Read a Book You Little Rugrat: Slingshot Reviews ‘Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison-Industrial Complex’

My favorite thing about edited anthologies is that I can never finish long books. Essays, I can do. My second-favorite thing is that readers usually get a wider range of perspectives and, in the best case, a variety of writing styles. Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) delivers both, offering theory, personal narrative, interviews, policy papers, legal analysis, and even a manifesto from writers representing a full spectrum of gender identities, with complex and varied relationships to the PIC and to the academy. These writers bring queer and trans struggles together with prison abolition movements in an unprecedented way. Even the cover is telling of the book’s radical commitments. The front image, a photo of burning cop cars from the 1979 White Night Riots (which began after Dan White was acquitted in the murder of gay SF Supervisor Harvey Milk) says a lot — Captive Genders isn’t a dry slog of politically disinvested theory, and that the book is as attuned to its genealogy as it is to radical programs for the future.

As for the long title, I get the impresson that Smith and Stanley chose their words carefully here. The book’s stated focus is on trans embodiment — not trans identity or trans people. On the one hand, ‘embodiment’ is an apt lens for examining gender in spaces where the body is heavily policed and disciplined, as Lori Girshick documents in her groundbreaking study of gendered dress code and behavior enforcement in women’s prisons (cleverly titled Out of Compliance). All prisoners at Central California Women’s Prison, for example, are forbidden to wear boxer shorts, regardless of gender identity. Julia C. Oparah covers similar ground in her essay Maroon Abolitionism, focusing on the intersection of race and gender enforcement in the penal system while linking this critique to the metaphorical cages that confine all of us. These approaches also help avoid some of the usual concerns with identity politics (who gets to count as trans, whose rights we’re fighting for, etc.). On the other hand, I was disappointed not to find any discussion of why the editors chose embodiment as their theoretical angle, especially since the term has a legacy in feminist theory going back at least to Simone de Beauvoir.

My favorite parts of the volume shed light on some lesser-known moments in queer and trans resistance. In “Street Power” and the Claiming of Public Space, Jennifer Worly tells the little-known history of Vanguard, a group that sprang up in San Francisco’s Tenderloin in the 1960s. Pulling together Vanguard flyers and newsletters, as well as some firsthand accounts from folks in the scene, Worly shows how Vanguard centered their work around young sex workers and other economic and social outcasts to fight privatization, homelessness, social isolation, and police brutality – unlike the assimilationist homophile movement that was already active in San Francisco in the 1960s. I enjoyed reading about Vanguard’s actions, like their symbolic ‘sweep’ of the Tenderloin that reappropriated the terms of gentrification and so-called ‘urban renewal,’ and the riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, a diner that had hired private security to harass young queens and hustlers. Though the Compton’s Cafeteria riot took place in 1966, it’s often overshadowed by the better known 1969 Stonewall uprising, so it’s nice to see it getting some attention here. Worly even makes this all relevant to the contemporary scene, in a neat critique of liberal sexual politics:

“Vanguard’s foregrounding of the queer youth or adolescent challenged…the very cliche often used to apeal to American ‘live and let live’ ideals: that the law should not interfere with what ‘two consenting adults do in the privacy of their own home.’ Vanguard’s street-sweep illustrates the woeful inadequacy of this cliché as an appeal for the rights of queer and trans youth, who might be consenting but are not adults, who in many cases had been expelled from the protections of ‘the home,’ and its aegis of privacy, and who, as street-based sex workers, depended for their very survival upon queer modes of accessing public – not private – spaces for specifically sexual purposes.”

The same could be said for the current obsession with marriage as the lodestar of gay liberation.

Nadia Guidotto adds another valuable contribution (Looking Back) to the less-told history of queer resistance in her account of the 1981 Toronto bathhouse raids and the riot that followed. The violent response to the raids, she argues, brought gay men together with women feminists, people of color involved in anti-police-brutality work, and others who were fighting against the state regulation of their bodies and sexuality. This kind of coalition building is as necessary today as it was then – especially for the project of prison abolition.

Two pieces that stand out, especially when read together, focus on queer immigration: glimpses of the production of normative queer subjects in the asylum process (How to Make Prisons Disappear) and HIV/AIDS-related abuses in Immigration and Customs Enforcement prisons (Regulatory Sites). Other highlights of the volume include a much-needed critique of sex offender registries (Awful Acts and the Trouble with Normal) and a lucid, almost surrealist personal essay (Hotel Hell) that meanders from the nitty-gritty regulation of life in a residential hotel to a heartfelt call for folks to consider how their tactics make their bodies vulnerable to the PIC.

If you asked me to find some weak points in the book, I might complain a bit about the seemingly excessive interpretive liberties Stephen Dillon takes in his account of imprisoned queer writing (The Only Freedom I Can See). Really though, my only complaint is that with such a wide variety of perspectives and styles, the collection ought to be organized a bit more linearly, and better curated, with something like an editor’s note at the beginning of each piece. I guess what I’m saying is I just want Eric Stanley and Nat Smith to hold my hand as I read their book – which I suppose is pretty queer.