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.
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I never get all that excited about national elections, to be honest. I’ve worked on some specific issue campaigns related to abortion and gay marriage, but I tend to have difficulties with politics because my stances are significantly more radical than those of the available candidates. If I had to select a party, I would go with the socialists. I’m more interested in policy than in candidates, and so I’d like to use this post-election-day period as an opportunity to highlight the need for social action.
Politics has its uses. Government cooperation is necessary for many causes. But we can’t underestimate the power of social awareness for social change. A coworker and I were just talking about the election and she mentioned that she doesn’t actually know that many Republicans. I shared my theory that most Republicans our age probably come to the party based on economic issues, not social ones. Many Republicans I’ve known have softened their stance or even switched parties after becoming aware of the importance of social issues such as gay rights, feminism, etc.
Most young Republicans I know, particularly those who are not evangelical Christians, consider social issues secondary and take a relatively weak stance on those issues. I’ve known many young Republicans who weren’t active homophobes, pro-lifers, or anti-feminists, but simply didn’t consider these issues important in their own lives. A lot of these friends had never met a queer person before me, or a person who’s had an abortion, or had never really thought about feminist issues. Just talking about these things, or simply being aware of a friend or friends who are directly and substantially affected by these issues, led to a shift in these young people’s stances on social issues.
Remember this when you’re rallying for social change. Visibility is important. One-on-one conversations are very important. It’s easy to consider an issue secondary when it doesn’t directly affect you, or to view a minority group as “other” when you think you don’t know any members of that group, and only recognize the group based on televised portrayals. But a dinner table chat can break down barriers. In the periods between elections, we should concentrate on these conversations and how to bring activism down to a person-to-person level. Radical change starts at home.