Notes and review on Captive Genders

Some notes and a review of the book Captive Genders: Transembodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex by a First of May Anarchist Alliance member from Detroit.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 21, 2015

Members of the Detroit branch of First of May Anarchist Alliance recently co-hosted a reading group for the book, Captive Genders: Transembodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex. We wanted to post the notes and review one of our members, Miriam, made and presented during that discussion.

Our book for discussion today, Captive Genders, [Stanley, Eric A. & Smith, Nat, Editors. Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex. AK Press, 2011] begins with a recounting of the Stonewall fight back. This highlights the fact that our theory must be rooted in action. It is responsible for helping us understand our actions and for pushing our action forward, as far as we can go. What I want out of this discussion is a deeper understanding of how we are confined by capitalist narrative, in terms of who we are, how we identify ourselves and our potential. We are limited by how the system magnifies its own power, so that we become afraid to challenge it. I want us to deepen our understanding of self defense as more than individual fight back; our movement is a form of self defense; the revolution itself is self defense. I want us to deepen our support and practice of self defense. I want us to promote self defense and defend those who practice it. I want us to develop networks so that we can move quickly and effectively. No one should have to fight alone, although many of us do, out of necessity. In this, as in many other situations, we cannot rely on other forces; we have to defend ourselves.

The people highlighted in our book, as well as the people coming into our movement, already practice self defense. It is in the nature of the attacks they face, that they have to fight for their own survival. One job of our movement is to help unify and coordinate this fight back, so that we grow stronger. We look to increase awareness, and to build a framework within which people can see themselves as part of the movement, as Vanguard (a San Francisco – based gay organization in the 1960s) did by placing ads in their newspaper requesting people to come forward with their stories of police harassment. (52) Mutual solidarity and defense, along with coalition building, are important facets of our movement.

Prisons include jails, detention centers, juvie, relocation camps, psychiatric institutions, along with all the boxes that imprison us without walls, especially the normative assumptions of the society that are used to ostracize and isolate those who do not fit in. These prisons are supported by a web of government, laws, legal systems and corporations that profit directly and indirectly off the prison industrial complex. They are rooted in class system, now capitalist system. The PIC naturalizes abuse and violence, making it appear ordinary. It also naturalizes the view that there is no alternative, so that people who desire safety default into supporting the police as protection, even as they themselves do not feel safe around the police. On p. 134, in Lal and Juan’s support for UAFA, they “echo support for measures that contradict the realities of their existence [which] only proves the power of the discursive frameworks within which such immigrants must operate.”
There are economic reasons that the family as a necessary social unit is promoted in this system: women do unpaid labor in maintaining the home, raising children and providing sexual service to their husbands. There is a veil of acceptance that allows for domestic abuse and violence, a reproduction of the hierarchy of authority, the passing on of religious and cultural values, all of which are necessary for a smooth functioning of capitalist system. The Trans/Queer challenge to this system is so deep that there is strong and immediate reaction: violent, intransigent, hostile.

Historically there are other ways of being that have queered society, challenged its assumptions. Heretics, non-believers, were burned at the stake in the 12th century. It is no accident that the wood used was called faggots. Independent women were called witches, also burned. In our time, Communists, anarchists, immigrants, the foreign born, African Americans, Muslims along with transgender people, gays, lesbians, those with alternate identities are all stereotyped, demonized, seen as dirty, or unclean, either expected to stay within a certain predetermined place in society or ostracized and kept from full public participation in society. Queer is, or can be, a political approach, that questions, disrupts and transforms dominant ideas about what is normal, (237) and who has a right to public space.

Because prisons depend on strict male-female division, the life and sanity of the transgender prisoner is at high risk. So how can our movement, dedicated to freedom for all, collectively create safe space for the voice and development of this section of our movement? One, break down the assumptions and prejudices within our movement: prisoner does not mean “Black male”, transgender does not mean “white fairy”. Also, we need to collectively create space for the voices of transgender prisoners, so that their needs and issues can be identified by themselves, to be addressed by our movement as a whole. By centering the most vulnerable sections of our movement, their issues become all our issues, we fight together with mutual solidarity, our struggle as a whole is greatly strengthened. People who stand outside the system have much experience in self defense; we seek to build on their momentum, to encourage political analysis and action, so that the lessons they have learned through their struggles can be shared and incorporated into our larger struggle.

The resistance that followed the Stonewall rebellion was part of a general resistance to late 20th century capitalist oppression. The Black Power movement, the movement for Women’s Liberation, Chicana/o liberation, American Indian Movement, Young Lords, anti-war and anti-draft movements, Students for a Democratic Society or SDS, the Gay and Lesbian Liberation movements all awakened communities to their potential for development and change, previously limited by a narrow capitalist vision. This strong awakened movement met strong resistance from the ruling class. Murder, assassinations, the bombing of neighborhoods, criminalization through imprisonment, torture, sabotage were all practiced, accompanied by media promotion of the dangers our movement posed to society as a whole.

