In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section LGBTQ People in Prison

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews of LGBTQ Imprisonment
  • Difficulties and Gaps in Research
  • Navigating Sexual Identity in Prison
  • Treatment of Transgender People in Prison
  • Women’s Prisons
  • Health
  • Sexual Violence and LGBTQ People in Prison
  • Protective Segregation
  • Sex and Intimacy in Prison
  • Prison as a Gendered (Hetero and Cisnormative) Institution
  • Critical Queer Politics and Prison Abolition

Criminology LGBTQ People in Prison
Tanya Serisier
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0318


The experiences of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) people in prison have not historically been a significant area of prison research. Most work, even relatively recently, on the embodied experiences and pains of imprisonment has little to say about sex and sexuality, although some texts note “sexual deprivation” as its own type of pain. On the other hand, work that does look at the existence of sex in prison is confronted by the fact that those who have sex in prison do not map neatly onto those who identify as LGBTQ or who practice same-sex sex outside of the institution. The past twenty years has, however, seen an increasing interest in the topic. This reflects a growing scholarly interest in the experiences of LGBTQ people, including the growth of a subfield of “queer criminology,” primarily interested in the experiences of LGBTQ people as victims and perpetrators of the crime and as subjects of criminalization or interaction with the criminal justice system. It also reflects greater understanding of the diversity of prison populations, a response to high-profile cases of prisoner abuse or discrimination, and a subsequent desire for rights-based policy and practice. With this growth, it has also become increasingly clear that the experiences of LGBTQ people in prison are not homogenous, although all are affected by the structure of the prison around sexual and gender normativity and institutionalized transphobia and homophobia. In particular, women’s and men’s prisons function quite differently in relation to these issues, and the experiences of transgender prisoners are distinct from those of sexual minorities, with far higher rates of violence and abuse reported by transgender prisoners. To date the literature is predominantly US-based, although there is a small but growing corpus of literature from outside this jurisdiction. The literature can also be described as: primarily based on the experiences of male prisons; an interest in LGBTQ populations as a minority with particular vulnerabilities, especially to sexual violence; and a recognition that LGBTQ individuals, and particularly trans people, trouble key aspects and rationales of gender and sex segregation and its consequences in prison policy. The majority of this literature operates within a framework that attempts to improve the rights and protections for imprisoned LGBTQ individuals, with a particular emphasis on both the institutional discrimination and interpersonal violence that transgender individuals are subject to. There is also a small but important more critical scholarly and activist literature that engages with the politics of prison abolition and with queer theory and its critiques of an “identity-based” approach to sexuality and gradual movement toward the assimilation and acceptance of LGBTQ communities.

General Overviews of LGBTQ Imprisonment

This field is dominated by US-focused literature, and hence the most detailed information exists in relation to this jurisdiction. Brown and Jenness 2020 is a useful introduction to this literature, tracing the development of interest in LGBT imprisonment to the case of Dee Farmer, a trans woman imprisoned in 1989 who filed a case against the state for exposing her to an elevated risk of violence by placing her in a men’s prison. In general, literature suggests that LGBT individuals are over-represented in prison. Yet Rodgers, et al. 2017 notes that these claims are often lacking in empirical evidence, due to unreliable records of LGBTQ communities in prison, and varying definitions of what makes someone “LGBTQ.” These assessments are further complicated, as Carr, et al. 2016 outlines, by the fact that few institutions have collected intake data on LGBTQ people in prison, and even where they do, individuals may choose not to officially identify as LGBTQ in prison for reasons of safety and security. This is particularly true for jurisdictions outside of the United States, where LGBTQ people in prisons continue to be a largely hidden population, as explored in Gorden, et al. 2017. For more details see Difficulties and Gaps in Research. Claims of over-representation are therefore based on the methodology of Brown and McDuffie 2009, which compares prison authorities’ estimates of LGBTQ numbers with estimates for the general population, or through a focus on the higher risk of criminalization faced by LGBTQ, and especially trans, people, as in Sylvia Rivera Law Project 2007. In contrast, empirical work in Australia, like Richters, et al. 2012, found that self-identified gay and bisexual men were under-represented in prison compared to the general population and that same-sex activity in prison was also rare. While proportion of sexual minorities in prison is debated, there is convincing evidence from robust studies such as Sexton, et al. 2010 to show that transgender individuals, and particularly trans women, are over-represented in prison. Empirical investigations of women’s prisons, notably Simpson, et al. 2019, also suggest women’s prisons have particularly high LGBTQ populations. There is broad agreement in the literature that LGBTQ people enter prisons with significant needs and vulnerabilities. For example, Sexton, et al. 2010, in a study on transgender women in a male prison in California, revealed disproportionality high levels of mental ill-health, substance abuse, HIV/AIDS status, experiences of homelessness, and experiences of victimization, while the activist survey Lydon, et al. 2015 provides compelling evidence of diverse backgrounds, complex needs, and widespread experiences of discrimination.

