Dean Spade taught us how neoliberalism’s rights-based language masks structural violences and places the (often impossible) burden on individuals to accumulate life chances over and against these violences. The dominant gay movement’s problematic embrace of neoliberalism is disturbingly visibilized in the social injustice of the United States prison system.
In “The Only Freedom I Can See: Imprisoned Queer Writing and the Politics of the Unimaginable,” Stephen Dillon specifically exposes how neoliberalism works in tandem with the prison industrial complex to maintain a status quo that targets and disciplines non- and anti-normative queers (especially of color). Homonormativity is implicated in these violent institutions for its encouragement of gay respectability. This agenda, with its neoliberal emphasis on marriage rights, family values, and other forms of social control, tends to discourage active engagement with those queers who aren’t seeking or in the position to seek the Gay American Dream. In other words, it’s easy to overlook populations who would compromise an assimilationist politics bent on presenting visions of a new normal.
The homonormative gay rights movement’s (deliberate) exclusion of “imprisoned queer and trans people from ‘the community’ has, in part, acted as the condition of possibility for the privileges and power afforded to those not ensnared in the nexus of power produced by neoliberalism” (181). The language of inclusion means exclusion for others, even in terms of visibility. What does gay pride have to do with incarcerated trans* and gender non-conforming subjects.
After some quick zine-searching, I came across the Transformative Justice Law Project (TJLP) of Illinois. The TJLP works to provide free legal services for trans* and gender non-conforming individuals. Crucially, the TJLP is committed to affirming its patrons’ gender self-determination. The organization’s zine, Hidden Expressions, is a collection of personal narratives, visual art, and poetry “created by transgender and gender non-conforming golks who are currently locked up in facilities across the United States.” Hidden Expressions gives a voice to the realities overlooked and un(der)represented in dominant U.S. discourse.
“Gay Pride” by Shaylanna Luvme ironically dramatizes the conflict between proud neoliberalism and the visibility of incarcerated trans* folks.
The poem personifies Gay Pride as a Christlike figure of all-inclusive love. Lines like “The lips of Gay Pride will always pray for me” and “The houses of Gay Pride will always welcome me” suggest room within the gay pride movement for any individual, despite the homonormative marriage movement’s ethically violent tunnelvision.
The poem concludes: “We’re human beings, all the time, no matter where we may/Be in life!” Or, as this week’s readings have taught us: We’re all human beings all the time, except in prison.
The poem’s language of uplift might very well be sincere, and I’m not tryna disparage the author for embracing this kind of worldview. The point remains: queer normativity flourishes at the expense of non-normative queers. The lofty ideals of neoliberalism and “gay pride” can make sense as individual-affirming language, but takes on the exclusive force of minoritizing politics when put into practice.
So, we all seem to have a bone to pick with the mainstream gay rights movement. Probably because it has done very little to raise awareness or activism about the anti-queer prison industrial complex and does a lot to reproduce the structural violences that work from and through it.