† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
Captive Genders: Embodying Resistance and Envisioning Safety
by Jed Walsh*
Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex has burning cop cars on the cover and incendiary content on every one of its 365 pages to match. Edited by Nat Smith and Eric Stanley, the immensely wide-ranging anthology begins with an introduction by Stanley titled “Fugitive Flesh: Gender Self-Determination, Queer Abolition, and Trans Resistance” and ends with tools and resources for prison abolitionists to use in their organizing. In the acknowledgments, Stanley and Smith say that “writing must always be produced within the context of action. Similarly, action devoid of analysis often makes for shaky ground upon which to build.” This is one of the central tenets of the book, and each contribution to the anthology is very clearly produced from lived experience. Captive Genders urges those who read it to take action as part of movements for queer and trans prison abolition now!
One of the most invaluable things to me about Captive Genders is the clarity with which the contributors reject the mainstream LGBT agenda and the entirety of the gay rights movement’s attendant violence and exclusion. In my coming of age years, I’ve watched gay marriage legalized in my home state and increasingly across the country, and I have experienced gay marriage take hold of popular imagination as “the” single LGBT issue. How did it get to be this way? When I was 17 and first getting politicized around opposing the Iraq war, I know that my dreams of social justice were bigger, more colorful, and far more wide-reaching than a single cause like gay marriage. Now as a queer and transgender person and someone working to end prisons, it’s heart-breaking to me to see how far away from my deepest values the gay rights movement has traveled. Luckily, there are increasingly visible examples of queer/trans activists and organizations that are working to oppose all forms of oppression, to reject the prison-industrial complex and the military-industrial complex, and to create livable, healthy communities for all.
The very first piece in Captive Genders succinctly lays out the fundamental differences between mainstream LGBT politics and radical queer/trans justice struggles. In “Building an Abolitionist Trans and Queer Movement With Everything We’ve Got,” Morgan Bassichis, Alexander Lee, and Dean Spade present a chart outlining the current LGBT political landscape that I think is absolutely essential in understanding the limitations of mainstream gay politics (see the chart here: h). The chart has three sections: “big problems” faced by queer/trans people, “official solutions” to those problems from a gay rights standpoint; and “transformative approaches” being used by radical queer/trans organizations.