Grace Dunham in front of a pool, facing the camera

The Feministing Five: Grace Dunham

What does it mean to be LGBTQ in the prison system today?

For too many, on top of the trauma of life behind bars, it often means further daily humiliation, indignity, physical and sexual abuse, and fear of those who are meant to protect you. In a country that incarcerates people at the highest rate of any nation on earth, American law enforcement’s bias, abuse, and profiling towards LGBTQ people, especially those of color, has significantly contributed to the community’s disproportionate contact with the criminal justice system.

What can be done to support queer, trans, and gender nonconforming people in prison who face innumerable hurdles with regard to harassment, sexual assault, access to resources, and support both inside and outside jail? For this week’s Feministing Five, I caught up with activist Grace Dunham, who along with their collaborators Blaine O’Neill and Rye Skelton, is hard at work on one important solution.

Grace and their collaborators are in the midst of launching Support.fm, a crowdfunding platform for queer, trans, and GNC people navigating jail, prison, and detention centers. The group’s website shares their goal as building “a secure online platform where friends, families and allies can raise and distribute funds for queer, trans, and gender nonconforming people navigating incarceration—whether to provide critical support for those on the inside, to make payment of bail more rapidly, or to organize campaigns and coalitions.”

Grace, a Brown graduate and recent New York to LA transplant, has been involved in radical organizing and political work for some time. They have contributed to the New Yorker on social justice and queer issues, worked closely with friend and queer advocate superstar Reina Gossett, recently published The Fool, a free book of poetry, and last year interviewed Janet Mock on one of my favorite episodes of their sister Lena’s Buzzfeed podcast Women of the Hour.

I was lucky to chat with Grace, who is all at once charming, thoughtful, and incredibly passionate, about the process of getting Support.fm off the ground, the complications of representation, navigating fame, and dreaming up self-empowering ideas of success and fulfillment. Catch Grace on Twitter @simongdunham and donate to Support.fm’s campaign here! You can also sign up to stay updated on the project’s progress on their website.

Senti Sojwal: Can you tell our readers about support.fm, and how the idea came to fruition? How will it work, and where are you now in the process?

Grace Dunham: Support.fm is a crowdfunding platform that will specifically help queer, trans, and GNC people raise money for bail, for bond, for the cost of legal fees, for commissary while they’re on the inside. Once we’ve reached our financial goal our first stage of the site is going to be used by a coalition of partner organizations that we’re working with all across the country that specifically support queer and trans people who are facing criminalization. Some of those organizations run community bail funds that they can pull from if a community member has been arrested and is being held in jail or being held in detention and is facing deportation. Some of these organizations help with legal fees, keep ongoing commissary funds so people can buy the things they need, and all of them are run by and support trans people of color. The idea for the website was a stroke of good luck and timing. I developed a friendship with my collaborators Blaine O’Neill and Rye Skelton who are both coders and web developers. Rye is a trans woman and Blaine is gender nonconforming, and they had just started working together on a lot of different design projects. They came to me and said that they had the skills, time, and desire to build a crowdfunding platform specifically for trans and GNC people. Trans and GNC people rely on crowdfunding a lot, particularly around raising money for surgery or hormone replacement. There’s a lot of political reasons that this is the case — employment discrimination, housing difficulty, little access to money and resources. It makes sense that the crowdfunding trend, which is about a redistribution of resources, would be something that trans and GNC people use. I was really excited to work on this, but I wanted it to be specific to criminalization and incarceration. We agreed on that for two reasons: all existing crowdfunding sites have rules against anything supporting “alleged” criminal activity. That’s YouCaring, GoFundMe, even websites that do sort of permit it, for example CrowdRise, you actually read into their rules and they’ll only support campaigns for bail if the person hasn’t committed what they’d call a “violent crime”. If a protester gets arrested, they’ll support it, but if somebody is charged with a violent crime for self-defense, it’s shut down. I had seen so many people in my community try to run rapid fire campaigns to raise bail only to have them shut down immediately. The money disappears. The second reason is that we have strong beliefs around prison abolition and we believe that LGBTQ movements for justice need to center people who are most affected by the prison system and by criminalization. We saw this as a useful way to support organizations we admire, and to raise awareness around these issues. Right now in the process, we’re raising money for the overhead of building the site itself.

Senti Sojwal: The most recent update for the project says that you and your co-organizers will begin facilitating community discussions LA, Phoenix, and New York, where your primary partner organizations are. Can you tell us about the thought process behind these community discussions, and what you hope will be gained from them?

Grace Dunham: We’re building this platform to support the work of people who are already organizing and already really active around the criminalization of trans people of color. A lot of young people who want to be involved, especially young white people, tend to come up with all these ideas and start new organizations. There are already so many groups and organizations that are already doing radical activism and have been doing it for so long. We see our role as supporting the work that’s already being done, that’s already been proven to be effective. In Phoenix we’ll be running a community discussion around Trans Queer Pueblo, our partner organization there. Asking questions like, what do you see as the biggest challenges in this work? What do you need to run an effective campaign? What kind of donors do you need access to? Once you have the money, what are the barriers to getting it to the person in need? Just getting the specifics of the county court system so we can build that into our features. These systems are all so county specific, and each group we’re working with has unparalleled knowledge of navigating that. We’ll begin having those discussions with the groups we’re partnering with, but they will also be publicized so community members can take part. We’re also really trying to accumulate the knowledge that we need while asking for minimal labor from our partner organizations. After the discussions, we’ll share the ideas discussed on the site and publish them in updates.

Senti Sojwal: I think it’s important that on the support.fm webpage, one of the first ideas discussed is that although trans and GNC people are more visible in the media than ever before, that higher visibility doesn’t correlate to increased safety or better treatment. This can be so hard to come to terms with, especially because for people of color and other marginalized people, representation can be so meaningful, but also clearly so complicated. How do you think we can encourage more nuanced conversations about the importance of representation but also not allow ourselves to believe that, like you said to Marie Claire, “representation is transformation”?

