Fugitive Flesh: Gender Self-Determination, Queer Abolition, and Trans Resistance, by Eric A. Stanley
We always felt that the police were the real enemy. —Sylvia Rivera
Bright lights shattered the dark anonymity of the dance floor. The flicker warned of the danger of the coming raid. Well experienced, people stopped dancing, changed clothing, removed or applied makeup, and got ready. The police entered, began examining everyone’s IDs, and lined up the trans/gender-non-conforming folks to be “checked” by an officer in the restroom to ensure that they were wearing the legally mandated three pieces of “gender appropriate clothing.” Simultaneously the cops started roughing up people, dragging them out front to the awaiting paddy wag- on. In other words, it was a regular June night out on the town for trans and queer folks in 1969 New York City.
As the legend goes, that night the cops did not receive their payoff or they wanted to remind the patrons of their precarious existence. In the shadows of New York nightlife, the Stonewall Inn, like most other “gay bars,” was owned and run by the mafia, which tended to have the connections within local government and the vice squad to know who to bribe in order to keep the bar raids at a minimum and the cash flowing. As the first few captured queers were forced into the paddy wagon, people hanging around outside the bar began throwing pocket change at the arresting officers; then the bottles started flying and then the bricks. With the majority of the patrons now outside the bar, a crowd of angry trans/queer folks had gathered and forced the police to retreat back into the Stonewall. As their collective fury grew, a few people uprooted a parking meter and used it as a battering ram in hopes of knocking down the bar’s door and escalating the physical confrontation with the cops. A tactical team was called to rescue the vice squad now barricaded inside the Stonewall. They eventually arrived, and the street battle raged for two more nights. In a blast of radical collectivity, trans/gender-non-conforming folks, queers of color, butches, drag queens, hair-fairies, homeless street youth, sex workers, and others took up arms and fought back against the generations of oppression that they were forced to survive.1
Forty years later, on a similarly muggy June night in 2009, history repeated itself. At the Rainbow Lounge, a newly opened gay bar in Fort Worth, Texas, the police staged a raid, verbally harassing patrons, calling them “faggots” and beating a number of customers. One patron was slammed against the floor, sending him to the hospital with brain injuries, while seven others were arrested. These instances of brutal force and the administrative surveillance that trans and queer folks face today are not significantly less prevalent nor less traumatic than those experienced by the Stonewall rioters of 1969, however the ways this violence is currently understood is quite different. While community vigils and public forums were held in the wake of the Rainbow Lounge raid, the immediate response was not to fight back, nor has there been much attempt to understand the raid in the broader context of the systematic violence trans and queer people face under the relentless force of the prison industrial complex (PIC). 2
Captive Genders is in part an attempt to think about the historical and political ideologies that continually naturalize the abusive force of the police with such power as to make them appear ordinary. This is not to argue that the types of resistance present at the Stonewall riots were commonplace during that time, nor to suggest that trans and queer folks do not fight back today; nonetheless one of our aims is to chart the multiple ways that trans and queer folks are subjugated by the police, along with the multiple ways that we have and that we continue to resist in the face of these overwhelming structures.3
I start with the Stonewall riot not because it was the first, most important, or last instance of radical refusal of the police state. Indeed, the riots at San Francisco’s Compton’s Cafeteria in 1966 and at Los Angeles’s Cooper’s Doughnuts in 1959 remind us that the history of resistance is as long as the history of oppression. However, what is unique about the Stonewall uprising is that, within the United States context, it is made to symbolize the “birth of the gay rights movement.” Furthermore, dominant lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) political organizations like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) attempt to build an arc of progress starting with the oppression of the Stonewall moment and ending in the current time of “equality” evidenced by campaigns for gay marriage, hate crimes legislation, and gays in the military. Captive Genders works to undo this narrative of progress, assimilation, and police cooperation by building an analysis that highlights the historical and contemporary antagonisms between trans/queer folks and the police state.4
This collection argues that prison abolition must be one of the centers of trans and queer liberation struggles. Starting with abolition we open questions often disappeared by both mainstream LGBT and anti- prison movements. Among these many silences are the radical trans/queer arguments against the proliferation of hate crimes enhancements. Main- stream LGBT organizations, in collaboration with the state, have been working hard to make us believe that hate crimes enhancements are a necessary and useful way to make trans and queer people safer. Hate crimes enhancements are used to add time to a person’s sentence if the offense is deemed to target a group of people. However, hate crimes enhancements ignore the roots of harm, do not act as deterrents, and reproduce the force of the PIC, which produces more, not less harm. Not surprisingly, in October 2009, when President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law, extending existing hate crimes enhancements to include “gender and sexuality,” there was no mention by the LGBT mainstream of the historical and contemporary ways that the legal system itself works to deaden trans and queer lives. As antidote, this collection works to understand how gender, sexuality, race, ability, class, nationality, and other markers of difference are constricted, often to the point of liquidation, in the name of a normative carceral state.
