Gender-Based Violence by Police and Prisons: A response to "Queer (In)justice"
Recently, my brother and I spoke on the phone. As usual, it became a back-and-forth about his job. He’s a police officer, and I’m not a fan of those in general, like as an institution, so I’m not exactly elated by his career choice. There’s always at least one thing he says during our conversations that makes me realize we use such different lenses when examining his work. This phone call, I was struck by his reminder that basically, even if he cares, it’s not his job to fix structural or societal problems, because police are “emergency responders.”
Queer (In)Justice does a wonderful job of demonstrating how my brother, and all other figures of law enforcement, do not simply respond to emergencies, but create them. It goes far beyond even that, of course, as the text explains police’s role in ‘creating’ laws, extended to them with the power of decision-making. Police, the authors claim, “are given considerable latitude in deciding which laws to enforce, how to enforce them, and which people to target for enforcement. And they often consciously and unconsciously exercise that broad discretion in ways that are anything but neutral. Far from being passive players just doing a job, law enforcement agents play a crucial role in manufacturing, acting on, and enforcing criminalizing archetypes” (48). Their enforcement of criminalizing archetypes is one way that they preserve harmful ideas about gender and sexuality. Because of this, I consider the essence of policing not to be First Respondents, but to be a big, violent Heteronormative[i] Maintenance Crew.
Gender and sexuality policing tends to look different now than it used to, but it still exists, and cops are still a major source of violence toward queer people and others who exhibit non-normative characteristics. The homophobia and transphobia of the u.s. criminal legal system can be observed by at least a few patterns: cops’ treatment of queers face-to-face, cops’ and other legal players’ discrimination toward queers in court processes, and the designation of prisons as criminal (always overt) and queer (not always as overt) spaces. The numerous examples and statistics in Queer Injustice helps expose these patterns.
When many people in the queer community do turn to police for help, there are patterns of both police failing to actually help, and/or making the situation worse. The authors report, “With appalling frequency, LGBT victims of violence are subjected to further homophobic or transphobic verbal or physical abuse at the hands of law enforcement authorities that are charged with protecting them” (120). For many in the LBGTQ community, police are known to respond to the emergencies of queer people with more violence, further enforcing the heteronormative notion that queerness is not human enough to qualify for defense and protection, and should be punished instead. In that same vein, the authors reveal how criminal archetypes of LGTBQ people affect not only interactions with police, but also shape entire court processes and decisions. They write, “the purposeful evocation of queer criminal archetypes reveals the State’s willingness to deprive litigants of a fair trial by deliberately discriminating against them on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation and gender orientation or identity” (91). This ‘evocation of queer criminal archetypes’ is practiced the whole way through the legal process, from who the police suspect, to where they focus their investigation (see April Mora’s story[ii]), to how they use evidence and assumptions of sexuality (see Miguel Castillo’s story[iii]), to using racist and sexist descriptions (see Wanda Jean Allen’s story[iv]), to how a jury is persuaded, even when it is a matter of life and death (see Jay Wesley Neill’s story[v])! It is truly heartbreaking, and honestly scary, to be aware of how sexuality is allowed to be used as a tool to oppress people and uphold social norms in a system claiming to uphold justice.
It isn’t just people this system marks as queer, but spaces, too. The authors describe the designation of prisons as queer spaces, writing, “prisons and jails have always served as a breeding ground for a raced, gendered, and classed archetypal amalgam of criminality, disease, predation, and out-of-control sexuality” (95). By labeling spaces of incarceration both criminal and queer, the so-called justice system and the public maintain assumptions of queer identities as inevitably criminal, or as more likely to be criminal than heteronormative identities. This is problematic, for sure. We in the queer community may want to quickly assert, “I am not a criminal! I am not hurting anyone!” I want to complicate this a little, because as critical thinkers and advocates for real justice, it is vital that we make the distinction between “criminal” and “harmful.” If police are targeting queer people for crimes more often, then in some ways being queer does make a person more likely to be “criminal” – criminal by the state’s standards, which is what defines the law. We cannot trust the state’s definitions of “crime” by equating it to “harm.” This is clear when we consider that homosexuality is historically criminal though it causes no harm; it’s just rocking the boat of heteronormativity, rendering uneasy those who benefit from straight-as-normal standards. So theoretically we need not defend ourselves, saying, “we aren’t criminals!” We can say, “your idea of crime is wack!” Unfortunately we do still need defense, since the injustice system has such real consequences.
This book shows us that criminalizing sexuality and gender is not about addressing or preventing harm; it is about maintaining social norms, and it always has been! Mogul, Ritchie, and Whitlock describe how policing gender and sexuality is not just a way to maintain social norms now, but was “foundational to the birth of the United States” (2). The state and church used accusations of sodomy, ‘deviant’ sexuality, and trans-ish characteristics as ‘justification’ for genocide and conquest of Indigenous people (3-5). The authors share some of Andrea Smith’s work, explaining how the gender binary was used by European colonizers, not only to punish Indigenous people who expressed other forms, but also as supposed moral reasoning for their violent conquest. They write, “Although Indigenous societies are widely reported to have allowed for a range of gender identities and expressions, colonization required the violent suppression of gender fluidity in order to facilitate the establishment of hierarchical relations between two rigidly defined genders, and, by extension, between colonizer and colonized.” This reminds us both that colonizers are pieces of shit, myself included, and that the gender binary is not universal and has its own history. It is constructed, after all.
