In her Oct. 12, 2001 keynote address to the Sexin’ Change: Reclaiming Our Genders and Our Bodies conference in Toronto, trans scholar and activist Viviane Namaste argued that “It would be interesting and productive to come back in ten years to take stock of transsexual/transgender politics and organizing.” In that ten year span, Namaste hoped to see transsexual and transgender (TS/TG) politics focused on decriminalizing prostitution, making alliances with “prostitutes, housing activists, prisoners’ rights advocates, and the homeless,” and hoped above all for “transgendered activists [to] have finished with identity.” That is, she hoped TS/TG activists would begin to focus on the lived reality of TS/TG people, rather than remain fixated on the question of how or why an individual decides to live as members of the opposite sex. Ten years on, how far have TS/TG politics come to fulfilling such a hope? What connections have been made both conceptually and organizationally? Have TS/TG activists finished with identity, or have concerns regarding identity been recast in a more productive way?
Enter Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, published in late Sept. 2011 by AK Press. Given its publication date, it marks almost exactly ten years since Namaste’s talk, rendering it a significant document in the trajectory of TS/TG politics and organizing. In this book, editors Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith bring together a collection of essays from trans and queer academics, activists, and prisoners that interrogate the complex intersection of race, gender, sexuality, ability, and the prison industrial complex. Stanley notes in his introduction that, despite the fact that trans people are disproportionately incarcerated compared to non-trans people, many trans people, as a result of experiencing “relentless violence,” tend to be in favour of incarceration generally and believe in the prison system’s claims of safety. Stanley suggests that the “book lives among these contradictions as it works to move conversations toward abolition and away from a belief that prisons will ever make us safer.”
For Stanley, Captive Genders taken together amounts to an argument “that prison abolition must be one of the centers of trans and queer liberation struggles.” While he cautions that the book is by no means the definitive text on the subject of trans people and the prison-industrial complex, people new to this type of activism would do well to start here.
The topics covered in the collection are diverse, ranging from critical essays on the Toronto Bathhouse Raids, HIV/AIDS activism, health care, and prisoners of colour, to more personal reflections on being gender non-conforming both in and outside of the prison-industrial complex.
The first chapter, ‘Building an Abolitionist Trans and Queer Movement with Everything We’ve Got,’ provides a crucial reflection on queer/trans methodology that sets the stage for the rest of the texts that follow. It outlines contemporary debates within queer and trans activism, maps out the histories and legacies of queer and trans social movements, and provides a useful chart that details some central challenges with both the mainstream LGBT solutions and the more radical or ‘transformative’ solutions. Written by Morgan Bassichis, Alexander Lee, and Dean Spade, this chapter includes four lessons for TS/TG activism. I want to briefly focus on two, which I hope will give some indication as to why I think Captive Genders marks a significant development in terms of TS/TG political strategy.
The four lessons Bassichis et al. enumerate have to do with how a critical TS/TG movement engages with the issue of prison abolition, and they are (in order): (1) We refuse to create ‘deserving’ vs. ‘undeserving’ victims; (2) We support strategies that weaken oppressive institutions, not strengthen them; (3) We must transform exploitative dynamics in our work; and (4) We see ending trans imprisonment as part of the larger struggle for transformation.
In the first lesson, the authors take up Viviane Namaste’s suggestion about being finished with identity, but go one step further. If we are to build a critical TS/TG movement, if we are to look at the lived reality of TS/TG people and “work in coalition with prostitutes, housing activists, prisoners’ rights advocates, and the homeless,” what will that mean for how we orient ourselves as a movement? According to Bassichis et al., “Instead of saying that transgender people are the ‘most’ oppressed in prisons, we can talk about the different forms of violence that people impacted by the prison industrial complex face.” Rejecting the emphasis on identity means rejecting a ‘deserving’ vs ‘undeserving’ prisoner mentality, as this “only undermines the power of a shared resistance strategy that sees imprisonment as a violent, dangerous tactic for everybody it touches.”
They stress in their second lesson the importance of responding to the “crises that our communities are facing right now while refusing long-term compromises that will strengthen the very institutions that are hurting us.” They stress this lesson in order to avoid the same old debate that comes up again and again in activist circles. Namely, the choice between reform and revolution (and here I thought Rosa Luxemburg had cleared that up for us back in 1898); between working inside the system, and working to overthrow the system. For Bassichis et al, one has to be engaging in both approaches simultaneously if one wants to build a movement that will be effective in the long term. This double-pronged approach is crucial because it avoids becoming implicated in the call being made by some queer and trans activists for “trans-specific prisons, jails, and detention centers.” For, as the authors note, “if they build it, they will fill it.”
In other words, the approach put forward in Captive Genders is not a choice between overthrowing the prison-industrial complex or resignation, but rather an ongoing commitment to weakening it by building solidarity between all of those affected by it. In a significant passage from the chapter, the authors write: “Struggling against trans imprisonment is one of many key places to radicalize queer and trans politics, expand anti-prison politics, and join in a larger movement for racial, economic, gender, and social justice to end all forms of militarization, criminalization, and warfare.”
The type of activism that we see resulting from a book like Captive Genders is one dedicated to bringing people together in coalitions, for while the starting point of TS/TG activists may be with trans people and the specific oppression that they face, Captive Genders encourages us to see that the most effective way forward is to look to all those who face oppression by those very same systems and to work toward common goals. Eric Stanley and Nat Smith have put together in Captive Genders a superb collection that is as timely as it is insightful, and I would recommend it to seasoned activists as well as to people new to queer and trans politics.