Among the most volatile points of contact between state violence and one’s body is the domain of gender. An understanding of these connections has produced much important activism and research that explores how non-trans women are uniquely harmed through disproportionate prison sentences, sexual assault while in custody, and nonexistent medical care, coupled with other forms of violence. This work was and continues to be a necessary intervention in the ways that prison studies and activism have historically imagined the prisoner as always male and have until recently rarely attended to the ways that gendered difference produces carceral differences. Similarly, queer studies and political organizing, along with the growing body of work that might be called trans studies—while attending to the work of gender, sexuality, and more recently to race and nationality—has (with important exceptions) had little to say about the force of imprisonment or about trans/queer prisoners. Productively, we see this as both an absence and an opening for those of us working in trans/queer studies to attend—in a way that centers the experiences of those most directly impacted—to the ways that the prison must emerge as one of the major sites of trans/queer scholarship and political organizing.5
In moments of frustration, excitement, isolation, and solidarity, Captive Genders grew out of this friction as a rogue text, a necessarily unstable collection of voices, stories, analysis, and plans for action. What these pieces all have in common is that they suggest that gender, ability, and sexuality as written through race, class, and nationality must figure into any and all accounts of incarceration, even when they seem to be nonexistent. Indeed, the oftentimes ghosted ways that gender and heteronormativity function most forcefully are in their presumed absence. In collaboration and sometimes in contestation, this project offers vital ways of understanding not only the specific experience of trans and queer prisoners, but also more broadly the ways that regimes of normative sexuality and gender are organizing structures of the prison industrial complex. To be clear, Captive Genders is not offered as a definitive collection. Our hope is that it will work as a space where conversations and connections can multiply with the aim of making abolition flourish.
Gender seems to always escape the confines of the language that we use to capture it. This makes for a difficult place of departure for a book that is about, among other things, gender. For sure, some firmly identify as one or more particular genders while others have a more shifting relation via their racialized bodies, gendered desires, physical presentations, and the words available to comprehend these intersections. Neither a solidly fixed understanding of oneself nor a more fluid idea of gender is necessarily more radically deconstructive than the other. Trans/gender-non-conforming folks are not the answer to the “riddle” of gender, nor are they immune to the assimilationist longing embodied by other marginalized people. To this end, a gendered identity (or any other identity) imagined outside the context of the political offers very little. Here, then, we attempt to always understand gender and sexuality within the space of the political to build beyond generality. Furthermore, one’s gender identification and sexual identification are always formed in a series of thick relations to each other. While we acknowledge that gender identity is not co-terminus with sexuality, these connections must be carefully attended to, as they cut through class, race, ability, and nationality, as well as time.6
Captive Genders offers no comprehensive theory of gender or sexuality that would be useful as an abstracted description. Nor does it assume that it represents the lived experiences of particular people beyond its authors. We do, however, highlight a number of tendencies that can and sometimes must become abstracted. For example, we know that trans people are disproportionately incarcerated in relation to non-trans people. Yet we also know that some, perhaps many, trans/queer people, as a result of experiencing relentless violence, are in favor of incarceration and believe in its claims of safety. In many ways this book lives among these contradictions as it works to move conversations toward abolition and away from a belief that prisons will ever make us safer.
