In celebration of the August release of Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, I asked two of the authors about their contributions to the collection and their current political work. Yasmin Nair is a Chicago-based writer, academic, and activist who has, for the last many years, worked in radical queer and immigration organizing. Ralowe T. Ampu currently lives in a residents hotel in San Francisco, works with Gay Shame and has worked with ACT UP and around the New Jersey 4 case.
Eric Stanley: It’s now the 42nd anniversary of the Stonewall uprising and it seems for many trans and queer folks, specifically those marginalized by mainstream LGBT politics, little has changed in terms of police harassment, imprisonment and the ways the prison industrial complex destroys trans and queer possibilities. Obviously corporate gay pride celebrations are not the answer, so how do you two think we should situate Stonewall and its commemoration within the present?
Yasmin Nair: Well, for starters, I’d like us to think beyond and outside Stonewall. While clearly an important and historic event, pretending that this was the sole and singular event that somehow caused a radical uprising that then changed queer history for ever erases the fact that such moments of protest were going on before Stonewall, in the 1966 Compton’s riot in San Francisco, for example, or in Chicago, at the raid on The Trip, a gay bar, in 1968.
That being said, the commemoration of Stonewall or any queer uprising presents us with additional problems: on the one hand, mainstream gays and lesbians and straights continually erase the reality that such moments were largely initiated by trans people, hustlers, drag queens, very, very angry queens and queers – precisely the sort of misbehaving misfits they’d like to pretend don’t exist.
On the other hand, as the rest of us work to reinstate the central figures of Stonewall and other events and remind the world that Stonewall was not a Human Rights Campaign fundraiser, I’m also concerned about our unquestioned assumption that simply recovering these “forgotten heroes” is in itself a radical act. Yes, that resistance to authority was deeply important, but what were its long-term effects? And how did that resistance eventually become an anti-capitalist, anti-PIC movement as well? Well, we know that it did not, and what I see over and over again is a kind of recovery, which takes the form of “Stonewall was a riot,” or “Let’s not forget the drag queens,” but nothing beyond a fetishistic reclaiming of sexual identity as some kind of originary marker of radical politics. I’m impressed by any movement that challenges the status quo, but I also need to be clear on what that challenge represents and against whom.
Forty-two years later, we still see queers and straights being targeted for “sex crimes,” we still see the PIC growing in its capacity to profit from the incarceration of the economically and politically vulnerable, and there are now cases where people are being put in jail for debt, a resurrection of the long-ago debtors’ prisons. A lot of queers, especially the ones who don’t conform and can’t get jobs with health care and benefits, end up penniless; a lot of the drag queens and hustlers who participated in riots ended up bereft. I’m not interested in recovering any of them as lost heroes/heroines; I want to see more of a discussion about how they weren’t just screwed over by people who couldn’t stand their sexual identity, but by capitalism.
Frankly, I’m suffering from hero fatigue, and I’m tired of Pride parades which, even when they resist corporate takeovers, never go beyond some vaguely sexualized idea of a “radical” celebration that does nothing to really think through the neoliberal nightmare we live in.
I think Pride ought to become an occasion for queers to begin staging their own Prides, without corporate sponsorship, but with an awareness of the complications of economic and race issues. Currently, in Chicago, for instance, we have an alternative Dyke March, but it became, over the course of a decade, a predominantly white and middle-class event. Even after it moved locations (first to the predominantly Latin@ west side, then to the largely African-American South Shore) there’s a great deal of talk about alternative politics, but not very much conscious conversation about what it means to, essentially, stage Dyke March in these communities and not very much explicit engagement with people, including queers, who live there. Instead, one day a year, we “take over the streets,” and then disappear. I’ve been to the alternative Dyke three out of the four years so far, and I can see its value as a kind of annual resting space/networking tool for queers with alternative politics, but I wish we would drop the pretense that moving the location is more than just marching in a different place.
I’d also like to see a month-long series of radical events and actions that question the queer fealty to the prison industrial complex and to capitalism while critiquing our collective obsession with identity as some marker of freedom. Over the years, I’ve seen queers increasingly support the systems that incarcerate the most vulnerable and marginalized amongst us, in the shape of hate crimes legislation or by turning a blind eye upon the blatant targeting of queers who engage in public sex, for instance. I’d like to see more of an explicit conversation about how the prison industrial complex not only targets queers but actually requires their support to help further its expansion. And, yes, I’d like us to think about that in terms of capitalism and its deployment of the rhetoric of rights, which we embrace too readily. You’ll note that I don’t simply bracket off gays and lesbians as the problem; I think that too many self-identified “radical” queers buy into the idea that somehow simply claiming queerness as an identity is in and of itself a radical act.
