Book Editors Say Queers "Shouldn't Ask to Sit at the Table -- We Should Dismantle the Table"
If you thought living in a concrete cage was bad, being lesbian, gay, bisexual, and especially transgender behind bars can be even worse. The editors of a new anthology called Captive Genders maintain that queer people experience abuse at a much higher rate behind bars than straight inmates. Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith have collected stories from queer inmates as well as accounts from academics and activists. They say the issues raised in the book show the efforts by many queer people to join society's mainstream are misguided and hazardous. The collection, according to activist and onetime political prisoner Angela Davis, traverses "the complicated entanglements of surveillance, policing, imprisonment, and the production of gender normativity."
Stanley, Smith, and other contributors gather Thursday at Modern Times Bookstore to talk about how queer people deal with a system that treats them so harshly. We recently spoke with the two editors on the topic.
Why do you believe there are more LGBT people in prison, per capita, than heterosexual people?
Smith: Queer people, women-identified people, people of color, poor people, and immigrants are the majority of people who are in prison. We are all in prison because we are the people who are most policed, who in being kept poor, jobless, homeless, and imprisoned ensure the ruling of everyone else and the power of those in control. We are in prison because the LGBT movement is more interested in who can get married, not who is allowed to work, or what kind of work we are allowed to do. We are in prison because we are Other, and Other is not allowed participation, nor are we allowed to challenge the tenets of what participation forces us to do -- marriage, the military, policing each other, playing by the rules of the state.
What are some ways that prison life is tougher on queer and trans people than others?
Stanley: Prison is a materialization of degrees of "unfreedom," but for many trans and queer folks, they live this unfreedom as horrific expressions of daily violence from other prisoners as well as from guards and prison staff. A number of the authors in this book point to the use of solitary confinement, also called "ad seg," for "administrative segregation," as a means of disciplining gender and sexuality. If a trans woman refuses to cut her hair she is often placed in ad seg, which means she must spend 23 hours a day alone, in total isolation. Ad seg is also used as a form of "protection" for trans and queer prisoners. So, many folks are forced to choose between two unlivable situations.
Why do we hear so much about issues like "don't ask, don't tell" and same-sex marriage, yet so little about this issue?
Smith: Because it is an issue of mainstream belonging. These are issues of fighting for more state control, and they have, frankly, nothing to do with justice. We shouldn't need or want a piece of paper from the state to be able to love and be loved, to be able to get access to health care, or be allowed to stay in this nation. We shouldn't be asking to sit at the table -- we should be dismantling the table. Fighting for marriage, fighting to be in the military, fighting for hate-crime legislation to criminalize and imprison more people -- these are not solutions to the day-to-day issues we face of poverty, violence, or lack of respect as community members. These reforms actually work against us, strengthening this system rather than weakening it.
Stanley: The politics of neoliberal citizenship now have a terrorizing rainbow facade. Captive Genders is in part working to undo the power and centrality of mainstream LGBT politics by showing how many of these projects, like hate crime legislation, paradoxically work to harm trans and queer people while reproducing state violence.
Do you have any examples of queer people organizing against this system?
Stanley: Yes. In the book there are many examples of folks organizing historically and today. Jennifer Worley has a great piece on Vanguard, a group of queer and trans street youth that organized in the mid-1960s in the Tenderloin. There is also a really powerful interview with Miss Major, a veteran of the Stonewall Riots who is currently the executive director of the Transgender, Gender Variant, Intersex Justice Project, which is based here in San Francisco. The project works on organizing with formally incarcerated trans women of color.
What are some alternatives to prison?
GLBT Historical Society Vanguard youth protest police sweeps by sweeping the streets of the Tenderloin (1966).
Stanley: There are many examples of alternatives to prison, like community accountability processes and restorative justice models. Basically, the idea is to attempt to lessen harm while addressing the needs of the survivor. Currently we have a criminal justice system that is based on punitive power, and its goal is convictions, not actual "justice." The magnitude of the prison industrial complex obscures us from actually imagining what a world without the prison would be like.
Do you believe people inside prison will be allowed to read the book?
Smith: It depends on what guard is opening the mail that day, and whether the guard opening the mail is in a bad mood, has a vendetta against the content or the recipient, and so on. Many prisons have a rule that books come straight from the publisher, though that is no guarantee. Our publisher, AK Press, does offer a 20 percent discount for books ordered by or for prisoners. The only true guarantee would be in freedom from imprisonment.
Hear from other contributors to Captive Genders on Thursday, Sept. 8, at 7 p.m. at Modern Times Bookstore, 2919 24th St. (at Alabama). Admission is free.