Criminal justice

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.

⊗ Patrick beane


Police Violence to Queers

            Normative queers who believe the police force exists to protect them from “danger” ignore intersectional oppression and power that target entire populations of queer people who then face violence from police both within and outside of prisons.  The fact that non-conforming subjects fear “being harmed by the very ones who are there to protect us” (Goring and Sweet 187) indicates that the current system of “protection” is produced by, and preserves the power of, a limited group of white, cis, het, bourgeois men (and sometimes women).

            This kind of neoliberal preservation of a preferred group and elimination of “human surplus” (Dillon 179) is evident in non-conforming subjects’ dealings with the police force.  I personally feel extraordinarily uncomfortable whenever police are around because I have no idea how they will respond to my lack of gender conformity, especially since my license picture looks nothing like me anymore.  Andrea Gibson, queer slam poet, writes about their experience in one of their poems: “Every night, I drove through Kansas with, I swear to God, a pink barrette in my fucking pocket in case I had to split second decide if woman would be safer armor than this, when his flashing blue lights give me ten seconds to pick what target he’ll be less likely to miss.”

            The police force has an incredible amount of unchecked power to beat and rape queers.  Goring and Sweet describe it “like nothing ever took place, like the world stopped as they hurt someone…they don’t face charges—they don’t get fired, but they are simply let back to work, bragging about what they’ve done and/or how they did it” (186).  Les Feinberg also describes the brutal force of routine police violence on the streets, in prison, and when raiding gay bars in the 1950s and 60s in their novel Stone Butch Blues.  The fact that Feinberg was recently arrested protesting for Cece McDonald indicates that these issues with police have not gotten better, but rather that they are still ever so prevalent today.  No wonder so many queers can never feel safe whenever police are around to “protect.” 

            And now for a local example.  Last year, Douglas Wilson came to speak at IU about how the male and female sexes were destined for one another and that nothing else is allowed in the eyes of god.  His beliefs are not only homophobic, but he also believes that the pre-Civil War South represents an ideal structure of being in terms of religiously-structured roles for men, women, white people, and people of color, who so happened to be slaves.  To quote, Wilson believes “there has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world” as that of the pre-Civil War South (  No wonder protestors were so upset that he was even allowed on campus.

            Members of the police force were present at the “discussion” to “keep the peace.”  The fact that they were there made me extremely uncomfortable.  Rather than feeling “protected” by them, I felt like they were there to take down any dissenting voice, which is exactly what they did.  Watch this video ( to see what happens to a trans-identifying person who “disrupted” Wilson’s speech.  Rather than tapping the person on the shoulder and “gracefully” asking them to leave like the Dean of students said they would in this video (, the police force just jumped on the individual and justified their arrest because they were “struggling.”  Who wouldn’t squirm and writhe around in pain when four or more police officers shove you out the door and onto the ground?

            The fact that the Dean of students dared claim that those who raised their voices against Wilson were breaking their Indiana promise by disrespecting a public speaker (who happens to disrespect a large population of IU students, faculty, and staff) is ridiculous.  It just goes to reaffirm the neoliberal notion that anyone outside of the structured norms for citizens (disciplinary power) is targeted for elimination via caging on the basis that they are “human surplus” (Dillon 179).  In this case, anyone outside of the respectfully silent and ideal protestor is not only a target for arrest but also expulsion from Indiana University.

            This local justification of unchecked police power to shove queers on the ground for yelling at a disrespectful speaker is ridiculous.  It just goes to prove that not only is police power left unchecked to the point of justified corruption via the watering down of police acts with words like “gracefully tapping people on the shoulder,” but it also proves how the force that exists to so-called “protect” people only protects those who are deemed desirable to the state and leaves the rest of the “human surplus” to deal with violence by themselves.  Normative queers must stop catering to a system that exists to cage those who refuse to conform to racialized, gendered, and sexualized norms.

-Ash Kulak

Can discrimination ever be stopped?

