Yasmin Nair

Criminal Queers on the Run: Bitch Magazine Interview with Eric Stanley and Chris Vargas

Filed By Yasmin Nair | August 04, 2010 9:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: gay marriage, hate crimes legislation, Prison Industrial Complex

I first met Eric Stanley and Chris Vargas when they came to Chicago for a viewing and panel discussion of their first film Homotopia. The event was packed to the gills and included one of the most thought-provoking public conversations about queer politics that I had been to until then. The film is a queer radical critique of the prison industrial complex and the mainstream gay movement. I recently interviewed Eric and Chris for Bitch, the well-known feminist magazine, about the sequel, Criminal Queers. Here's a brief description of Homotopia:

The 26-minute film had a simple plot but a substantive critique. Main character Yoshi hooks up with a cute stranger in a park bathroom for a hot sexual encounter, followed by a long conversation. Enamored of his new fling, Yoshi sets out to see him again, only to find the man sitting at a café table, making arrangements for his big gay wedding. Crushed at having been taken in by the very kind of gay man he despises and horrified at the thought of yet another moment of assimilationist politics taking shape, Yoshi and his friends plan a queer takeover of the impending nuptials, their conversations abounding with trenchant zingers. Walking down the streets of San Francisco, one friend wonders if gay marriage isn't sometimes justified: "What about people who get married for health benefits and stuff?" Another replies, "Why should only married people be allowed to live?"

More about Criminal Queers after the jump.

But events take a darker turn in the sequel, Criminal Queers, which takes a more somber look at the prison industrial complex. The renegades went on the run at the end of Homotopia, but only one of them, the gender non-conforming "Lucy Parsons," who is also a person of colour, has been captured and now sits in prison waiting for her trial to begin. Via an elaborate system of communications with the outside, Lucy shares her ruminations on the PIC with her friends, who are plotting her escape. As I write in Bitch, "Drawing upon the same visual repertoire as Homotopia, Criminal Queers is a mixture of satire and political critique, wrapped up in a classic prison-break narrative. The presence of perhaps the most famous prison abolitionist of our time, Angela Davis, lends weight to the film's rumination on the prison-industrial complex."

Davis appears as herself helping the queers make a run for it and the person to whom Yoshi turns for an examination of why abolition and not reform is the way to go: "...since I was in jail myself once, I do think it's important to fight for better conditions for people who happen to be on the inside. I can still remember the roaches I had to spit out when I was drinking black coffee.... The difference is: How do you think about reforms that are not going to create a better prison system that is even more entrenched in our social worlds? My answer is: Abolish the prison system."

The film also offers scathing indictments of the gay movement and its link to the PIC, as in the scenes of a city mayor named Gavin Noose (modeled on Gavin Newsom, lauded by mainstream gays for his support of gay marriage), who delivers jingoistic and yet deadly slogans in praise of the PIC: "Malcolm [X] said: 'The ballot or the bullet.' And who needs ballots or bullets when we can build more prisons?" That fact that Noose is played by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, the queer activist and author who has frequently taken critical positions on the PIC and the marriage movement, lends both irony and poignancy to the scene.

In Criminal Queers, gender is overtly constructed, with glam and drag costumes used for the burst out of prison. The critique of the PIC is interlaced with the sense that gender is what we make of it, real or constructed, but it also has material consequences for those who will not abide by the world's rules about it.

Lucy challenges the prosecuting attorney in court: "The question is not how do I defend myself but how do you, as an agent of the state, defend yourself? ... You continue to round up and imprison all of us who cannot live inside your ideas of what is 'normal.'...You continue to teach your sons that it is okay to shoot us dead when we make them Valentines or wear make up to school." Her passionate speech has little effect on the gay jury foreman who makes no bones to the rest of the jury about how he thinks the deliberations should go: "...no matter how much we might feel inclined to try to love him, he deliberately assaulted the institution of holy matrimony and that's a sin. Fortunately, it's also a crime." And then proceeds to serve ceviche, "just to make things go a little bit faster."

