Review: Captive Genders

I received a review copy of Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex (coming out this month from AK Press) at the perfect time.  I’ve been frustrated by the growing focus in recent months on two of the things I care least about when it comes to queer rights, the two things that the mainstream LGBT movement seems most adamant about: marriage and the military.  It’s impossible to get away from those two topics if you’re following LGBT news, but this book also turned my focus to another problem–that the most-covered “alternative” issues, those focused on individual rights, are still not the most important priority.  Employment and housing discrimination are important but they focus on the middle class.  Hate crimes are a problem, but the kneejerk response of hate crimes legislationtries to solve that problem by using the same harmful official system that terrorizes queer and trans people on a daily basis.

I would recommend this book to any activist, but especially to white, middle-class activists in the “LGBT movement.”  The pieces in this anthology encourage us to get away from the white, middle-class idea of “safety.”  Strong sentences for hate crimes don’t make us safer.  Nor do most of the priorities of LGBT rights organizations.  It is only from a privileged position that we can even believe that there might be a safe, mainstream, assimilated place to work and live.

Conservatives and moderates in the movement, and outside of it, want you to feel safe.  It’s another story of us versus them: it helps those who are disgusted by trans people of color, by poor queer youth, by public queer sexualities, to tug the most powerful and heavily funded segments of the LGBT population away into a zone of “safety” and assimilation.  Of course, many queer and trans people don’t have that luxury, and it’s foolish to think that any of us really do.  Queer and trans people in prison, juveniles in the child “welfare” system, immigrants, sex workers, the homeless, and other marginalized groups are often victims of a cruel and unusual system that targets minorities and encourages oppression.

The words “cruel and unusual” bring me to the second reason why this review is so timely.  Today, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court in finding that a law denying trans prisoners hormone treatment or sex reassignment surgery constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution.  This is an exciting victory, but it’s also not enough.

Cruel and unusual punishment goes beyond the specific case of denying medical treatment to prisoners with “severe” cases of Gender Identity Disorder (a term that, thankfully, is up for a change in the DSM-V).  The way the entire medical, legal, and government establishments medicalize, criminalize, and problematize queer and trans bodies is cruel and unusual.  This case is an important step as evidenced by the horrific stories in Captive Genders about trans people being denied hormones, surgery, and even HIV/AIDS treatment, but the opinion still problematizes trans bodies.  The medical model says that to qualify for surgery, one must demonstrate gender in a certain way.  There is little room for creativity or subjective experience.  A trans body under this model is something to feel pity over, the familiar narrative of being “trapped.”

Examples of problematizing queer and trans bodies abound in the anthology.  In family law, Wesley Ware describes how the child’s “best interest” turns into protection from gender variance and children in the system are subjected to “sexual-identity confusion counseling,” where queerness is seen as a “symptom” and queer and trans identities are “pathologized.”  This is particularly true for queer and trans youth of color, who were, in Audre Lorde’s words, “never meant to survive.”  In prison, Michelle C. Potts describes the use of blood as an excuse to segregate HIV-positive prisoners, with measures as extreme as not allowing openly gay prisoners (regardless of health status) to serve food.  Lori A. Saffin describes these insidious sorts of homophobia and transphobia as a form of spirit murder, which I found particularly apt.

One of my law school professors, Adrien Wing, taught the concept of spirit murder as a slow build-up of collective psychological and emotional pain over time.  Spirit murder and spirit injury  come up in the context of violence in or towards a community–for example, the overall effect of rape on black women.  They are so destructive because they prey not only on an individual but on an identity and even an entire culture.  An individual doesn’t have to experience direct harm to be a victim of spirit murder.  The collective harm of many, many physical assaults or assaults on identity instead contribute to the slow murder of a community’s collective soul.  This concept is easy to apply to queer and trans people, as over time many of us come to accept state harm and the idea that our bodies and identities are criminal, sick, or simply wrong.

This problematizing of queer and trans bodies is severe and all-encompassing.  Furthermore, the mainstream LGBT movement contributes to this problem by failing to recognize the structural nature of homophobic/transphobic oppression.  We need to ground queer activism in the experience of those most marginalized, as Jennifer Worley describes in the example of the Vanguard in 1970s San Francisco.  When we look at queer/trans issues as a class problem, we see how those at the bottom of the ladder are ignored, erased, or attacked while higher-up (mostly) gays and lesbians who assimilate are accepted in the mainstream culture.  Erica R. Meiners uses James Baldwin’s wording to describe this assimilation at the expense of others as “the price of the ticket.”  Those who want the benefits of mainstream culture have to accept its priorities, and often don’t notice the harms going on within the broader queer/trans community.

“Over the years,” Yasmin Nair explains, “especially beginning in the mid-1990s, the ‘gay rights movement’ has become a perfect replica of the neoliberal state.”  This trend is easy to see, as mainstream media images focus on how gays and lesbians are “just like you,” and those who don’t look “just like” those in charge are demonized–people of color, “promiscuous” bisexuals, gender-deviant trans and genderqueer people, immigrants, indigenous queers, people with disabilities, child-free and polyamorous individuals, etc.  Rather than focusing on how the prison-industrial complex harms pretty much everyone, it’s easy for some to imagine the PIC as doing its job of keeping the “undesirable” elements out and protecting, rather than attacking, queer communities.

The good news is that there are some solutions.  Captive Genders argues for abolition through a number of pieces, some authored by those who have been in prison themselves.  Other strategies include pen-pal programs to offer support to queer and trans prisoners and coalition-building with anti-racism and general anti-prison groups.  Reading about the way Canadian queers in the 1980s appropriated sexual spaces like the bathhouse to create a social space or a queer home, I began to think about how we might offer support through online forums.  We can also change the conversation through our blogging, writing, and community activism.  When we talk about “queer issues,” we can include prison abolition, racial justice, and other issues that have not typically been considered queer.  A personal, collective response seems to be the most apt way to address such an individualist, capitalist, impersonal problem.

About Avory

Avory Faucette is a queer feminist activist, writer, and public speaker. Zie graduated from the University of Iowa with a JD in 2009, focusing on international human rights and gender/sexuality issues in the law. Hir current work focuses on queer identity, policy, and marginalized identities under the queer umbrella. As a genderqueer person, zie comments frequently on non-binary identity, transgender and genderqueer issues, and media coverage of these populations. Zie also speaks at colleges, universities, and events on transgender and queer issues and conducts trainings on related topics.

Posted on August 6, 2011, in books, trans and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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