Gender and Sexuality in Native America: Alcatraz Island, San Francisco Bay, CA

Black and white photo of Alcatraz Island, ca. 1920-1950
Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, Military Prison, ca. 1920-ca. 1950.

Photo by Theodor Horydczak. From the collections of the Library of Congress.

West-central California has been home to Native populations for many thousands of years. Numerous and diverse small tribes lived around the San Francisco Bay area. Two of these, the Miwok and the Ohlone (also referred to as Castanoan) were the primary inhabitants of the bay's northern and southern peninsulas. Research indicates that both of these tribes recognized gender identities beyond they typical Western conception of male/female. During the decades of Native American suppression and assimilation, alternative gender roles, which existed in tribes across the country, were effectively erased and did not re-emerge until the era of Native activism.

Beginning with the revival of the Sun Dance ritual in 1941, Native peoples became increasingly vocal, asserting their cultural heritage and seizing federal facilities to highlight issues of poverty and promote self-rule and self-determination. One of the most prominent and successful occupations was the 1969 multi-tribe takeover of Alcatraz Island. This high-profile event marked a turning point in the lives of queer Native Americans who, with a stronger sense of their heritage and community support, felt more empowered to express their sexuality and gender identities to their families, their tribes, and their communities.
Warden's notebook page with mug shot of Frank Bolt
This is the page from the Alcatraz warden's notebook for Prisoner No. 1, Frank Bolt. He was imprisoned on charges of sodomy, serving time at Alcatraz from 1934 to 1936.

From the collections of the National Archives and Records Administration, Pacific Region.

At the end of the Mexican- American War in 1848, the U.S. Army established a fort on the island, but by the 1860s, Alcatraz had begun housing military prisoners and by 1907, this was its sole function. In 1933 the property transferred from the U.S. Army to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The first group of prisoners incarcerated during this period was transferred from the U.S. military base in Honolulu. According to records kept in the warden's notebook, approximately one third of these men were imprisoned for sodomy. Prison sentences for these men ranged between five and fifteen years. Perhaps even more damning was the legacy of a dishonorable discharge, which follows a person for their entire life. In addition to losing their veteran status, the general public often considered these men criminals. Many of the records pertaining to Alcatraz's earlier years were thrown into San Francisco Bay when the property transferred to the Bureau of Prisons, so we cannot say how many men were incarcerated for sodomy from the 1850s to 1933. Alcatraz was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

Part of a series of articles titled Finding Our Place: LGBTQ Heritage in the United States.

Last updated: February 20, 2018