It's hard in there for a queer. The relative number of LGBT people in prison is higher than that of straights, and queers behind bars experience abuse more widely than their straight counterparts. Eric Stanley and Nat Smith collected stories from prisoners, academics and activists for the new book Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex. Former political prisoner (and lesbian) Angela Davis says the book "traverses the complicated entanglements of surveillance, policing, imprisonment, and the production of gender normativity." Here's an excerpt from an interview I did with the editors for SF Weekly.
Why do you believe there are more LGBT people in prison, per capita, than heterosexual people?
Smith: Queer people, women-identified people, people of color, poor people, and immigrants are the majority of people who are in prison. We are all in prison because we are the people who are most policed, who in being kept poor, jobless, homeless, and imprisoned ensure the ruling of everyone else and the power of those in control. We are in prison because the LGBT movement is more interested in who can get married, not who is allowed to work, or what kind of work we are allowed to do. We are in prison because we are Other, and Other is not allowed participation, nor are we allowed to challenge the tenets of what participation forces us to do -- marriage, the military, policing each other, playing by the rules of the state.
What are some ways that prison life is tougher on queer and trans people than others?
Stanley: Prison is a materialization of degrees of "unfreedom," but for many trans and queer folks, they live this unfreedom as horrific expressions of daily violence from other prisoners as well as from guards and prison staff. A number of the authors in this book point to the use of solitary confinement, also called "ad seg," for "administrative segregation," as a means of disciplining gender and sexuality. If a trans woman refuses to cut her hair she is often placed in ad seg, which means she must spend 23 hours a day alone, in total isolation. Ad seg is also used as a form of "protection" for trans and queer prisoners. So, many folks are forced to choose between two unlivable situations.
Why do we hear so much about issues like "don't ask, don't tell" and same-sex marriage, yet so little about this issue?
Smith: Because it is an issue of mainstream belonging. These are issues of fighting for more state control, and they have, frankly, nothing to do with justice. We shouldn't need or want a piece of paper from the state to be able to love and be loved, to be able to get access to health care, or be allowed to stay in this nation. We shouldn't be asking to sit at the table -- we should be dismantling the table. Fighting for marriage, fighting to be in the military, fighting for hate-crime legislation to criminalize and imprison more people -- these are not solutions to the day-to-day issues we face of poverty, violence, or lack of respect as community members. These reforms actually work against us, strengthening this system rather than weakening it.
Stanley: The politics of neoliberal citizenship now have a terrorizing rainbow facade. Captive Genders is in part working to undo the power and centrality of mainstream LGBT politics by showing how many of these projects, like hate crime legislation, paradoxically work to harm trans and queer people while reproducing state violence.
Do you have any examples of queer people organizing against this system?
Stanley: Yes. In the book there are many examples of folks organizing historically and today. Jennifer Worley has a great piece on Vanguard, a group of queer and trans street youth that organized in the mid-1960s in the Tenderloin [see photo]. There is also a really powerful interview with Miss Major, a veteran of the Stonewall Riots who is currently the executive director of the Transgender, Gender Variant, Intersex Justice Project, which is based here in San Francisco. The project works on organizing with formally incarcerated trans women of color.
You can read the full interview at SF Weekly's site, and order Captive Genders via AK Press.