Queering The Prison Industrial Complex
As the debate continues, I talked with activist (and former resident) Eric Stanley about the prison industrial complex and its ramifications for the LGBTQ community. Stanley is the editor of the anthology, Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex.
GayRVA.com: Can you please tell me a little about yourself.
What is Captive Genders?
Captive Genders is an anthology Nat Smith and I edited. The book brings together former and currently imprisoned people, activists and academics to think about the connections among gender, sexual normatives and mass imprisonment. This book places gender and sexuality, along with race, ability and nationality, at the center of the analysis of prisons. Currently there are at least 2.4 million people locked away in cages in the U.S.
Even conservative criminologist agree that prisons are not a deterrent to crime. If prisons are not, even by conservative standards, about decreasing “crime” then we ask, what is their function? Further, we know that the majority of people imprisoned are of color, not because people of color commit more “crime” but because the criminal justice system is built through racist brutality. Similarly, trans peoples and specifically trans women of color experience outrageously high rates of imprisonment.
How are queers specifically victimized by the prison system?
Queer and trans folks, as we know, experience barriers to education and employment in the “official sector” as well as both personal and systemic violence. Often times we are kicked out of school and home at a young age and learn to survive in the informal economy, which predisposes us to surveillance and policing. We are historically outlawed people, our sexuality, social existence, and gender presentation has and often continues to be criminalized.
While the gay mainstream scrambles for a place at the table, we must be working for prison abolition. Campaigns for inclusion like gay marriage and gays in the military must be destroyed and in their ashes we must and are building a radical trans/queer politic that believes queer liberation and prison abolition are part of the same struggle. Queer struggles against the prison are nothing new. It was fighting against police harassment (not for wedding cake) that sparked the Stonewall rioters over 40 years ago.
Have you been personally involved in the prison-industrial complex?
The first time I was arrested I was 11 or 12 years old. It was, rather ironically, at “Teen Scene” a dance night held on Saturdays at the YMCA in Richmond, VA. I was selling these stickers that I had made for a dollar, and the two police they had on staff found me lead me through crowds of people and held me hostage in a small office where they questioned me about my “drug dealing.”
After holding me there for a number of hours and realizing that the stickers were clearly not drugs they released me into my grandmother’s custody. This taught me, even then, that my unwillingness and or inability to conform to Southern standards of masculinity was going to make me a moving target. This story is rather trivial in comparison to the horrors lived by many of the contributors to the book. Theses authors tell of guards and prison officials verbally, physically and sexually assaulting them on a daily basis. They also talk about being placed in solitary confinement for not cutting their hair or simply because they are trans or “gay.”
The city of Richmond is looking at building a brand new multi-million dollar prison. Do you have any advice for the powers that be?
Yes, they need to stop this project today and invest the money in community projects that actually help reduce harm like free housing, health care and education. Of course, the powers that be are not interested in actually decreasing harm, as fear and state terror are the very devices that maintain their grip on the city.
To this end, it is our responsibility to ensure that this new prison, and all others are stopped. Many people in the LGBT community think that more prisons and the expansion of hate crimes legislation will weaken the violence that many of us face. Indeed, many LGBT folks, specifically lower income and trans/queer folks of color endure relentless instance of personal attack and everyday violence. However, what Captive Genders asks is how might we respond to violence with ideas, solutions, and dreams that work to build true safety, joy and pleasure.
Thoughts on the arts being mixed into the prison industrial complex? As forms of “therapy,” rehabilitation, and/or activism?
I wondered your thoughts about Hate Crime legislation? Do you think the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr Hate Crimes Prevention Act will benefit or hinder queer activism?
However, anything that builds up the prison system places most of us in more danger. What we need is systematic change that does not punish someone that causes harm after the fact, what we need are plans to stop the harm from happening. We should also remember cases like that of the NJ4.
They were a group of four, young Black lesbians who were attacked by a straight man in NYC. After the attack all four were placed in jail for defending themselves, they were initially charged with a hate crime against the straight man, and he continues to call the incident a “hate crime against a heterosexual.”
This case speaks to the ways the US legal system is built through homophobia and even laws that suggest to attend to anti-LGBT violence can and will end up hurting trans and queer folks. Indeed, as Audre Lorde reminds us, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.
Are you working on any other projects?
Yes, Chris Vargas and I are working on finishing our next film, Criminal Queers. Criminal Queers is a sequel to our first film, Homotopia which was a radical queer critique of the politics of gay marriage. This new film will extend, visually, many of the politics of Captive Genders, it even has a cameo by Angela Y. Davis.
Eric Stanley will be speaking at the University of Richmond on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the Keller Hall Reception Room. The event is free and open to the public. For more information on Captive Genders, visit here.
Jon Henry comes from the small town of Washington, Virginia. Xe finished xes degree at the University of Richmond and was named GayRVA.com's Out.Spoken. Richmonder of the Year for 2011. When not in class, xe is either in the studio or rabble rousing with other queer activists. Follow xem on Twitter.
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