CLAGS News caught up with Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, & Kay Whitlock, co-authors of Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States, just published by Beacon Press as part of its Queer Ideas Series, after their May 7th lecture at CLAGS, and asked them to share insights from the book, directions for future research and advocacy, and resources for readers.
Queer Experiences of the Criminal Legal System.
Joey L. Mogul: It is critical to understand that current crisis of mass incarceration in the United States also impacts LGBTQ communities. LGBTQ people – largely of color and gender nonconforming – are among the astronomical numbers of people currently behind bars and under the control of the criminal legal system.
Andrea J. Ritchie: The criminalization of LGBTQ people, and the racialized policing and punishment of sexual and gender non-conformity more broadly, is far from over. It preceded the enactment of sodomy laws, and has continued alongside and beyond the enforcement of sodomy laws. It can be definitively traced to the arrival of the first colonizers on this continent and in fact, we argue, was instrumental to the colonization of the U.S., the imposition and maintenance of chattel slavery, and the exclusion of “undesirables” at the borders. It is not, by any means, about isolated targeting of LGBT people by the criminal legal system, but rather is an aspect of larger political, economic, and social conditions and processes driving mass incarceration in the U.S. It therefore cannot be considered or dealt with in isolation from these larger contexts. The policing and punishment of sexual and gender nonconformity is a critical tool in the policing and punishment of race and poverty, as well as an independent function of law enforcement. As such, it needs to be brought from the margins to the center of our discussions of policing, criminalization, and mass incarceration.
Kay Whitlock: Even as we approach legal equality for LGBT people in more sectors and jurisdictions, what we collectively describe as queer criminal archetypes – deeply entrenched narratives and perceptions of people who are or are framed as “queer”- continue to thrive. Until they are directly confronted, these mythic political/cultural constructs will continue to undermine and limit possibilities for liberation.
JLM: We describe these concepts as archetypes to convey that they are more than just superficial stereotypes. Rather, they are deeply imbedded and create indelible impressions that operate in both conscious and unconscious ways in our individual and collective imaginations. Thus, regardless of our own experiences, we all can fall prey to their persuasive power and weight.
In the book, we discuss prisons as queer spaces in several ways, one of which is the role they play as mythmaking institutions that perpetuate the racialized criminalization of queers. Prisons have “always served as a breeding ground for raced, gendered, and classed archetypal amalgam of criminality, disease, predation and out-of-control sexuality.” For instance, they are routinely used as trope in crime drama TV shows: during an interrogations, young suspects are compelled to confess by police officers who tell them that if they don’t comply with the law’s demands, they will be sent to prison where they will become someone’s “bitch.” While often left unsaid, the images conjured up in the popular imagination are often that of a Black lesbian or gay man preying on and turning out an un-consenting individual. This myth that is belied by the facts and lived experiences of LGBTQ people in prison – in fact, people who are or are perceived to be queer are more likely to be targeted and sexually assaulted by staff and prisoners.
Directions for Future Research and Organizing
AJR: Even as more privileged sectors of our communities have successfully resisted discriminatory enforcement of sodomy and “lewd conduct” laws and the kinds of routine bar raids which sparked widespread resistance in the past, law enforcement targeting of LGBT people – or of people perceived to be sexually or gender nonconforming – has not faded into the annals of history such that we can now move on and leave criminalization behind. Law enforcement targeting of LGBT people has intensified in many respects, while at the same time narrowing its focus more exclusively on more marginalized members of LGBT communities, including LGBT youth of color, LGBT immigrants, transgender and gender nonconforming people of color, and establishments frequented by LGBT communities of color. It is also taking place in contexts that no longer receive as much attention from the mainstream gay rights movement – like the policing of lewd conduct and other “quality of life” laws – as well as those that never have, such as the policing of prostitution. These are locations where efforts to secure LGBT rights and challenge abusive policing practices need to shine a light.
JLM: The criminal system and mass incarceration fail to truly deter crime and produce safety for LGBTQ people and others. Instead, the system is profoundly unfair, biased and serves to dehumanize all those processed through it; from the point of their arrest, to their treatment in the courts, and without question when locked behind bars. I hope Queer (In)Justice, along with other books like Michelle Alexander’s recently published book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, help us realize that the policies that drive mass incarceration have failed. These policies are also enormously costly, not only financially but more importantly, because they have deprived us of so many valuable lives and forsaken the enormous potential of too many human beings trapped in the system.
KW: As violence against queers has increasingly been framed as violence perpetrated by criminal “extremists,” bigoted individuals motivated by personal prejudice run amok, research and advocacy surrounding homophobic and transphobic violence has narrowed to focus on individual cases, individual victims, and punishment. A broader understanding and deeper concern about systemic violence against queers in all aspects of law enforcement have largely vanished as once-radical demands for structural change have given way to a desire for legal equality and social respectability. As a result, most LGBT organizations have embraced community safety strategies that place responsibility primarily in the hands of the very criminal legal system that is a major perpetrator of anti-LGBTQ violence.
LGBT leaders assure us that hate crime laws finally place the police on “our” side and show that society will no longer tolerate violence and hatred against us. But are we safer? Is the violence diminishing? No. Anti-queer violence – especially for people of color and transgender people – remains a depressingly consistent – though seriously underreported – feature of the political and social landscape . Annual reports from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs confirm this – note that much anti-LGBT abuse occurs at the hands of law enforcement personnel. Ultimately, measures supporting intensified policing and harsher punishments produce more rather than less violence and injustice for queers – particularly for queers of color (including immigrants and Indigenous peoples); queers who are poor, homeless, and low-income; and transgender and gender nonconforming people. When our movement fails to confront state violence we fail to address a major, perhaps the major, instigator of anti-queer violence.
We need to investigate, explore, and envision responses to homophobic and transphobic violence which place individual incidents within the broader contexts that inform them, and which actually produce increased safety rather than increased punishment.
You can read a chapter of Queer (In)Justice on policing of LGBT people here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/49120847/Queer-In-justice-The-Criminalization-of-LGBT-People-in-the-United-States-excerpt
You can also read an excerpt from Queer (In)Justice describing the sexual violence suffered by LGBTQ people published by Alternet: http://www.alternet.org/story/149873/queer_injustice%3A_the_widespread_sexual_abuse_lgbt_people_face_in_prison/
For a more in-depth interview with the authors of Queer (In)Justice, see the May 4, 2011 edition of Criminal Injustice Kos, a weekly blog series of Daily Kos here: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/05/04/971818/-Criminal-InJustice-Kos:-Queer-%28In%29Justice-~-An-Interview-with-the-Authors?via=user
Audre Lorde Project’s Safe OUTside the System Safe Neighborhood Campaign: http://alp.org/community/sos
FIERCE’s Copwatch Video:
Black and Pink’s website (supporting LGBT prisoners): http://www.blackandpink.org
Streetwise and Safe (SAS) Map of the Injustice System for LGBT Youth of Color: www.streetwiseandsafe.org
Sylvia Rivera Law Project’s report on the experiences of transgender people in New York City Prisons: http://srlp.org/resources/pubs/warinhere
TGIJP’s (Transgender Intersex Justice Project) video of the Communities Rising protest against prison expansion:http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=2hPX83Aex0k#at=13
“INCITE!’s organizers toolkit on law enforcement violence against women and trans people of color -incite-national.org/resources”
Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex , Nat Smith and Eric A. Stanley, eds. (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2011).
Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law, by Dean Spade. (New York: South End Press, 2011).
The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities, Ching-In Chen, Jai Dulani, and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, eds., preface by Andrea Smith (New York: South End Press, 2011).