I talked to Chris and Eric about their work, the prison industrial complex, the relationship between queer radical film and feminism, and how they managed to shoot scenes inside an HRC shop. Here's an excerpt, which seems particularly relevant in light of the current hysteria around gay marriage:

Yasmin Nair: Criminal Queers makes deliberate connections between the mainstream gay movement and the expansion of the PIC.

Chris Vargas: We point out that Matt Foreman, the former executive director of the NGLTF, was for 10 years a prison administrator at Rikers Island--that serves as a great clue that these liberal gay agendas may be in direct opposition to the safety of the most vulnerable segment of our lgbt community, mainly poor people and people of color.

Eric Stanley: When we toured with Homotopia, people would ask us, "If gay marriage isn't the fight we should be fighting, what should we be doing?" Working toward the abolition of prisons seems to be a good start.

You can read the entire interview and watch a trailer of the film here.

If you're interested in booking Chris and Eric for a screening and discussion, you can contact them through their website. And why, yes, that is me on the poster.

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Chris Vargas: We point out that Matt Foreman, the former executive director of the NGLTF, was for 10 years a prison administrator at Rikers Island--that serves as a great clue that these liberal gay agendas may be in direct opposition to the safety of the most vulnerable segment of our lgbt community, mainly poor people and people of color.

Eric Stanley: When we toured with Homotopia, people would ask us, "If gay marriage isn't the fight we should be fighting, what should we be doing?" Working toward the abolition of prisons seems to be a good start.

And Senator Byrd was also a KKK member who reformed and became a civil rights advocate. If I remember correctly, wasn't it under Foreman's watch that the Task Force started their project to work on reforming the prison system especially where LGBT people were concerned?

And why is it always an either/or proposition. Can there be different priorities without having to completely ditch one dogma for another?


The interview, which I've linked to, addresses the issue of the PIC and the gay movement, and this point in particular. Reforming the PIC is not what abolitionists are after - as Davis points out (even as she talks about supporting reform in specific ways - and she should know). And as many queers have pointed out, the push for hate crimes legislation, which NGLTF has always supported, only fuels the growth of the PIC.

It's not about an either/or - it's about exposing the contradictions at the heart of the movement.

Has Angela Davis ever denied that she purchased the murder firearms used for killing California Superior Court Judge Harold Haley, and for taking others hostage in court ? http://www.discoverthenetworks.org/Articles/Angela%20Davis%20and%20Larry%20Cott.pdf

She has learned how to make lots of money from capitalism and preaching communism.

Eric Stanley's website says that he is studying for a PhD under Angela Davis. Isn't there an ethical issue there, with her appearing in his film?

Errata: Haley was killed in the gun battle that ensued between those using the weapons purchased by Davis, with police. I haven't found whose weapons actually killed Haley. Several others died also.

www.discoverthenetworks.com : A guide to the political left. Brought to you by none other than David Horowitz, of all people. I'm really not going to address anything posted on an extreme right-wing website.

As for ethical issues regarding Angela Davis's appearance in a student's film - a student who is writing about the PIC, making films about the PIC, and works with the world's most famous prison abolitionist, who agreed to be in his film - if you have the means to tell me what you think the ethical issue here is, let me know. Perhaps you're referring to the millions she stands to make as a result of her appearance, a la Julia Roberts? Or are you assuming that she will pass his work simply because she gained such stunning exposure by appearing in his film?

Eric and Chris make their films on a less than barebones budget, and can pay their cast ad crew nothing. However, they make a commitment to anyone who chips in in any capacity - whether as actors, camera-operators, whatever - to feed them on set. So, yes, perhaps Davis profited because she received a Ham on Rye and a Coke. Who knows, perhaps they splurged and got her a bottle of expensive Smart Water. If you can find the smoking gun, this will go down in history as the Great Sandwich Caper.

Angela Davis is a flamboyant personality with no credibility. Gay political types should have nothing to do with her. When did she move back from living in Cuba, her perfect society, with Castro's jails filled with real political prisoners while she was there? Has she ever complained about Castro's prison industrial complex? As a communist, did she ever speak against the Soviet Gulag or Soviet human rights abuses?

