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Queer Liberation Means Prison Abolition

Victoria Law is a writer, photographer, and mother. She is the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles Of Incarcerated Women (PM Press, 2012) and co-editor of Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind: Concrete Ways to Support Families in Social Justice Movements and Communities (PM Press, 2012).

Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock, Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011), 240 pages, $27.95, hardcover.

In 1513, en route to Panama, Spanish conquistador Vasco Nunez de Balboa ordered forty Quaraca men to be ripped apart by his hunting dogs. Their offense? Being “dressed as women” and having sexual relations with each other. The homophobia and transphobia behind Balboa’s actions are far from arcane relics of the past, and violence against LGBTQ people continues to this day, both legally sanctioned and in the streets.

In 2008, Duanna Johnson, a black transgender woman, was arrested for a prostitution-related offense in Memphis. At the jail, she was brutally beaten by a police officer. Her beating was caught on videotape, leading to the firing of two officers. Johnson filed a civil suit against the police department but, less than six months later, was found shot in the head a few blocks from her house. This was the third killing of a black transgender woman in Memphis in 2008 alone, and her murder remains unsolved.

Queer (In)Justice examines the violence that LGBTQ people face regularly, from attacks on the street to institutionalized violence from police and prisons. The three authors are long-time advocates and attorneys who work directly with people impacted by incarceration. Joey L. Mogul, a partner at Chicago’s People’s Law Office and Director of the Civil Rights Clinic at DePaul University, has advocated for LGBTQ people ensnared in the criminal legal system. Andrea Ritchie is a police misconduct attorney, organizer, and coordinator of Streetwise and Safe, a New York City organization focused on gender, race, sexuality, and poverty-based policing and criminalization of LGBTQ youth of color. Kay Whitlock has worked for almost forty years to build bridges between LGBTQ struggles and movements fighting for racial, gender, economic, and environmental justice. Together, they center race, class, and gender/gender nonconformity in analyzing the myriad ways in which LGBTQ people have been policed, prosecuted, and punished from colonial times to the present day.

Criminalizing archetypes of LGBTQ people routinely inform policing, judgment, punishment, responses to violence against queers, and perceptions of queer people in general. These archetypes include: the perception of queers as mentally unstable, the assertion that LGBTQ are constantly trying to “lure” heterosexuals into gender transgression, and the misleading notion that violence is an inherent part of queers’ personality. According to these archetypes, serial killers John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Aileen Wuornos killed because they were gay. “Of course,” the authors say, “no such equivalence is suggested in the case of white heterosexual men who kill.” Thus, heterosexual murderers like Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgway are not seen as being driven by an innate, heterosexual murderous nature.

Race, class, and/or gender non-conformity are used by these archetypes to heighten fears, as demonstrated by the media frenzy against the New Jersey Four in 2006. Seven young black lesbians were accosted by Dwayne Buckle; when they refused his advances, he threatened to “fuck them straight,” choked them, ripped hair from their scalps, and spat on them. The women defended themselves and were assisted by two male onlookers. During the struggle, Buckle was stabbed. The women were arrested and charged with attempted murder by the police. That they were black, working class, and gender nonconforming made the women ideal targets for both the media and the prosecution who framed them as a “lesbian wolf pack.” Police refused to credit their statements, those of other witnesses, and ultimately the testimony of Buckle himself (who said that the two unknown men were the ones responsible for stabbing him). Three of the seven accepted plea bargains; the remaining four women received sentences ranging from three-and-a-half to eleven years in prison.

The policing and prison systems are, of course, not the only source of anti-gay violence. The authors note, “While the use of these archetypal narratives by the machinery of the state is often grotesque, their chronic, low-grade presence in daily conversation about crime, safety and justice for queer people is no less deadly.” For the New Jersey Four, what should have been a fun night out in the West Village became fraught with violence from both an individual stranger on the street as well as the police and prison system.

Queer (In)Justice acknowledges that deep-seated prejudices and fears of queer people cannot be dismantled via hate crime legislation. The authors say that “many of the individuals who engage in such violence are encouraged to do so by mainstream society through promotion of laws, practices, generally accepted prejudices, and religious views,” and they note that homophobic and transphobic violence generally increases during highly visible, right-wing political attacks. For example, in 2007, as the state’s attorney general was concluding a three-year campaign against domestic partnership, Michigan saw the largest increase (207%) in anti-LGBTQ violence reported to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (a national network of organizations that provide services to and advocate on behalf of queer people). Even hate-crime legislation, while allowing for enhanced criminal penalties, does nothing to dismantle the anti-gay politicking and preaching that encourages violence.

But even if queer people and communities recognize the policing and prison systems as perpetrators of violence, how can they keep safe? Noting that “there are no easy, one-size-fits-all answers to the question of how best to move forward—and no single vision of what change could ultimately look like,” the book offers examples of community organizing against homophobic- and transphobic-rooted violence that do not rely on further policing or punishment-based legislation.

In San Francisco, Community United Against Violence and the Bay Area Police Watch Project partnered to form TransAction. This group not only organizes against police abuse of trans people, but also builds an analysis of the policing of gender and sexual nonconformity among anti-police brutality activists who do not normally work around queer issues. They have also allied with communities of color struggling against race-based policing.

In Chicago’s Uptown, Queer to the Left (Q2L)—a multiracial, grassroots group of LGBTQ people—joined neighborhood groups campaigning against increasing police misconduct that accompanied the gentrification of the neighborhood. Highlighting and countering the systemic changes in zoning laws, lending patterns, and housing markets that force existing residents out, they advocate for building low-income housing in the area. They also challenge calls for intensified policing of youth of color in the area by the more affluent incoming residents, both queer and straight.

Queer (In)Justice is an important book both for LGBTQ people and their allies, as well as activists organizing against policing and prisons. It fills the gap in existing literature about how and why the police and prison systems repress LGBTQ people, particularly those further marginalized by race, class, and/or gender nonconformity. By tracing the history of how LGBTQ people have been criminalized and punished up to current-day policing and imprisonment policies, it also adds queer voices and experiences to the discussions and existing literature about policing and prisons. (Two more-recent books have further developed this: Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison-Industrial Complex, edited by Eric Stanley and Nat Smith; and Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law, by Dean Spade, founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project).

Recognizing the intersection between these two issues is crucial to moving both struggles forward. Queer (In)Justice is not only an educational text, but a call to arms. As the authors state in the introduction: “Ultimately, regardless of our intentions, all of us are accountable for the roles we play in reinforcing or dismantling the violence endemic to policing and punishment systems. This book is an invitation—not only to LGBT people but to all people concerned about social and economic justice—to accept that responsibility.”

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