As a theoretical and embodied practice, gender self-determination is one of the politics that holds this project together. Echoed through the dreams of other liberation movements’ understandings of identity and power, gender self-determination at its most basic suggests that we collectively work to create the most space for people to express whatever genders they choose at any given moment. It also understands that these expressions might change and that this change does not delegitimate previous or future identifications. Gender self-determination also acknowledges that gender identification is always formed in relation to other forms of power and thus the words we use to identify others and ourselves are culturally, generationally, and geographically situated. In other words, terms that are more common now, like “transgender,” are relatively new to our vocabularies and are not inclusive of all of our embodied experiences. Gender self-determination believes that there are multiple ways to work one’s gender and sexuality—and while they might have material differences, they must not be hierarchized in the name of realness.7
In the recent past, the term prison industrial complex has been offered to begin to name the enormity of the prison system. Indeed, “the prison,” or the material buildings that comprise prisons and jails are only one component of the PIC. Immigration centers, juvenile justice facilities, county jails, military jails, holding rooms, court rooms, sheriff’s offices, psychiatric institutes, along with other spaces build the vastness of the PIC’s architecture. Along with these more recognizable spaces, understanding the PIC as a set of relations makes visible the connections among capitalism, globalization, and corporations. From prison labor, privatized prisons, prison guard unions, food suppliers, telephone companies, commissary suppliers, uniform producers, and beyond, the carceral landscape over- whelms. Other than the facilities themselves and the economic and geo- political connections, the PIC also helps us to think about the practices of surveillance, policing, screening, profiling, and other technologies to partition people and produce “populations” that often occur far beyond the walls of the prison.8
This book suggests that anti-trans/queer violence and the reproduction of gender normativity are important ways in which PIC logics proliferate, dangerously unnamed. Gender normativity, understood as a series of cultural, political, legal, and religious assumptions that attempt to di- vide our bodies into two categories (men/women), is both a product of and a producer of the PIC. In this we mean to suggest that we must pay attention to the ways that the PIC harms trans/gender-non-conforming and queer people and also to how the PIC produces the gender binary and heteronormativity itself. We also acknowledge that trans/queer folks, especially those of color and/or low income, experience overwhelming amounts of personal violence that must be attended to. Here we are not attempting to discredit the severity of this personal violence, but we are suggesting that relying on the PIC as a remedy actually produces more harm and offers little. What, then, might a world look like in which harm is met with healing and support, rather than the displacement and re- violation produced by the PIC?9
Trans/gender-non-conforming and queer people, along with many others, are born into webs of surveillance. The gendering scan of other children at an early age (“Are you a boy or a girl?”) places many in the panopticon long before they enter a prison. For those who do trespass the gender binary or heteronormativity, physical violence, isolation, detention, or parental disappointment become some of the first punishments. As has been well documented, many trans and queer youth are routinely harassed at school and kicked out of home at young ages, while others leave in hopes of escaping the mental and physical violence that they experience at schools and in their houses.
Many trans/queer youth learn how to survive in a hostile world. Of- ten the informal economy becomes the only option for them to make money. Selling drugs, sex work, shoplifting, and scamming are among the few avenues that might ensure they have something to eat and a place to sleep at night. Routinely turned away from shelters because of their gender presentation, abused in residential living situations or foster care, and even harassed in “gay neighborhoods” (as they are assumed to drive down property values or scare off business), they are reminded that they are alone. Habitually picked up for truancy, loitering, or soliciting, many trans/queer people spend their youth shuttling between the anonymity of the streets and the hyper-surveillance of the juvenile justice system. With case managers too overloaded to care, or too transphobic to want to care, they slip through the holes left by others. Picked up—locked up—placed in a home—escape—survive—picked up again. The cycle builds a cage, and the hope for anything else disappears with the crushing reality that their identities form the parameters of possibility.10
With few options and aging-out of what little resources there are for “youth,” many trans/queer adults are in no better a situation. Employers routinely don’t hire “queeny” gay men, trans women who “cannot pass,” butches who seem “too hard,” or anyone else who is read to be “bad for business.” Along with the barriers to employment, most jobs that are open to folks who have been homeless or incarcerated are minimum-wage and thus provide little more than continuing poverty and fleeting stability. Back to where they began—on the streets, hustling to make it, now older—they are often given even longer sentences.
