Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore interviews editor of Captive Genders Eric Stanley

Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, edited by Eric Stanley and Nat Smith (published by AK Press) is at once a scathing and necessary analysis of the prison industrial complex. The anthology offers intoxicating glimpses into a history of queer resistance to state tyranny, from 1960s sex worker organizing in San Francisco to mass protests over the Toronto bathhouse raids of 1981 to prisoner solidarity demanding HIV medication for transgender prisoner Victoria Arellano in 2007. By analyzing the root causes of anti-queer and anti-trans violence, Captive Genders exposes the brutality of state control over queer/trans bodies inside and outside prison walls, and proposes an analytical framework for undoing not just the prison system, but its mechanisms of surveillance, dehumanization and containment. By queering a prison abolition analysis, Captive Genders moves us to imagine the impossible dream of liberation. Here I ask coeditor Eric Stanley a few questions about the book, the process, and the politics.

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The pieces in this book vary from highly academic essays to extremely personal narratives – some feature broad historical analysis while others are very specific to the current moment. How did you decide to include such a wide range of material?

Eric Stanley: We began the project knowing that we wanted to include people writing from the inside and we wanted all the pieces to articulate an abolitionist politic. Beyond that, we did not want to assume what would or would not be “accessible” to our readers. I think we all approach a text with different histories and thus we connect with specific writing or not. To this end we wanted to offer multiple points of entry—personal narrative, analytic essays and conversations.

I like the way you include histories that may not at first glance appear to be trans-specific in content, like the piece on the Toronto bathhouse raids, which is most literally about gay men, or men who have sex in bathhouses, right? Or, Erica Meiners’ super-layered, intimate and analytical piece that investigates the history of sex offender registries, the shifting focus of who is targeted and who is made safe or unsafe when sex panics work their way into legislation. I feel like you’re pointing to the instability of gender and sexual categories – in short, featuring a trans analysis that isn’t limited to a certain type of body or identity. Was this part of your intention?

 ES: Yes, I think that’s exactly what we are trying to do with the book, offer a trans analysis for events that do not necessarily, at least at first, seem to be only about “trans people.” The piece about the gay bathhouse raids was important to include because those raids, which were a part of larger project of gentrification and “beautification” for sure also affected trans people through increased policing of the area. Furthermore, the same logics that are and were used against gay men in the bathhouses, that they were both diseased and criminal, are the same logics, differently articulated, that suggest that trans people are pathological.

I think Erica’s piece also really beautifully illustrates the ways domination is made and remade and how an abolitionist politic is most powerful when applied to situations that are the most controversial. Many people will argue that “victimless crimes” should be decriminalized, but Erica’s piece pushes us to think about abolition in terms of sexual assault, a topic that many anti-prison activists shy away from.

Also, while it was important for us to show the ways in which dominant lesbian and gay politics oftentimes reproduce gender normativity and transphobia, we also wanted to show the complexities of our multiple identities. Many of our authors identify as both gay and transgender, or queer and trans, or other combinations of identities. The neatness that the mainstream politics of LGBT inclusion demands decomposes under the realities that many of us live.

You spent seven years working on this project – what was the hardest part?

ES:  I’m not the most organized person, so one of the hardest parts was keeping track of all the various drafts of each piece. Editing through email, mail, over the phone, and in person with people created a bit of chaos.  However, in the end I think it was good it took as long as it did. I think if the book had been released seven years ago there would not have been as large an audience as there seems to be now. Hopefully Captive Genders will continue to push us to work toward abolishing the prison industrial complex and building a fabulously safe world for us all.

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Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is the author of two novels, most recently So Many Ways to Sleep Badly (City Lights 2008), and the editor of five nonfiction anthologies, most recently Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform (AK Press 2012). Mattilda will be touring the West Coast from late-January through mid-March 2012 – check in on upcoming dates via mattildabernsteinsycamore.com, and always feel free to send feedback or propositions on any subject at all. Mattilda just finished a memoir, The End of San Francisco, so watch out!

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