Did the Intersection of Race, Gender, and Sexuality Execute a Black Lesbian in the Bible Belt?

On Wednesday, January 11, 1989, Wanda Jean Allen, an African-American woman from Oklahoma was sentenced to death, for the murder of her 29 year-old lesbian partner, Gloria Leathers.  My intention for writing this blog is not an attempt to argue whether or not Ms. Allen is innocent or guilty; but to demonstrate how America’s has a history of criminalizing individuals based on their race, gender, class, and sexual orientation.  Which contributed to the execution of Ms. Allen a queer woman of color, who the State of Oklahoma felt the need to execute for murdering her partner.  Ms. Allen’s story gained so much media attention that HBO aired a documentary titled, The Execution of Wanda Jean (2002) which chronicles the story of Ms. Allen’s execution after a 25 year moratorium in the State of Oklahoma.  As with any death row case, Ms. Allen’s defense team attempted to seek clemency for Ms. Allen, and have Ms. Allen’s death row sentence commuted to life imprisonment.

The background story on Ms. Allen’s trial and execution stems from an altercation that occurred on Thursday, December 01, 1988, outside of The Village Police Department in Oklahoma City.  Drew Edmondson, then Attorney General asserts the altercation happened as follows: “Ms. Leathers (Wanda’s girlfriend) had driven to the police station following a domestic argument with Ms. Allen; while in the parking lot Ms. Allen fired a single shot into Ms. Leather’s abdomen” (see clarkprosector.org), which Ms. Leather eventually died from in the hospital.  Throughout the trial the prosecution painted Ms. Allen as an educated woman who knew exactly what she was doing the day she made a conscious decision to shoot her lover. For example, the prosecution asserted that Wanda Jean Allen graduated from high school, and completed two years of college.  However, conflicting reports demonstrated Ms. Allen dropped out of high school, and  had an IQ of 69, which is eleven points below the status of mental retardation.  Moreover, the prosecution made every attempt to drive home that Wanda Allen was a vicious black lesbian who understood the ramifications of her actions.

In Faces at the Bottom of the Well (1992), legal scholar Derrick Bell stated, “racism is an integral, permanent, and indestructible component of American society” (Bell 1992).  Bell’s main argument explains that racism is so engrained in American society and its institutions that it dictates one’s relationship to the state.  Understanding, the relationship between race and punishment in the criminal justice system here in America is vital.  The institution of slavery reinforced the notion of incarcerating a group of individuals based on their race.  In The Angela Y. Davis Reader (1998), scholar Joy James argues “people of African descent consigned to the institution of slavery in the U.S. were not treated as rights-bearing individuals” (James 1998; 98-99).  The status of African Americans living in the south continued to be relegated to that of a enslave African, even after the abolishment of slavery.  Thus, contributing to the criminalization process and rapid transformation of America’s prison nation in southern states post-emancipation.  Furthermore, James argues “the swift racial transformation of imprisoned southern populations was largely due to the passage of Black Codes, which criminalized behaviors such as vagrancy, breech of job contracts, absence from work, the possession of firearms, insulting gestures or acts” (James 1998; 100).  Black Codes along with de jure Jim Crow segregation policies allowed whites to police black communities using drastic measures, redefining African American citizenship status, and recreating conditions of slavery.

Traditionally, states located in  South-central and Southeastern America tend to make up the ‘Bible Belt.’  Oklahoma is one of many states a part of the Bible Belt which tends to be socially conservative, and church attendance is much higher across all denominations compared to their counterparts in the North.  The bible belt is a locale where social conformity, and gender identity politics are defined.  In Colored Amazons (2006), Kali Gross argues “white middle-class families existed as both ‘a constituency and an idea'; their definition of whiteness, masculinity, femininity, and sexuality represented a literal and ideological cornerstone of mainstream America’s public consciousness” (Gross 2006; 106).  Therefore, anything that resided outside of such national identity, cultural norms, or public consciousness — “crime, intemperance, homosexuality, and violence was synonymous with a pathology that challenged mainstream morality” (Gross 2006; 106).  For example, Ms. Allen a poor, uneducated, lesbian, African American women who had a criminal record prior to her trial and execution was depicted with the personal pathology in mind, especially when it came to stereotypes about lesbians.  For example, prosecutors argued that “Wanda was the ‘man’ in the relationship, who dominated Gloria, and ran the household” (see clarkprosecutor.org).  The prosecutors  perception of Ms. Allen’s sexual orienation manipulated the jury into believing that Ms. Allen blackness and sexuality was a threat to society, and the bible belts morals and values.

In Queer (In)justice (2011), scholars Joey Mogul, Andrea Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock argue that the media often associates the queer criminal archetype as being synonymous with “danger, degeneracy, disorder, deception, disease, contagion, sexual predation, depravity, subversion, encroachment, treachery, and violence” (Mogul Ritchie & Whitlock 2011; 23).  Such images portray queers as being as terrifying abstraction of a cultural nightmare, rather than as a human being.  At some point everyone has heard such derogatory terms about queers being “predators, deviates, psychopaths, child molesters, bull daggers and bull dykes, pansies, girly-men, monsters, he-shes, and freak shows” (Mogul et al 2011; 25-26).  Such archetypes were used throughout Ms. Allen case, when the prosecutors portrayed Ms. Allen as an individual who likes to “hunt down her victims, while depicting Ms. Leathers as a meek and timid individual” (see clarkprosecutor.org).  The prosecution used abstractions of Ms. Allen’s sexuality to their advantage, to convincing the jury to see Ms. Allen as queer of color who likes to “tortured, killed, and consumed the life of her lover” (Mogul et al 2011; 27) because Ms. Allen was disappointed that her unnatural and immature desires were unfulfilled.

Therefore, understanding that race has always played a vital role in America’s criminal justice system, one must understand that gender and sexuality serve as “secondary-status cross cutting issues” (Collins 2005; 47).  Even if one was remove race from the equation can we honestly say that Ms. Wanda Jean Allen was given a fair trial?  Or was Ms. Allen’s gender performance and sexual orientation put on trial?  Racism and heterosexism often play off of one another to create systems of oppression, which makes the coming-out process difficult for young and old African American individuals who identify as LGBTQI.  Moreover,  how can we as a black community be against lynching yet support death penalty statutes that oppresses individuals based on one’s race, gender, class, and at times sexuality?  Just because lethal injection is not considered cruel and unusual punishment as of yet, is killing someone via lethal injection less barbaric than hanging someone when it equates to the same results.

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