Transforming Society

Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex (AK Press, 2011), Nat Smith and Eric A. Stanley (eds.)

Even though it was over 30 years ago, I remember well the anxiety about entering the penal system: how would I fare in this harsh new world of repression, of regimentation, reputedly rife with violence? For me, for many of us, the saving grace was solidarity from other prisoners as those already established helped us learn to navigate these rocky shoals. But what if you’re someone who faces an extra dimension of hostility from the guards, with many prisoners joining staff in abusing you — not for anything you did but just for who you are? That’s the situation for many trans gender and queer prisoners. The isolation, disdain, and violence can be vicious and incessant. This isn’t just a problem for trans/queer (T/Q) prisoners; it’s an important issue for all of us. Every time we join the dominant powers in society in mistreating others, every time we miss a key dimension of how this anti-human system rules over us, we undermine our ability to resist and to work for strong and supportive communities that can provide the sane and humane alternative to the punitive and damaging prison industrial complex (PIC).

Now we have a wonderful new weapon both for deepening our understanding of the system and for building solidarity in Captive Genders, a collection of essays edited by Eric Stanley and Nat Smith.

This razor sharp, double-edged sword argues effectively both that prison abolition must be central to T/Q liberation struggles and that T/Q self-determination is essential to abolition. The PIC helps produce and physically enforces the gender binary, rigidly defined by birth genitalia rather than self-determination, while attacks on T/Q people divide prisoners and reinforce the repressive powers of the state. For both prison activists and T/Q advocates, all of us need to be “… firmly grounded in the interests, experiences, and agency of the most marginalized within our communities … ” (53). We need to be conscious, as Yasmin Nair reminds us in this volume, how racism, poverty, lack of health care, poor education and limited job prospects affect millions of us in this country.

In this book, “trans/queer ” (T/Q) is used as an umbrella term. “Trans” includes all those who express gender differently from the way it is traditionally assigned at birth — whether as transgender, transsexual, cross-dresser, androgynous, or any other challenge to the strict gender binary and stereotypes. “Queer” refers to people whose sexual desires, identities and practices don’t conform to heterosexual norms. The prison industrial complex, with emphasis on the “complex,” encompasses the political and economic forces of repression and control: prisons and jails, immigration holding centers, juvenile detention centers, “secure” psychiatric wards, prisoner of war camps, street policing, and the many means of state surveillance and harassment.

Captive Genders is emphatically not about liberal reforms such as passing “hate crimes” legislation. As Morgan Bassichis, Alexander Lee, and Dean Spade argue forcefully in their essay, such laws strengthen the repressive institutions while misidentifying the problem as a “few bad apples,” individual bigots. But instead, the problem is endemic to a system based on racism, patriarchy, state violence, and capitalism. And for T/Q people it’s not just a question of discrimination but more basically of their very life chances and life spans. T/Q people are more likely to be disowned by their families, kicked out of school, rejected for jobs, denied entry into gender-defined shelters or treatment centers, and unable to get appropriate medical care. These realities often force people into the underground economy, which piggybacks on police bias to make them highly vulnerable to harassment and arrest. And where the various oppressions intersect, people face situations. For example, transwomen of color are subjected to extremely high rates of assault, murder, and imprisonment.

Once inside, prison can become hell. Kim Love recounts how she was regularly raped by a deputy sheriff during her stay in county jail. Then, once in a California state men’s prison, a captain assigned her to be the “wife” of a gang leader, as correction officers (COs) provide such sexual access to keep influential prisoners placated. Needless to say, Kim had no say in this forced union, in reality three years of serial rapes, beatings, and abuse, which played out the worst values and practices of male supremacy. On the other hand, transmen in women’s facilities, as the interviews summarized by Lori Girshick explain, generally don’t have problems from women prisoners, but face all kinds of harassment from the COs.

Oppression takes a toll, including a tragically high suicide rate. But the T/Q prisoners who speak out in this book have strong survival skills, remarkable resilience and a sense of humanity that are impressive and inspiring. The spirit is aptly captured by this quote from Audre Lorde: “Within the war we are all waging with the forces of death, subtle and otherwise, conscious or not — I am not only a casualty, I am a warrior” (141). Captive Genders opens with the seminal Stonewall Rebellion of June 1969, when sexual and gender outsiders in New York rose up against police harassment and brutality, and the book ends with a Resource List of organizations that fight for T/Q people and against the PIC. Kim Love herself, now out of prison, is a dedicated activist in the Transgender, Gender Variant, Intersex Justice Project.

As several essays (e.g. S. Lamble’s) make clear, the path to T/Q self-determination is not the one advocated by some predominantly white and middle class LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) groups: assimilation into the mainstream. Instead the only direction for achieving fundamental change is to join with all of the oppressed — based on racism, elitism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism — to transform society. At the same time, T/Q liberation adds an essential dimension to prison abolition, not only in counteracting a division among prisoners but also in showing how the strict enforcement of the gender binary and stereotypes — the pressures for men to always be “macho” and for women to appear “weak” — limit everyone’s humanity.

Prison abolitionists aren’t just advocates for a narrow sector of the oppressed, prisoners. Even more, we are for safe, healthy, self-determining communities that have the resources needed to flourish. The criminal justice system works totally at cross-purposes to that vision. On one level the punitive approach promotes more harm and violence, while the costs of prison drain off public funds needed for positive programs. But the contradiction is even more fundamental. The war on crime and the mushrooming of incarceration — the U.S. prison population is now eight times what it was in 1973 — has been the spearhead for turning back the advances by the Black liberation movement and the many other struggles for social justice it helped inspire in the 1960s and early 1970s. The Julia Sudbury essay is particularly good at sketching the history of Black struggle, (and Stephen Dillon’s relates the heightening of repression to the imposition of brutal neoliberal economic policies throughout the world). That overwhelming counterattack is a central reason we are so limited today in having strong community organizations that can serve as examples of effective alternative solutions to crime. The answer to our weakness cannot be to strengthen the very forces that ravaged and undermined our communities. We need to do the very opposite: build strong movements and develop solidarity among the oppressed.

Some of the worst conditions prevail in immigration detention centers, where medical neglect has been scandalous. Victoria Arellano was a transwoman from Mexico who had a job and also volunteered at a drug and alcohol facility in Los Angeles. She was HIV+ but maintaining good health with her medications when she was arrested on minor charges and then sent to an immigration detention center in San Pedro in April, 2007. There, denied her AIDS medications, she developed a high fever and vomiting–but still did not receive the needed medical care. Her death after two months of detention, at the age of 23, is unconscionable.

There was another dimension in this tragic situation–the response of her fellow detainees. These men regularly bathed her face with wet washcloths to try to bring down her fever and at the same time assertively demanded the needed medical care. Reportedly at one point 80 detainees refused to line up for count and instead loudly chanted, “Hospital! Hospital! Hospital!” Let’s take heart from those men in San Pedro and work full-heartedly for unity among the oppressed, to end the PIC, and to instead develop safe, healthy, self-determining communities for all of us.

David Gilbert

David Gilbert is a political prisoner, author, and mentor. He is the author of No Surrender: Writings from an Anti-Imperialist Political Prisoner, a book of essays, and the new memoir Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond.  Readings from his new memoir by Gilbert, Sundiata Acoli, Mumia Abu-Jamal and others can be heard here.