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Pride and Criminalized Queers

By Kay Whitlock

MoonlightHere’s a thought I keep coming back to during this tradition month of Pride celebrations (and protests by some LGBTQ folks against the growing corporate influence and welcoming of strong police presence in  Pride celebrations.)

It’s not my thought alone. Any number of people—activists, organizers, scholars—have, over many years, voiced something similar.

Let’s center criminalized transgender, gender nonconforming, and queer folks in the moral, cultural, and political imaginations and agendas of movements for LGBTQ liberation. Especially criminalized queer communities of color.

Not just as a diversity “add-on.” Not just as an “issue” (i.e., “Stop police and prison brutality against queers”), although the reality of state-sanctioned violence and the raced-, gendered-, classed-, and disability-based nature of policing profoundly affects queer communities. And not just in heroic but often distanced symbolic terms, retrieved briefly from storage in mothballs (i.e., “Remember Stonewall!”). And not just as momentary tragic, camp, or salacious cultural catharsis on film, stage, and television (i.e., Caged, Bent, Women in Cages, Orange is the New Black, Swoon, Kiss of the Spider Woman).

I’m serious. And I’m talking about seriously criminalized LGBTQ peoples and communities: Black, Latinx, Indigenous peoples. Women of colorTransgender and gender nonconforming people. Muslims. Immigrants of color. People with HIV and AIDS (even those who are not gay are often framed and treated as gay). Poor and homeless queers. People with disabilities. Communities who live at the dynamic crossroads of multiple forms of white supremacy and economic violence. These include vigilante violence, the violence of policing and prisons, the violent enforcement of national borders and the boundaries of citizenship; intrusive surveillance and aggression directed against anyone deemed a threat to national security; and the formal and informal policing and enforcement of the abusive, patriarchal boundaries of gender, sexuality, parenting, and reproduction (often under the guise of religious liberty).

Let’s do it, because if we don’t, liberation is impossible.

In 1997, in an essay entitled “Convictions: Theorizing Lesbians and Criminal Justice,” legal scholar Ruthann Robson pointed out that as LGBT organizing became more institutionalized and mainstream, its justice vision embraced the tacit understanding that “distance from criminality is a necessary condition of equality.” For the most part, that remains true, but the ground has been shifting.

In 2011, in Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States, Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and I wrote:

The choice to pursue strategies that rely on increased policing and punishment to produce safety for queers requires a leap of faith that the system can and will be able to distinguish between the “good” or reputable gay, lesbian, or transgender victim and the “bad,” presumptively criminalized queers. Such faith is deeply misplaced…Fortunately, that is far from the only choice. Over the past decade, there has been a groundswell of local grassroots organizing efforts centering the experiences of queer people of color, transgender people, queer  youth, LGBT immigrants, and other members of our communities who continue to be criminalized…Recognizing the ongoing role of the state as a primary perpetrator of violence in the lives of many LGBT people, they prioritize both individual and systemic challenges to the criminal legal system, as well as the development of alternative, community-based responses to violence.

In the Trump era, with its increasing law enforcement repression, enthusiasm for military adventures, evisceration of basic social supports, and endorsement of corporate looting of public coffers, the stakes couldn’t be higher. What we fail to place at the heart of our justice imaginations will forever be absent from analyses, strategic and tactical choices, and organizing approaches. Agendas for action will go forward predicated upon a stunted and restrictive vision of humanity and human worthiness. None of this is unique to the Trump era, but repression, already severe, is intensifying. And some sectors of the alt-right have, as the Southern Poverty Law Center notes, been courting members of LGBT communities. Mainstream LGBT organizations are not going to be swayed by this. But to the extent they, and all of us, fail to stand with the most criminalized members of our communities—and to challenge all political and cultural processes of criminalization—no liberation is possible. It certainly won’t be delivered by corporations—huge banks, liquor companies, and arms manufacturers—or police cars bedecked with rainbow imagery.

Cramped imaginations, disguised as “universal,” (read generic and white) cannot carry us into a more just future. An authentic politics of liberation can neither be partitioned nor universalized in ways that ignore specific forms of structural violence, including white supremacy and the incessant upward redistribution of wealth and resources.

How, for example, could we possibly partition the life of Chiron in the 2016 feature film Moonlight, or the lives of Juan, Teresa, Kevin, and Chiron’s mother along the lines of race, class, gender, sexuality? There is no single element here that tells us all we need to know about the complexity of Chiron’s life, and the world in which he struggles for survival, meaning, and love. All of this matters. To comprehend that struggle, we have to pay close attention to the specific structural factors, including the routine criminalization of Black communities, that help shape it. The film, which won the Academy Award for best picture, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, is based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In the Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue. “We could have easily shot this film almost like a documentary,” McCraney says. “‘Oh, look at these poor, black, queer-identifying, not-identifying, we-don’t-really-know people from this removed place.’ Even in the camerawork he [director Barry Jenkins] could have just sat back and done wide shots and been like, ‘Look at their lives.’ Instead, he put that camera right in their face. He put the camera right in their eyes. He put the camera right in their point of view. He shows you the world as they’re looking at it, as they’re spinning, as they’re trying to hold on to things.”

Imagine bringing such a sensibility and boldness of vision to movements for LGBTQ justice. To do so, we must openly embrace criminalized queer communities without trying to sort people into “innocent” and “guilty.” We must craft analyses and agendas that communicate in clear, tangible ways that no one is disposable.

And that requires centering the experiences and leadership of these communities. It requires a vision of justice not rooted in systems of policing, prosecution, and punishment. That would be different. And it is long overdue.

If we move in this direction, with heart and determination—and I suggest that we must—I promise you that the ensuing Pride celebrations will be ones for the ages.


About the Author 

Kay Whitlock is a writer and activist who has been involved with racial, gender, queer, and economic justice movements since 1968. She is coauthor of Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics with Michael Bronski, the award-winning Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States with Joey L. Mogul and Andrea J. Ritchie, and cofounder and contributing editor for the weekly Criminal Injustice series at CriticalMassProgress.com. She lives in Missoula, Montana. Follow her on Twitter at @KayJWhitlock.