From left: Grace Dunham, Rye Skelton and Blaine O’Neill. Photographed by Dicko Chan in downtown Los Angeles

This Crowdfunding Platform Wants to Make Prison an LGBTQ Issue

Support.fm will be the first platform to allow prisoners to crowdfund their bail

For complacent queers who might have assumed Love Is Love memes and Caitlyn Jenner magazine covers spelled LGBTQ equality, the Orlando massacre has served as a potent reminder that LGBTQ lives are not so safe — not only in the extreme context of a mass shooting, but as the status quo for many queer, trans and gender-nonconforming people, especially people of color and especially people who are imprisoned.

“The victory of marriage [equality] in no way has created material benefit for those who are marginalized among LGBTQ and HIV-positive communities,” says Jason Lydon, national director of Black & Pink, a group advocating on behalf of 9,000 LGBTQ or HIV-positive prisoners around the country. In October the organization published a report featuring survey results from more than 1,000 LGBTQ prisoners and found that respondents were six times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the general prison population. While 2.7 percent of all adults have ever been in prison, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, the rate for transgender adults jumps to 16 percent. In the free world (to use Black & Pink’s term for the world outside of prisons), even as visibility has increased for trans people, the number of trans people murdered in 2015 was the highest ever on record.

Black & Pink has made it their mission to keep LGBTQ people out of prison, to avoid the traumatizing physical, economic, sexual and psychological violence therein. “Of that work, a big chunk of it consists of supporting people with ongoing criminal cases,” says Lydon, “and ideally bailing people out of jail when we can.”

There’s not much in the way of financial or political support for that effort from mainstream LGBTQ organizations, nor from crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe, which allows people to defray the costs of personal expenses — everything from student loan debt to the health care costs associated with a gender transition — but explicitly bans raising money for “the defense or support of anyone alleged to be involved in criminal activity.” When groups of friends and family have organized to crowdfund a loved one’s bail, they’ve found their campaigns get shut down, sometimes with money they’ve raised stuck in limbo.

“A lot of it disappears and [organizers] end up in monthlong battles with the sites trying to get the money back,” says Grace Dunham, a writer and activist focused on issues facing prisoners and trans people. Earlier this week, Dunham and collaborators Blaine O’Neill and Rye Skelton of the web agency Jodie announced — what else — a crowdfunding campaign for a crowdfunding tool that will explicitly serve LGBTQ prisoners raising money for bail or other expenses. Upon launching, they will make the tool completely free to use. Plus, they’ll partner with Black & Pink, and other organizations doing similar advocacy work — Familia in Los Angeles and Trans-Queer Pueblo in Phoenix— which will set up crowdfunding campaigns for their community members once the tool launches. A key goal for the trio is to help redefine prison issues as a mainstream LGTBQ issue and to use their tech skills and connections (Dunham is Lena’s sister) to bring new attention and funding to support incarcerated LGBTQ people.

MEL caught up with them earlier this week to hear about the new project they’re calling Support.fm.

Where did this idea come from?

Grace: I had noticed a lot of close friends and people that I’ve been connected to through organizing putting up campaigns which were shut down a day later. Or putting up campaigns and then the next day being like, “Fuck. We raised $5,000, but you took it down and we’re screwed.”

Blaine: If you’re doing anything related to crime, there’s a risk of your campaign being taken down. It seems to be enforced haphazardly, too. Some people make it through.

Grace: It’s about how you finesse the language. It’s this game of alluding to the fact that you’re supporting someone who’s being held in jail without explicitly saying so. But the detection services are getting better and better. So the tricks that people have used to raise bail without being detected are working less and less well because there are people or programs at these sites that are making sure that they locate any campaign that violates the terms of use, and then they shut them down.

Were there any legal issues to worry about with creating a crowdfunding platform for bail money?

Grace: We talked to a lot of people and lawyers at the ACLU and organizers in different states who had done this work, and what we came away with was that, in fact, it was something we could do. What’s difficult about regulations around bail — and one of the reasons it’s such a medieval system — is that it changes county by county and state by state. So that’s why it was so essential to work with organizations that had done this work in specific locations and had really built that knowledge base.