Why did she flee and hide in NY after the Marin County California courthouse hostage taking? Why was she supposedly buying guns to begin with? What about all her love letters to the male inmate she wanted to be free? Is she now really a lesbian as has been reported? If so, we really do not need her on our team. It sounds like jails are a good thing to deter people like Davis.

Honey, this can only be a joke, right? Clearly you have no idea what you are talking about, so I would recommend you stop talking and never let your opinion be known, again. Ever.

Matt Foreman | August 5, 2010 12:52 PM

Yasmin - Neither Chris nor Eric have any idea what I did in corrections or my views on the prison industrial system since they never bothered to ask. Comparing my involvement in corrections to Sen. Robert Byrd's KKK membership is beyond insulting.

I started work in corrections in West Virginia (not Rikers Island) in the late 70's, where I advised then Gov. Jay Rockefeller on pardon requests. That opened my eyes to the profound injustices inflicted by the criminal justice system on poor people. I realized that by working on the inside, I could have far greater impact than an outside activist.

I am proud of what I tried to do to make things better for detainees, inmates, work releasees, parolees and staff over 10 years - in West Virginia and New York.

Today, I am proud to be part of an effort to end the restriction on using federal dollars to provide services to incarcerated persons who are victims of sexual assault, as well as pushing other reform efforts targeting LGBT people caught in the system.

Matt Foreman


Please read the actual interview - neither Chris nor Eric compared your involvement in corrections to Byrd's KKK membership; that reference to Byrd was made above, in this comments section, by Bil and it was made in a way which, in fact, was favourable to you.

I'll let Chris and Eric tackle the issue of whether you worked in Rikers Island or not and will deal with that statement accordingly. But as for your work in and around the PIC, you don't provide details on what exactly your work might have been or is. As Davis points out, reform is absolutely necessary - but "pushing other reform efforts targeting LGBT people caught in the system" is much too vague. A lot of people think that hate crimes legislation is a push for justice, for instance, and they think of it as part of reform, and NGLTF supports HCL - but it's not, and only increases the scope of the PIC.

Some reforms, like segregating or creating different prisons for trans-identified people, only enable prison abuses to continue and avoid systemic change (not targeting trans-people for jail sentences, for instance, or dismantling a system that makes it okay to abuse them in prison).

Ah, and I knew I had seen this before, so I dug it up. It's from the website of your current employer, Matt:


"Prior to his work in the gay rights field, Matt was involved in prison policy and administration for ten years, including service as assistant commissioner of the West Virginia Department of Corrections, executive assistant to the New York City correction commissioner, and director of a medium/minimum-security facility on Rikers Island."

Would you care to explain why you'd state so explicitly: "I started work in corrections in West Virginia (not Rikers Island) in the late 70's, where I advised then Gov. Jay Rockefeller on pardon requests." Surely you're not stating that you didn't work there, are you?

Eric Stanley | August 5, 2010 4:39 PM


First off, it was not us that compared you to Byrd. However, we will continue to attempt to hold accountable any LGBT organization that so strongly supports the prison industrial complex. Sadly, the NGLTF is not alone in its law and order hysteria. However, in opposition to the HRC the NGLTF has positioned itself as the more "progressive" organization. I think this would be hard to argue, as the NGLTF is so invested in insuring more and more people end up locked in prisons.

It is true, we don't know what you did daily while working for 10 years as a prison employ. However, what we do know are your public statements and agenda which have never foregrounded the horror that is the prison system let along its abolition. This should have, and still must be on the top of the "LGBT"agenda if we are really invested in any kind of systemic social change. But let me guess, first lets get marriage rights, then repeal don't ask, then, maybe after the ice sculpture melts, the honeymoon pictures are developed, and the tour of duty in Afghanistan, we can work on prison abolition?

On a related note, we see you are sitting on top of a mountain of cash over right down the street at the Hass fund, we would be happy to take some off your hands to finish this film. email us and we can figure-out a payment schedule.