Along with direct attack from the ruling class, the liberals in our movement derailed our most deep-reaching demands by focusing money and attention on demands that met the needs of a small section, and marginalized or attacked the rest of our movement. They corralled our movement into safe channels. Within the gay movement, demands for marriage equality, the right to fight in the military and demands for passage of hate crime legislation took precedence over demands to end police oppression, the right to employment and all social services, the right to self determination and the right to choose our own living situations, the right to public space. The demands of the liberals were accommodated by the capitalist state, and promoted as great victories. The needs of the majority of the trans/gay communities were swept under the rug. Most vulnerable are “excluded or marginalized from entire categories of political advocacy. Criminalization also works to eliminate certain people from the realm of legitimate politics.” (339) We work to undo the narrative of “progress under capitalism” by concentrating on the antagonism between trans/queer folk and the police. We understand that the state cannot allow trans/queer people to express themselves fully, as it cannot allow anyone to grow to full potential. They allow us freedom, as long as it is freedom to do what they allow.

Domination generates resistance. We do not believe in prison reform, or that the system is broken. It is working very well, to the detriment of queer/trans people, as well as the rest of the working class and oppressed, and all who step outside the bounds of normative behavior. The book says “imagine a different world.” (p. 8) We say the system must be overthrown. A revolution is necessary to break out of ruling class prisons, to destroy the web and connections of capitalists worldwide, the practices of surveillance, policing, screening, profiling and all the technologies used to control populations.

On p. 17, violence is cited as a problem, but the obvious (to me) approach is ignored, that of self defense. The book says join with movements and build community relationships. Good, but not enough. Our movement is a defense of our larger, inclusive self and should be fought for as such. We also support individual self defense and defend those who are attacked for defending themselves.

On p. 18, an unfair and punitive immigration system is cited as a problem. Their approach ignores the demand to open the borders!

On p. 18, the problem cited is vulnerability of families to legal separation and removal of children from homes. Our demands must include community help and support for abused children in families. Some children need to be separated from birth families and need support in working out a living arrangement.

On p. 20 the very important point is made that “we might characterize the past many decades as a time in which policies and ideas were promoted. . .to destroy the minimal safety nets set up for vulnerable people, dismantle the gains made by social movements and redistribute wealth and resources. . .away from the poor and toward the elite.”

On p. 23 another very important point, that of the systemic nature of oppression. Prison time does not come solely from an individual behavior or bad intention but from a web of institutions, policies and practices that make it normal and necessary to “warehouse, displace, discard or annihilate poor people and people of color.”

Stories of mass struggle are framed as heroic individual acts. Cite Rosa Parks. Charismatic leaders take credit so that activism by regular people is devalued. Cite Martin Luther King, Jr. Struggle is framed in ways that ignore base building and movement building activity.

The radical organizing that surged in late 20th century was undermined by 2 strategies: one, criminalization through prisons, assassination, media-promoted hysteria, etc. The other was the growth of the non profits, which turned movements away from valuing independent action and organizing. They “professionalize, chase philanthropic dollars, separate into “issue areas” and move toward social services and legal reform projects.” Both of these developments left significant sections of the left traumatized and decimated, the movement channeled into the system.

In centering our most vulnerable sections, the concerns of the few become the concerns of all. When we put those with the fewest resources and those facing multiple systems of oppression at the center of our organizing, we all benefit. Collectivity or how we work together is to be valued over individual, hierarchical leadership. Instead of looking for a “most oppressed” group, we can talk about different forms of violence faced by different groups. We can end the cycle of oppressed people being pitted against one another.

On p. 36, the book says “Abolition is not just about closing the doors to violent institutions, but also about building up and recovering institutions and practices and relationships that nurture wholeness, self-determination and transformation.” M-1 feels that we need revolution to be free. In our studies, when revolution did not go all the way, the backlash/state and fascist repression was so vicious and violent to leave our movement in worse shape than when it started. In fact, to go forward and not consciously prepare to go all the way through to revolutionary break-up of power away from the ruling class, is to leave our movement undefended and helpless against a sure reaction.

The different chapters that eloquently detail the depth of the oppression faced by trans/queer people as well as the vitality of their resistance is very inspiring reading; I can’t do it justice in this presentation. Each experience gives weight and provides a fuller picture of how we can move ahead with a stronger, more inclusive movement. We need to fight prejudice within our own movements and use the abilities and talents of each of us. We build our free society based on meeting the needs of all its members, collectively working for space for each of us to develop our full potentials.

For more information on Captive Genders see the website.

Originally posted: July 16, 2014 at First of May Anarchist Alliance