How do the organizations you are partnering with typically raise money for this type of work?

Grace: From what we’ve observed there’s two primary ways that people raise funds to get people out of jail. There’s individually specific campaigns — like someone finds out that a community member has been put in detention and is at risk of being deported. That’s a type of campaign that has to happen extraordinarily quickly, and it’s hard to raise that much money that rapidly, particularly if you’re community is already strapped for resources. The other kind of model is rather than doing individually specific cases, [advocacy organizations] have a community fund that they could pull from when a community member ends up in prison.

Rye: Our platform should be able to serve both models since it just transfers funds into any bank account. So whatever the organization sets up should work.

So the idea is that the launch partners would identify people in prison and create a profile for them, similar to what you’d see on Kickstarter or other platforms?

Blaine: We’re going to see what works best for the organizations. We’re going to give the option to add a lot of that stuff that you would see in a normal crowdfunding application. But to raise the funds as quickly as possible, sometimes [campaigns] won’t have time to create a video. So we’ll work with these organizations to find the best medium.

Another important aspect that I think we’re excited about is creating this directory of organizations that do this type of work throughout the U.S. It also provides an opportunity for individuals who are raising funds for a specific person that’s in jail or detention to reach out to this organization through the website and say, “This is a person you should feature.”

Grace: Because of the hoops people have to jump through to make this work successful without it being found and shut down right now, none of the information is centralized. For example, Familia, which is in Los Angeles, over the past few years has done countless really successful campaigns to get individuals out of detention, but that’s scattered through different PayPal accounts that were taken down, so no one who’s trying to learn about this landscape has access to [that information].

Suddenly all of these organizers who have been doing regionally specific work will hopefully have infrastructure to be in dialogue with one another, which is something that has never been done before.

How can this platform help these campaigns raise more money? Is it just the potential to get more media attention or, perhaps, reach philanthropists who want to embrace this cause?

Blaine: I think that’s an open question we have right now — is this going to be effective in a new way? — and I don’t know if we know the answer. Whether simply sharing it on social media will be the most effective way. Or [if] creating awareness about this cause will spur more funding for each one of these individuals.

Grace: We’ve already seen interest and support for this project from people who don’t have a history of organizing around policing in prisons, so we’re being really strategic about how we build relationships with donors. We’re doing the work of centralizing a lot of the most pressing LGBTQ activism that’s happening in the country right now, and an ongoing relationship with us means you’ll have access to information that you might not have previously.

It seems like part of the project is about educating people about the fact that prison issues are LGBTQ issues. Is it hard to make that connection for people?

Rye: It’s not a very glamorous thing: it’s pretty dark and sad and I think it just doesn’t have the exposure that it needs.

Blaine: People get caught up on individual cases sometimes and I think we’re trying to create this blanket statement that in the prison system, gender is not respected the way it should be, that these individuals are marginalized and we need to help them get bail.

Grace: We’re also saying without commenting on individual cases of right and wrong that there are very specific reasons that have to do with access to employment and access to housing that make LGBTQ people, particularly LGBTQ people of color, more likely to end up in jail. And that’s a statistical reality that isn’t really touched on in more mainstream gay discourse, and it should be.

A lot of tech companies have a narrative about wanting to change the world. How do you riff on that while making it authentic?

Rye: Having been in that culture for a while, it’s pretty male-dominated. I think with Grace having that political dialogue — in conjunction with the organizations and the tech background that Blaine and I have — we’ll sort of avoid falling into that bro-y tech trap. That’s just not us as people.

Blaine: We view this as an aid effort to provide critical support to a critical situation. I think it’s pragmatic what we’re doing. We don’t think we’re going to make the prison system just over night.

Grace: The framework isn’t an unequivocal belief in the transformative power of technology. It’s looking at what technology can do to provide really essential infrastructure that’s hard to build elsewhere. We’re not saying we have this really genius idea; we’re just looking at the work that’s being done and responding to it with the skills that we have.

Rye: Still, it’s a pretty good idea….