  • Brown, George R., and Everett McDuffie. 2009. Health care policies addressing transgender inmates in prison systems in the United States. Journal of Correctional Health Care 15.4: 280–291.

    DOI: 10.1177/1078345809340423

    Influential and highly cited article that provides an overview of treatment and care provisions for transgender people in prisons across the United States, as well as a general overview of transgender imprisonment.

  • Brown, James A., and Valerie Jenness. 2020. LGBT people in prison: Management strategies, human rights violations, and political mobilization. In Oxford research encyclopedia of criminology and criminal justice. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190264079.013.647

    An overview of the major areas of research on LGBT people in prison, designed for accessibility to a general audience, and with particularly useful sections on human rights and the use of segregation and isolation.

  • Carr, Nicola, Siobhán McAlister, and Tanya Serisier. 2016. Out on the inside: The rights, needs and experiences of LGBT people in prison. Dublin: IPRT.

    An Irish-focused overview of international literature on the demographics, rights, and needs of LGBT people in prison, with a set of recommendations for policy.

  • Gorden C., C. Hughes, D. Roberts, E. Astbury-Ward, and S. Dubberley. 2017. A literature review of transgender people in prison: An “invisible” population in England and Wales. Prison Service Journal 233:11–22.

    A literature review highlighting the lack of concrete knowledge about transgender imprisonment in the UK.

  • Lydon, Jason, Kamaria Carrington, Hana Low, Reed Miller, and Mahsa Yazdy. 2015. Coming out of concrete closets: A Report on Black & Pink’s National LGBTQ Prisoner Survey. New York: Black and Pink.

    An activist-generated report based on one of the largest-scale surveys of LGBTQ people in prison available in the literature, useful for overviews on prevalence and experiences but solely focused on the United States.

  • Richters, Juliet, Tony Butler, Karen Schneider, et al. 2012. Consensual sex between men and sexual violence in Australian prisons. Archives of Sexual Behavior 41.2: 517–524.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10508-010-9667-3

    A prevalence study of sexual identity, sexual activity, and coercive sex in several Australian prisons that suggests homosexual identity and all forms of sexual behavior are relatively rare.

  • Rodgers, Jess, Nicole Asquith, and Angela Dwyer. 2017. Cisnormativity, criminalisation, vulnerability: Transgender people in prisons. Briefing Paper 12. Hobart, Australia: Tasmanian Institute of Law Enforcement Studies.

    A useful and accessible critical assessment of the international literature on transgender imprisonment, placed within a conceptual framework of cisnormativity as an operating principle for prisons.

  • Sexton, Lori, Valerie Jenness, and Jennifer Macy Sumner. 2010. Where the margins meet: A demographic assessment of transgender inmates in men’s prisons. Justice Quarterly 27.6: 835–866.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418820903419010

    A foundational US-based assessment of transgender imprisonment, focusing on the intersecting marginalities that contribute to over-incarceration and to vulnerability to harm within prison.

  • Simpson, Paul L., Danika Hardiman, and Tony Butler. 2019. Understanding the over-representation of lesbian or bisexual women in the Australian prisoner population. Current Issues in Criminal Justice 31.3: 365–377.

    DOI: 10.1080/10345329.2019.1668339

    Qualitative research exploring in-depth the reasons for the over-representation of lesbian and bisexual women in prison, with an emphasis on life-course narratives.

  • Sylvia Rivera Law Project. 2007. It’s war in here: A report on the treatment of transgender and intersex people in New York State men’s prisons. New York: Sylvia Rivera Law Project.

    A significant report by a transgender community legal center involving dedicated qualitative research by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated trans people in New York State, with a focus on the harms of imprisonment and institutional transphobia.

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