Ralowe Ampu: Within the last few years whenever I’ve overheard “respectable,” “clean,” “decent” folks in the Left talk about remembering riots like Compton’s Cafeteria or Stonewall it’s always been with suspicion. Last time I checked, riots don’t exist in the realm of respectability. My initial response is that the only ethical way to remember Stonewall is with another riot. There’s an interesting idea. That idea relies on a political memory that uses convenient rhythms that can renew and imbue non-profit fiscal cycles with relevance. Such a notion would also play well with the sub-cultural frat-boy circuit that fetishizes and glamorizes such authentic moments of insurgency to further their own ableist agendas. I’m not sure why I’m attempting to conceal my resentment here. For the two milieus I’ve just described it’d be infinitely more useful for us all if they simply remained mum on our riots in their rhetoric, for the sake of maintaining consistency throughout their institutional practice. Wouldn’t that make more sense? Until their institutions have been over-turned and revised? To attempt anything else would be to deny that these riots were moments of the powerless seriously asserting themselves in a hopeless situation. Yasmin rightly assesses the assimilationist machinations of the gay mainstream–these riots can’t be reduced to the theme of a fundraiser nor any other opportunistic distortions. Leading from there into campaigns about gay marriage and the military is in the very least ideologically incongruous and, if you would forgive me, outright profane. Nevertheless, these are the times that we find ourselves in.
Those of us that are disenfranchised by the gay mainstream don’t have the ability to represent Stonewall as a battle against police power because the gay mainstream reproduces their hegemonic narratives. You and I could throw together a flier and wheatpaste it or something, but shy of this riot of the disenfranchised (if that), it won’t receive international mass media coverage. This “anniversary” deserves nothing less. As time marches on, we should be thinking deeper and more thoroughly about the implications that this riot presented to the status quo. It’s precisely what this “anniversary” deserves. So I think that those of us that are marginalized can continue to think about interventions. What would it look like? It’s critical to recuperate our powerlessness and dream of intervention because it’s the best way to commemorate Stonewall without speciously memorializing it as a sign of progress.
Eric Stanley: You both, in different ways, call for an expanded understanding of the PIC to include spaces and ideologies not traditionally understood as such. For example: Yasmin, in your piece, “How to Make Prisons Disappear: Queer Immigrants, the Shackles of Love, and the Invisibility of the Prison Industrial Complex,” you call on us to understand the ways the “good immigrant vs. the bad immigrant” binary is maintained is in part a product of the PIC. In other words, while you do want us to pay attention to detention centers, you ask us to consider the entire discourse more broadly. Can you tell us more about that?
Yasmin Nair: Yes, those sorts of binaries are crucial to the discursive strengthening of the PIC. The best example of that has come about in my city, Chicago, where DREAM Act activists, predominantly undocumented youth who would benefit from the legislation, have used the rhetoric of “coming out” as an explicit form of “queering” the movement. A significant number of them, perhaps even the near majority, are in fact queer, and the discourse of “coming out” allows them to form a kind of solidarity with the gay movement. But it also allows them to emphasize that they are, like the mainstream gays whose support they seek, the “good” undocumented: the high school valedictorians, the ones who go on to universities like the University of Illinois or the University of Chicago and are working towards degrees in Law, the ones who will be “productive” citizens.
But there are many countless numbers of youth, queer or not, who have simply not been able to access the same advantages because they and their parents never “made it” – or who may not want to “make it,” for any number of reasons, including a deep suspicion of the state and its supposed munificence, or because they don’t care for the military component of the DREAM Act. Many of these youth recognize that they, like the majority of undocumented youth, are likely to have to take the military option and have no desire to support the US military regime in their countries of origin and/or around the globe. And these are the youth most susceptible to the PIC, because they offer nothing to the state in return, might be resistant its seductions via the PIC and the military, and lack the economic and cultural capital that is being accessed by the “good” ones. Immigrant’s rights groups are not going to fight the deportations of “slacker” undocumented youth or those who are openly critical of the military component.
In the meantime, in the public eye, such a combined discourse – of good gays and good undocumented youth – allows for a continued perception that only the good ones deserve “rights” – the right to health care through marriage, the right to demand that the PIC incarcerate more people, the right to immigration as long as normative requirements of citizenship are adhered to. In Chicago, what has been most disappointing to me is that an influential if putatively left/progressive bloc of the city has cleaved mightily to this same discourse of “good immigrant vs. bad immigrant,” without even, at the very least, acknowledging that it is problematic and deeply harmful to far more in the long run or that such a discourse legitimizes the extension of the PIC. This is why a critique of discourse is so necessary.