This is a fine example of why we should stop perpetuating the myth, the construct, whatever you want to call it, that heterosexuality is more “natural” than homosexuality, or any other kind of sexuality. Convincing oneself and others that one kind of sexual relation is more “supposed-to-be” makes it easier for people to feel okay policing, punishing, and persecuting each other. This is also why we should criticize and intentionally work toward the deconstruction of the sex binary itself. We must begin recognizing its construction and ways the binary is a poser. An understanding of the sex binary as rigid and natural feeds the idea that heterosexuality is rigid and natural, whereas, contrary to popular belief, heterosexuality is a social norm only as old as capitalism! In fact, gender norms, heterosexuality, ideas of criminality and race… all of these are capitalist constructions. It will be difficult to deconstruct and destroy any of them if we aren’t working toward a society that renders them all unnecessary.
[i] This includes enforcing white supremacy, as race shapes our ideas of gender and sexuality
[ii] “In March 2002 April Mora, a lesbian teen of African American and Native descent, was walking to a store in Denver, Colorado to get a soft drink. A car pulled up behind her and the driver called out, referring disparagingly to Mora as a “dyke.” Two other men jumped from the car, attacked her, and pinned her to the ground. When Mora screamed, one man with a knife cut her tongue, causing blood to gather in her throat. He held a knife to her neck while to other used a razor blade to carve the word “dyke” on her left forearm and “R.I.P.” into the flesh of her stomach. Choking, she fought to get free. The man with the razor cut her face. Before leaving her on the street, both men kicked her in the ribs, telling her she was lucky they hadn’t raped her, and that next time, they would.
“Dazed, injured, and bloodied, Mora walked back home and called her girlfriend, Dominicque Quintana, at school. When Quintana arrived they called an ambulance and the police. The scene the unfolded when the police arrived both compounded and complicated the homophobic ferocity of the original attack. According to Quintana’s mother, who lived with the two young women, the police immediately wanted to know if Mora and her girlfriend had been fighting, and if they were on drugs. They did not search for the men who attacked Mora, instead insisting that she take a polygraph to prove she was telling the truth.
After the young women were finally allowed to leave for the hospital, officers remaining on the scene focused their investigation on a “self-infliction” theory. Quintana’s mother later recounted that “the police went into my house and looked for a razor and the tee shirt April had been wearing. The police trashed April and Dominicque’s bedroom in the basement and went thought the freezer, too.” Though the health care providers who treated Mora offered to confirm in writing that the injuries she suffered could not have been self-inflicted, the police nevertheless insisted on focusing on Mora rather than on investigating her account of the events, thereby foreclosing any opportunity to locate her attackers” (118).
[iii] “In May 1988, Rene Chinea, a fifty-year-old gay Cuban immigrant, was murdered in Chicago, Illinois. His throat was slashed, his penis and hands cut off, and his legs partially severed. His decomposing and dismembered body was found in a garbage bag inside his closet.
The Chicago police detectives who investigated the homicide determined Chinea was the victim of a ‘homosexual murder.’ In so doing, they were not suggesting the Chinea was the victim of violence motivated by his sexual orientation, that is, a hate crime. Rather, they believed that this grisly murder must have been committed by another ‘homosexual.’ This belief was based on the premise that gay men who are lovers or roommates are “particularly violent” when they fight, often engaging in ‘gruesome-type, serious cuttings,’ and it shaped the investigation from the moment police responded to the scene.” (story continues pages 69-72)
[iv] “Although there was substantial evidence to undermine Allen’s claims of self-defense, the State nonetheless took the extra step of deploying criminalizing, racist archetypal narratives about gender deviance to defeminize, and thereby dehumanize, Allen in jurors’ eyes in order to secure a capital conviction. In some cases involving actual or perceived lesbians, it is sufficient for the prosecution to allude to the woman’s sexual orientation in order to prejudice her before the jury, as was the case with Mata. In Allen’s case, to do so would undermine the State’s project of valorizing Leathers, who was also a Black lesbian. Instead, the State seized upon Allen’s gender ‘transgression’ to mark her as deviant, distinguish her from Leathers, and justify her death sentence.” (full story pages 84-86)
[v] “At the sentencing hearing, although unnecessary in light of the unquestionably violent and gruesome nature of the crime, the prosecutor nevertheless explicitly cited Neill’s sexual orientation as a justification for imposing the death sentence:
I want you to think briefly about the man you’re setting [sic] in judgement… I’d like to go through some things that to me depict the true person, what kind of person he is. He is a homosexual. The person you’re sitting in judgement on—disregard Jay Neill. You’re deciding life or death on a person that’s a vowed [sic] homosexual.
(full story pages 86-89)