For some time now, the LGBTQ community has been involved in various internal disputes and conversations about its relationship to law and order. With Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 and the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, it's easy to assume - and many do - that queers as a group are no longer criminalized and, in fact, receive a measure of protection under the law that could not have been envisioned even, say, 30 years ago. Gay marriage is now legal in five states and DADT has been repealed; both facts encourage LGBTS to assume that they have come far in their quest for "full equality."
But are queers free from criminalization? That depends on whom you count as queers. As a searing new book, Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States puts it so well, "The specter of criminality moves ceaselessly through the lives of LGBT people in the United States."
The criminalization of HIV-positive people is increasing and, shockingly, gay commentators like John Aravosis encourage this by calling for their hanging.
In Chicago, where I live, the opening of the Center on Halsted (the gay center) in 2004 brought to light the always detectable racism and phobia against poor people and people of colour that have been common knowledge in the Lakeview/Boystown area. When queer youth of colour from the south and west sides of the city began to converge upon the Center in the hope of finding community and resources, businesses began to complain of "gang activity" and of youth "loitering" in the area and driving away clients.
In 2008, Duanna Johnson, a Memphis Black transgender woman was picked up by police despite no evidence of solicitation. At the police station, she refused to answer to an officer who called her a "she-he." She was beaten so hard that her skull split open. Johnson filed a suit against the police but, before the matter could go to trial, was found shot execution style under mysterious circumstances.
In 1999, Bernina Mata, a Latina lesbian in Illinois, was sentenced to the death penalty in a case where Assistant State's Attorney Troy Owen declared that she had "a motive to commit this crime in that she is a hard core lesbian ... ."
Co-written by long-time activists Joey Mogul, Andrea Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock, Queer (In)Justice details cases like these and many others where queers lacking the economic wherewithal or the support of the mainstream gay community have been targeted and brutalised by the criminal legal system. These are the queers "we" would rather not know about as we continue in the quest for the only kind of "equality" that straight allies and mainstream gays think is worth pursuing, the sort that pushes a neoliberal agenda of the intense privatisation of rights in the form of marriage. We are also encouraged to think that a hate crimes law that does nothing to address the systemic problems with violence but assures specific groups that they are, indeed, more worthy of protection is somehow a corrective to years of injustice.
In the process, we're encouraged to portray ourselves as exemplary and law-abiding citizens or, as law professor Ruthann Robinson puts it, "LGBT rights" presume that "distance from criminality is a necessary condition of equality." The book shows that, in fact, queers - the wrong kind of queers - are continually targeted by the criminal legal system and that this targeting is not merely accidental or due to a "few bad apples" among law enforcement but part of a larger, systemic issue for which conventional law and order is not the answer but the problem.
Queer (In)Justice is especially relevant for the readers of this blog and elsewhere, in both the real and virtual worlds, because of the recent and continuing interest in the notion of international solidarity around "gay" issues. All too often, such talk of gay/LGBTQ solidarity devolves into criticism of "babaric" Islamic or African or Asian countries too ready to kill gays for simply being gay. We cannot deny that the oppression of gays and queers exists everywhere, and that LGBTQs are indeed frequently the target of virulent homophobia in many places.
But the fact is that queers are routinely targeted and discriminated against in the U.S legal system precisely because they are or are identified as queer and when their queerness intersects with factors of poverty, race, and class that leave them even more vulnerable. As in the case of Bernina Mata (whose sentence was later commuted to life after Illinois's moratorium on the death penalty) and many others, we are perceived as the embodiments of the criminal queer archetypes that this book details so well: "homicidal lesbian man hater," "gleeful gay killer," "sexual degraded predators," and so on. The mainstream gay community successfully maintains the fictions that queers don't exist in the criminal legal system or that those who do are simply aberrations. Queer (In)Justice reveals the truth behind such fictions.
I recently reviewed the book for Windy City Times, and you can read the full review, including a couple of my cautionary notes on the book, here.