While this cycle of poverty and incarceration speaks to more current experiences, the discursive drives building their motors are nothing new. Inheriting a long history of being made suspect, trans/queer people, via the medicalization of trans identities and homosexuality, have been and continue to be institutionalized, forcibly medicated, sterilized, operated on, shocked, and made into objects of study and experimentation. Simi- larly, the historical illegality of gender trespassing and of queerness have taught many trans/queer folks that their lives will be intimately bound with the legal system. More recently, the HIV/AIDS pandemic has turned the surveillance technologies inward. One’s blood and RNA replication became another site of susceptibility that continues to imprison people through charges of bio-terrorism, under AIDS-phobic laws.
Living through these forms of domination are also moments of devas- tating resistance where people working together are building joy, tear- ing down the walls of normative culture, and opening space for a more beautiful, more lively, safer place for all. Captive Genders remembers these radical histories and movements as evidence that our legacies are fiercely imaginative and that our collective abilities can, and have, offered free- dom even in the most destitute of times.11
In the face of the overwhelming violence of the PIC, abolition—and specifically a trans/queer abolition—is one example of this vital defiance. An abolitionist politic does not believe that the prison system is “broken” and in need of reform; indeed, it is, according to its own logic, working quite well. Abolition necessarily moves us away from attempting to “fix” the PIC and helps us imagine an entirely different world—one that is not built upon the historical and contemporary legacies of the racial and gendered brutality that maintain the power of the PIC. What this means is that abolition is not a response to the belief that the PIC is so horrible that reform would not be enough. Although we do believe that the PIC is horrible and that reform is not enough, abolition radically restages our conversations and our ways of living and understanding as to undo our reliance on the PIC and its cultural logics. For us, abolition is not simply a reaction to the PIC but a political commitment that makes the PIC impossible. To this end, the time of abolition is both yet to come and al- ready here. In other words, while we hold on to abolition as a politics for doing anti-PIC work, we also acknowledge there are countless ways that abolition has been and continues to be here now. As a project dedicated to radical deconstruction, abolition must also include at its center a reworking of gender and sexuality that displaces both heterosexuality and gender normativity as measures of worth.12
The Stonewall uprising itself must be remembered and celebrated as a moment of a radical trans/queer abolitionist politic that built, in those three nights, the materiality of this vision. As both a dream of the future and a practice of history, we strategize for a world without the multiple ways that our bodies, genders, and sexualities are disciplined. Captive Genders is also a telling of a rich history of trans/queer struggle against the PIC, still in the making. This is an invitation to remember these radical legacies of abolition and to continue the struggle to make this dream of the future, lived today.
This piece has benefited from the critical attention of Angela Y. Davis, Toshio Meronek, and Adam Reed. I am also indebted to The Institute for Anarchist Studies who provided support for the completion of this introduction.
Eric A. Stanley is a postdoctoral fellow in the departments of Communication and Critical Gender Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Along with Chris Vargas, Eric directed the films Homotopia (2006) and Criminal Queers(2013). A coeditor of the anthology Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex (AK Press, 2011) which won the Prevention for a Safe Society award and was recently named a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, Eric’s other writing can be found in the journals Social Text, American Quarterly, and Women and Performance as well as in numerous collections.
The second edition of Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex is available from AK Press: http://www.akpress.org/captivegenders2.html
- For a conical history of Stonewall, see Martin B. Duberman, Stonewall (New York: Plume, 1994).
