People who are queer and transgender, especially youth, are disproportionately represented behind bars. Eric Stanley, editor of the new anthology Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex (published by Oakland’s AK Press), has an answer as to why: “Trans and queer people, and even more so those of color and/or low-income, experience enormous barriers to formalized education and employment.” Turning tricks or selling drugs are illegal — but sometimes necessary — ways to get by. “Stories of trans and queer youth being kicked out of homes and schools, ending up on the streets, and working in informal economies continue to be common,” he continued. Stanley himself left home when he was fourteen.
Captive Genders is one of two new books that have been published in the last few months that look at the complicated issues surrounding gender norms, the law, and lockup. Co-edited by Nat Smith, Captive Genders is a collection of academic, activist, and prisoner voices speaking to the problems specific to the imprisonment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex folks. Activist-attorney-academic Dean Spade’s Normal Life (South End Press) looks at the limits of the law in protecting the communities most at risk for abuse, particularly queer and transgender people.
Spade and Stanley, both thirtysomethings who wear stylish, plastic-rimmed glasses, can’t remember where they met, but they admit that queer, radical political organizing is a niche area where everyone knows everyone else, even across concrete prison walls.
“I think that we often believe that imprisoned people do not organize, and I think the California prisoner hunger strike helps to undo that assumption,” said Stanley, who lives in San Francisco. At its peak last summer, the strike included some 6,600 prisoners across the state who refused food in protest to their living conditions. Among the strikers’ demands: an end to the practice of administrative segregation. Ad seg, as it’s known on the inside, is the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s draconian twist on solitary confinement. At Pelican Bay State Prison just south of the Oregon border, it translates into 23 hours a day, often for years, in an eight-by-ten concrete cell with no windows or interaction with other prisoners, family, or friends, according to Stanley. If you’re lucky, you might get a few-minutes-a-day exchange with a prison guard, but otherwise there’s no human contact. (The Bay Area coalition Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity reported that Alex Machado and Johnny Owens Vick, both at Pelican Bay, and Hozel Alanzo Blanchard, a prisoner at Calipatria State Prison near the Mexican border, died after being on hunger strike for several weeks. The group interviewed prisoners nearby who said Machado called for help from prison guards for several hours before his death, but none came.)
Queer and transgender prisoners are among those most often sent to ad seg, said Stanley. Facing an unusually high amount of abuse behind bars (according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, gay inmates encounter sexual assault at a rate three times that of straight prisoners; advocates say actual rates are much higher), they commonly end up there under the argument that the seclusion is for their own physical wellbeing. Mental wellbeing, not so much, says Raphael Sperry, a San Francisco-based architect who helped start a campaign to get architects to sign a pledge to turn down contracts to build prisons. “Solitary confinement’s a torture chamber, basically,” he said. The United Nations’ guru on torture, Special Rapporteur Juan Méndez, agrees. In October he testified before the UN General Assembly’s Human Rights Committee calling for member countries to ban the practice except in “exceptional” circumstances — and even then, limiting it to fifteen days.
Both Spade and Stanley, who’ll speak along with other Captive Genders contributors at a February 9 event at UC Berkeley, believe it’ll take a lot more than simply reforming the system to solve the situation — rather, a total dismantling of it is what’s needed.
Spade, a professor of law at Seattle University, is skeptical that the US legal structure can solve complicated problems like the ones queer and transgender prisoners face. “The idea that queer and trans people should focus our efforts on passing anti-discrimination and hate-crimes laws is misguided,” he said. “They won’t deliver the relief we so desperately need from homophobia and transphobia, and they often serve to legitimize or expand law systems that are actually harmful to us.”
Spade views many social justice fights as connected, and points to the widening racial wealth gap and an increase in immigration laws that target people of color as proof that the system is set up with little regard for traditionally oppressed groups of people. “Anti-discrimination laws put a window-dressing on these problems,” he said. “They declare that ‘US law exists to protect against oppression,’ meanwhile we see more and more law enforcement mechanisms developing that target oppressed people, such as Secure Communities,” Homeland Security’s program that turns state and local police into immigration enforcers.
Winning these battles means affecting change outside the courts, believes Spade. “I’m excited to see recent strategies like the general strike in Oakland and the West Coast port shutdowns that are glimmers of the kind of large-scale disruptive strategies that we need.”
East Bay resident and former political prisoner Angela Davis blurbed both books. Davis, a professor emerita at UC Santa Cruz, is Stanley’s academic adviser. She’s also a lesbian, having come out publicly in an Out Magazine story in 1997, and is probably the most visible prison abolitionist, having co-founded the downtown Oakland-based anti-prison group Critical Resistance. Over the past couple of years, Davis has added “transphobia” to the public enemies she names in her near-daily public speaking engagements. And at a December Occupy Oakland rally, she proposed a National Occupy Day in Support of Prisoners, now set for February 20, that will include a protest outside San Quentin State Prison.
Stanley will be there. He’s hoping the Occupiers will include prison abolition as one of their primary concerns as they continue to organize. His own activism has used camp sensibility as a tactic even when the causes were anything but cheery. (His camp politics are evidenced in his prison break film, a dramedy called Criminal Queers, co-directed with Oakland artist Chris Vargas, which comes out this summer.) According to Stanley, “Humor is an important weapon. It can denaturalize people’s assumptions and make activism fun and something you want to be a part of. The right-wing can have austerity; I want a politics of abundance and pleasure.”