theorist Judith Halberstam, who posits that drag queens are more culturally visible than drag kings because, as a society, we are more comfortable with the idea that femininity is a performance than masculinity. Halberstam’s point is that, by denying visibility to the performance of masculinity by women, the male gender role gets to maintain the reified position as being purely natural, as something that is the privileged arena of men and cannot be successfully imitated by women. But her essay brings up the possibility that both genders can easily be aped, and if this is so, prompts us to ask how “stable” or fixed gender as a whole concept really is.

As I lead them through these questions, my mind flashes back to a passage from one of the papers I handed back last week, an essay that begins by describing the experience of the youngest inmate in the class—now 23 years old—upon first entering the prison system in MCICedar Junction in Walpole, a maximumsecurity unit. Today, this student is broad shouldered, outspoken, funny, with a handsome, chiseled face, shiny black hair, and a habit of walking with a swagger. But in his paper, he has written about being slight and young, and the dangers inherent in that situation on his first day in prison, encouraging him to immediately develop a toughguy persona: “The idea of becoming a woman for someone’s pleasure did not sit too well with me. Therefore I took on the cliché ‘I’d rather your mother cry than mine.’”

Now, standing in front of the class, I obliquely mention this paper, and while I don’t cite the student’s name, I do mention that something struck me particularly forcefully when I read this quote about becoming another’s “woman,” then acknowledge that similar passages have echoed through many of their essays. So I query the students, saying, “In prison, gender roles are so rigid, so traditionally defined: men are tough and violent, ‘women’ are weak, passive, the victims. But in a way, the very idea that men can become “women,” can be labeled “female,” is quite revolutionary,” I prod. “Haven’t you just done something similar to the theorists we’ve read who posit the transgressive power of crossdressing? Doesn’t this actually unhinge gender from the body, foster the belief—the rather radical belief at that—that gender is not biological, but defined by one’s actions, one’s performance, one’s behavior? That gender is purely contextual, situational, flexible?”

Dead silence. Twenty faces stare at me hesitantly, a few looking confused, most understanding quite well but looking deeply uncertain they like what they hear. And then one of the older students, who usually sit s quietly shaking his head for most of the class, bursts forth. “Yeah, I wanted to say something about these readings we’ve been doing lately,” he starts. “No offense or anything, but I just want to say that I don’t agree with any of this shit, these men dressing as women, these women performing as men. . .” And then he trails off in another headshake, graying and dignified dreadlocks swaying slightly in consternation, as if perhaps it’s time he set straight this young woman who was still learning to ride training wheels while he was supporting an entire family. And here the other students jump in, joking, guffawing, refusing to address my question and instead seizing on group ridicule over the pure frivolity of men wearing makeup, women donning mustaches. So the moment is lost, but perhaps a speck of my question has seeped into a few minds. While I wonder if it has, I also wonder if it would even be safe for any of them to voice interest in it, let alone acknowledge that the gender roles they uphold behind their bars, although brutal and rigid in many respects, render them all gender renegades in others, participating in a community that accepts—indeed perpetuates—the utter cleaving of gender roles from chromosomal makeup.

Thirteen Weeks In

Last day of class. As the session winds down, some of the students si t back in their little chairs, hang their arms over the plastic backs, a few pitching their seats back against the wall like overgrown boys. Others sit bolt upright and count the minutes until the end, seemingly bored silly with all this hesaidshesaid talk and slightly disbelieving that I may prod them into discussing it until the last moment of the course. When I change the subject to talk about the upcoming semester, they look grateful for the change of topic.

We discuss what courses they’re going to take next, how much longer they have in the BU program before they graduate. One of the older students, a white man in his midfifties who has talked in class discussions about being in the system since the 1970s, asks me, “Will you be back next semester?” “Not next semester, but the one after that,” I answer, explaining that I have too much of my own writing and research to do, and too much teaching on the traditional BU campus, to teach in the prison twice this year. “Well,” he says to me, “you’re a brave person for doing this.” I thank him, feel relieved that I’ve fooled them, and also feel flattered, that perhaps I’ve earned some respect from them. I wonder simultaneously if they’re just trying to con me with compliments for a better grade, or bolster their own images of themselves as scary and tough. But I decide to feel optimistic, to give myself the benefit of the doubt for this last day of class. And I think it’s nice that perhaps he’s seen me just as a person, not a woman, not a gender—not even a teacher or authority figure or someone younger than he pretending to have some inscrutable knowledge—just a being whose work and effort he respects. And I feel thankful for the chance to have been able to see him—to have seen all of them—in the same way for many moments throughout the past 13 weeks.

As I walk out the gates that one last time, I know I’ll be back next year. I drive home feeling enriched, relieved to be going, strange that I can drive away and they can’t, and odd about feeling bad for these men who have all hurt or taken advantage of people in one way or another. I think about this all the way home along the flat black of the highway. I’m still thinking about it when I get home and unscrew the top from the bottle of nail polish I’ve shunned all semester. As I paint the first broad, redsparkled strip along my nail, I decide that this mix of realities is the perfect cap to the semester. For if teaching these men has left me with anything, it’s gratefulness for the human potential to confront each other, and ourselves, with both approbation and respect, distress and inspiration, sadness and hope. •

Tracy Slater is a freelance writer who lives part-time in Osaka, Japan, and parttime in Boston, where she teaches literature and gender studies at various area prisons through the Boston University Prison Education Program. She is also the founder of the Four Stories Boston and Four Stories Japan reading series ( She is current working on a biography of the late Stephen Donaldson, US prison reform activist and the first man raped in US lockup to speak publicly about his experience. Tracy holds a PhD in English and American Literature from Brandeis University.

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