- For more on the raid, see “Man Injured During Rainbow Lounge Raid in Fort Worth Speaks Out,” The Dallas Morning News. Accessed January 8, 2011: http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/latestnews/stories/070709d nmetrainbow.13a0e378.html Also, during the Stonewall uprising, many gays and lesbians disagreed with the rioters. The Mattachine Society of New York put up a sign that read, “We homosexuals pled with our people to please help maintain peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the village.” Thus, I am not suggesting that during the riots all LGBT people understood the relationship between police repression and queer resistance. However, it seems important to chart how radical resis- tance gets rewritten under the name of a more conservative political agenda.
- Captive Genders focuses mostly on the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. A more transnational reading would offer important insights not always present here.
- For more on the argument that Stonewall began the “gay rights” movement in the United States, see David Eisenbach, Gay Power: An American Revolution (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2006). The consumer-driven, anti-political festival of modern Gay Pride celebra- tions still occurs during the last weekend in June in commemoration of the Stonewall uprising. For more critiques of Gay Pride, see the work of the activist collective Gay Shame.
- For a useful reading of gender (as understood by non-trans women) in rela- tion to punishment, see Adrian Howe, Punish and Critique: Towards a Feminist Analysis of Penality (London: Routledge, 1994). It is also important to highlight that women, trans, and queer people (spe- cifically of color) have done much, if not most, of the anti-PIC organizing in the United States. For more on the Compton’s Cafeteria riots, see Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria [DVD], dir. Victor Silverman and Susan Stryker (San Francisco: Frameline, 2010).
- In this introduction, I use “trans” as an umbrella term to signal a wide range of gender non-conformity. I also often use “trans/queer” as a way to mark the connections between gender and sexuality and how they are often conflated via the PIC.
- Furthermore, if someone identifies as a “transvestite,” “tranny,” “queer,” or any other identity that is sometimes considered to be derogatory, an ethic of gender self-determination would make space for that identity as equally valid.
- See Eve Goldberg and Linda Evans, The Prison Industrial Complex and the Global Economy (Montreal: Kersplebedeb, 2003); Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003); Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: Uni- versity of California Press, 2007). Also, for more on the relationship between globalization and imprisonment, see Julia Chinyere Oparah, Global Lockdown: Race, Gender, and the Prison-Industrial Complex (New York: Routledge, 2005).
- Figuring out responses to anti-trans/queer violence that do not reproduce harm needs much more critical attention. Community accountability models are one example, however, when the person that caused harm is “random” it becomes much more difficult to imagine alternatives.
- This is not to suggest that working in the informal economy is less moral than working in more traditional jobs. Indeed, at times it is actually safer and more beneficial to remain in these jobs. I also do not want to suggest that sex workers, in every instance, have no other choice. Under capitalism, most have little choice in regard to their working conditions. However, I do want to mark the ways that this labor makes one more vulnerable to the PIC. The case of the New Jersey 4 (NJ4) is another shattering example of the ways that race, class, gender, and sexuality make contact through the crushing force of the PIC. The NJ4 is a group of young, Black, queer/gender-non-con- forming people from Newark, NJ, that were hanging out on a summer night in New York’s West Village. As they were walking down the street, a man stand- ing on the corner met them with sexual advances. The situation escalated as the NJ4 repeatedly refused his verbal harassment. He began shouting louder, flicked a cigarette toward one of them, and threatened to “fuck them straight.” A fight broke out and a number of the NJ4 were physically attacked and the man was wounded but fully recovered. Not surprisingly, all four of the women were found guilty and were subsequently sentenced to between three and a half and eleven years in prison. As gender-non-conforming Black queers, their offense was survival, and they were punished harshly for it.
- For more on alternatives to imprisonment, see Instead of Prisons: A Handbook for Abolitionists (Oakland, Calif.: Critical Resistance, 2005) and Abolition Now!: Ten Years of Strategy and Struggle against the Prison Industrial Complex (Oakland, Calif.: AK Press, 2008).
- My many conversations with Angela Y. Davis continue to help me clarify the point that abolition is not imagined as only in response to the horrors of the PIC.