As someone who wants to see actual change come about, I’m not unaware of the compromises we are sometimes required to make, but it’s one thing to compromise and quite another to willfully erase the contradictions with which we find ourselves confronted. The DREAM Acters may well help get the legislation passed, and as someone with several friends who might benefit, I’d be happy to see that happen. But what do we then do about the youth left behind, the ones coerced into military service or the ones who, like, well, so many native-born teens, aren’t able to prove their exemplary status? At no time in history have those who won their “rights” ever then turned around and worked with or for the ones left behind – the reality of political success demands that you move on and forget the rest.
Eric Stanley: Ralowe, in your piece “Hotel Hell” you situate the SRO hotel you live in as a manifestation of the PIC, what do you think is unique about SROs that we should understand them in this way?
Ralowe Ampu: In my experience in San Francisco, SROs are specifically about containing and policing the bodies of poor people. The evidence of this is in how hotel operators respond to an assumption of a “criminal class.” It’s this property-owner culture that leads directly into fortifying points-of-sale in bulletproof glass. This culture of rationalizations can arise independently of an actual incident. The fact is that me and my neighbors have to constantly negotiate fortified enclosures and it settles into a routine. These architectural features are physical manifestations of the authoritarian power structure, and what I witness everyday are people indoctrinated into resigning from political agency.
These deep psychological costs are all always legitimized by hotel operator discourses on wanting to prevent “freeloaders” (multiple people in one room) and other activities associated with the underground economy. For example, in my hotel I can only have 10 overnight visitors a month, which works to control our sexual activity, at least in theory. All my visitors also have to show “proper” identification and are filmed on camera before they can be let through the metal cage. Most of my neighbors who live in my hotel are in-between some other form of institutionalization (mental institutions, prisons, immigration detention centers). All of us are subjected to the hotel operator’s material anxieties toward the “criminal class.”
I think it’s important to have this larger understanding of the PIC because spaces like my hotel are not often talked about, or organized in solidarity with, when people are doing anti-pic work. The PIC does not stop at the prison walls, so our organizing cannot either.
Eric Stanley: Finally, I know you have both been active in many collectives and groups. You, Yasmin, with Gender JUST in Chicago, and Ralowe with Gay Shame in San Francisco. How are you or your groups already working to support a trans/queer abolitionist politic?
Yasmin Nair: In Gender JUST (Justice United for Societal Transformation), our work is embedded in a deep awareness of how the PIC affects our lives. One of our campaigns is focused on Boystown (Lakeview, the historically gay epicenter of the city) and the Center on Halsted (the gay and lesbian center, although it coyly avoids calling itself such), and calls for an end to the hyped-up police surveillance of queer youth of color. In our work on schools and anti-bullying initiatives, we have been very clear, much to the chagrin of some local gay groups, that we don’t support anti-bullying legislation which simply makes it easier for schools to “fix” the problem by sending those identified as “bullies” into the correctional system or the PIC; we advocate instead for the principles of restorative justice in Chicago Public Schools. We have consistently spoken out against the militarization of CPS, which is the most militarized school district in the country. We were amongst the very few groups which did not support a proposal for a queer high school because we knew that it would do nothing to alleviate the very real issues of violence facing queer youth across CPS and would further bolster an increasingly privatized system. We simply don’t see queerness as existing separately from factors like poverty and economic inequality.
While ours is a significantly “queer” group, we resist the mainstream gay and lesbian agenda of insulating sexuality from capitalism and the violence of the prison industrial complex. And we have consistently been against hate crimes legislation.
Ralowe Ampu: Well, we have worked on the campaign to free the NJ4. We were a group of people organizing outside the non-profit industrial complex, mostly people from Gay Shame, LAGAI-Queer Insurrection, APOC (Anarchist People Of Color) and other non-affiliated folks. We worked to help free them and build a larger queer and trans abolitionist conversation. We put out zines; raised money for their commissary; wheat pasted; organized a demo in NYC; and had a workshop at [Critical Resistance’s 10th anniversary conference] CR 10.
More specifically, Gay Shame has worked for many years to combat the rapid gentrification of the Polk, one of SF’s last remaining working class trans/queer neighborhoods. We have also given the Golden Gate Peace Officers Association (the gay cop group) a Gay Shame Award, highlighting the hypocrisy of them protecting and serving the same systems that require the destruction of our bodies to underwrite the status quo.
Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, edited by Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith, will be released on August 15, 2011 from AK Press. http://akpress.org/2011/items/captivegenders