Grace Dunham: Fame culture is so pervasive. I know this first hand, I come from a family of artists and definitely grew up in a culture that was very focused on representation, on visibility. That’s so much of the work that creators and artists do, what they have to offer — changing dominant ideas of how certain people are represented. Visibility is so valuable and it’s so important for people to have others to connect their own experiences to. I don’t want to belittle that. One of the things that’s so insidious about fame culture is that it plucks individuals out of collective movements and in that way divides people and recreates a culture of individual advancement rather than highlighting collective work. I feel like you can track that in every social movement — certain people become heroes. It’s unclear whether that is really beneficial to political projects. I know that I have particular ideas about fame considering that I have access to it and it’s something I need to be hypercritical of. It means different things to different people, and I want to leave space for that. The thing is that when certain identities have increased visibility, it can lead to the assumption that there’s also improved safety and access for them, that circumstances have improved. For example, there’s more trans visibility now, and that’s lead to greater acceptance but also increased transphobic backlash. Increased visibility can also lead to increased resentment from others who feel like they aren’t getting what they deserve. People feel like there’s suddenly this “new” identity group who’s just miraculously getting so much. This even happens in the queer community — queer cis people feeling like the trans conversation is taking things away from them, and this obscures the real dangers still faced by so many trans people of color. The increased visibility hasn’t done that much for the high rates of poverty and violence faced by trans people. It is a warped representation.

Senti Sojwal: Last year you presented a talk called “Why Am I Valuable?” during a panel at the Frieze Art Fair in New York. When introducing yourself, you said, “I have power through my associations with social capital; in addition, I hold a set of marginalized identities.” How do you navigate the experience of having close proximity to wealth and power through your family, and also being a person who is so clearly committed to anti-capitalist queer liberation?

Grace Dunham:  Welcome to the essential question of my life! I mean there’s so many ways I could answer this question — I could tell you how I’m thinking about it right now. Social capital and wealth obviously open up access to things that look like achievement and accomplishment. The work I’m always trying to do is to divorce my own experience of personal fulfillment and value from things that are normatively coded as success or achievement. I get a lot of opportunities, I get a lot of access to visibility, and there is a platform I can step into. It’s easy to say yes, but it’s important to be critical of what I’m being asked to participate in. I need to think about whether I’m getting an opportunity because of what I have access to or the work I’m actually doing. Is this opportunity going to benefit the communities I’m a part of, or is it going to create a division between me and the people that I love? I can’t answer those questions the right way every time. Support.fm is one of the first projects where I feel really comfortable utilizing some of the access that I have, because it’s a collective project. I don’t want to be visible, to step on a platform for no reason other than my bloodline. That will always be in play — I know this project has benefitted from my name recognition, even if I haven’t consented to that, but in this situation it’s okay. I don’t want to sound moralistic, these are just standards I want to try to hold myself to. If I try too hard, I’ll drive myself up the wall. People come at achievement and success in different ways, and I think they mean various things depending on who you are. Particularly if you haven’t had a financial security net, and you need one. So I don’t believe these are universal standards, just my own ideas about success. I know it wouldn’t make me fulfilled to just have a name.

Senti Sojwal: What’s on the horizon for you creatively, personally, professionally? Tell me what you’re looking forward to these days.

Grace Dunham: So I actually have this weird day job out here in LA working for a private eye! I have a background in research, and someone I know connected me to this position. My friend’s friend’s brother is a private eye. They mostly do work around corporate fraud and theft so it doesn’t really feel ethically complicated. I’m usually doing litigation support or background checks. I don’t believe anyone should be in jail, but I will say that a lot of these white collar people who exploit people are assholes. It’s actually beneficial to my own work of legal research and navigating court systems, so I feel like I’m learning more about court bureaucracy. It’s pretty funny to be doing litigation support during the day and then later working on a project that’s about dismantling the legal system. Aside from that, I’m always writing my poems and my feelings and I have an ongoing writing practice. That’s the area where I feel really careful about what I put into the world, how I release it and who I want it to be seen by. “The Fool” came out really organically. I wrote those poems to share with my friends and make myself feel good. I emailed them to people and realized the compilation had become something substantial. I decided that rather than trying to figure out if it was legitimate, I’d just do it on my own. I think that’s probably how I’ll continue to do things for the time being. I like to wait until I’ve created something that I feel is worth sharing, then think about how I’d like to share it. I like to have everything in my life to be connected. I feel like if I publish something, maybe I’d like to use it to help raise money for the organizations I work with or some of the causes that I care about. I don’t want my sense of self to be tied to how my writing is received. I know that I feel better and more fulfilled when doing work like support.fm — I want to emphasize that. I’m looking forward to the time when support.fm is up and running and effective, and organizations and collectives can host their campaigns there. I know I’ll put out more creative writing this year — I’m just waiting to see what feels like it needs to be shared.

This interview has been condensed and edited. 

Photo courtesy of Grace Dunham. 

NYC

Senti Sojwal is an India born, NYC bred writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer. She graduated with a BA from Hampshire College in Gender Studies & Politics, and has worked with NARAL, The Civil Liberties & Public Policy Program and its sister program PopDev, and has written on feminist issues for Mic, Bustle, and What NOW, the blog of the National Organization for Women's NYC chapter. She currently works at Sakhi for South Asian Women, an advocacy organization that supports immigrant survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence through an array of culturally competent services and programs. Senti loves 90s pop, a bold lip, and is always hunting for the perfectly spicy Bloody Mary. She lives in Brooklyn.

Senti Sojwal is a writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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