I am not going to lie, after reading Dean Spade’s first chapter in Normal Life my brain was a little overwhelmed. Filled with statistics concerning various types of discrimination and injustice, Spade makes it a point to prove how flawed our country is. He begins by discussing imprisonment and how much of it is done to those who do not fall under the hetero-male white privilege umbrella. He notes how the War on Drugs and War on Terrorism provide a useful scapegoat when it comes to arresting minorities. He also points out the flaws in which we think we are attempting to better our society. For example, he says that, “Focus on gay marriage ignores how race, class, ability, indigenetity, and immigration status determine access to those benefits.” And when it comes to trans folk, the discrimination only gets worse. Homelessness, loss of jobs, and loss of benefits are major problems for a trans person. Though we have already read articles about these very things, I decided to do some research via social media to see if it had garnered recognition to this level. I found this twitter account: and read some of the posts concerning unjustice and crime done to trans folk. Though most posts were sad and disturbing, it was hopefully seeing just how many followers and activity the account had.

Getting further into the book, Spade focuses his next chapter on how the rights being fought for concerning trans equality. The two main law form interventions, anti-discrimination laws and hate crime laws, would not only prevent discrimination but it would also “increase positive trans ability”. In this chapter he mentions early forms of protest for trans rights. The Compton’s Cafeteria riot intrigued me so I decided to find the story and put it here for everyone to read if interested: But Spade brought about an interesting question when discussing these laws: will the discrimination even stop? Civil rights laws didn’t stop discrimination toward African Americans so why should these laws be any different? Will discrimination ever end? I liked when Spade said that hate crimes prove the failure in our legal system. He goes on to saying that the perpetrator perspective is wrong and that the conception of oppression is wrong. This is where I got a little lost because then he went on to saying that hate crimes enforce the criminal punishment system…but that is a bad thing because the overpopulated jails are a problem. But without punishment how will this discrimination end? Should there be alternative consequences to stop these actions, and if so how can they be enforced and effective? I understand his concern with how the law problematically treats these issues, but when trying to think of other ways to stop injustice and crime I couldn’t really think of an alternative solution. Ultimately, I think that the push towards both these laws can be achieved and better the lives of many trans folk, but the deeper issues that remain will be harder to conquer. 

– Colleen Griffin



Maybe I’ve heard the word before, but if so, it didn’t make much of an impression the first time around.  Happily for me, Dean Spade’s first chapter in Normal Life changed this for good: now I will forever after have a reaction- and a strong one!- to this word and the phenomenon it describes.  Not that I haven’t previously been made acquainted with the phenomenon; I’m sure each and every one of us in this generation has encountered the hallmarks of neoliberalism in some capacity what with the persistent myth of American meritocracy and post-9/11 governmental xenophobia in our lifetimes.  I must say that I am thankful to a have a word with which to articulate the incredibly complex and slippery socio-political climate I observe around me.  Conceiving of this climate as “a range of interlocking trends in domestic and international politics” (49) makes this slippery complexity significantly more intelligible, making neoliberalism an important analytic lense. 

            I am thankful for Spade’s explication of “neoliberalism” because, while reading, I found myself stumbling across very logical and intelligent explanations for the persistence of oppressions post-Civil Rights Era, for the apparent impotence of social reforms and programs, and for the public’s unproblematic acceptance of political victim-blaming.  As a self-proclaimed feminist and a gender studies major (who unfortunately bartends at a country club), I often find that I am expected to come up with some theory about why feminism is still necessary or how racism could possibly exist after Blacks won the right to vote.  Resisting the impulse to take the persons who pose these questions by both shoulders and shake the silliness (read: privilege) out of them, I usually try to keep my cool and reasonably explain the ways that women or Blacks or people of low-socioeconomic class get disenfranchised by our society.  This is nearly ALWAYS a highly frustrating activity.  I cite the persistent sexual wage gap or the disproportionately low population of Black students in higher education; they blame women’s avoidance of math and the lack of academic ambitions among African Americans.  While these arguments hopefully seem laughable to you and I, unfortunately laughter is not a legitimate response to the available statistics on career choices made by young women primarily outside of mathematical fields ( or the severe underrepresentation of African Americans in higher education (only 18.4% of the total African American population in 2013 had a bachelor’s degree or higher  Of course, I have previously sought recourse to arguments of gendered or racial socialization to account for social influences on “free” will, but unless I peddle back far enough to take my audience through the boys-in-blue/girls-in-pink narrative, I usually end up getting treated like a victim of paranoid delusions.  I’m not sure I will ever completely ensure my protection against this kind of treatment, but at least neoliberalism has given me a context for understanding why it’s so gorshdarn hard to explain the workings of oppression in our current climate! 

As Spade writes, “Systemic inequality has become increasingly unspeakable and the long-term myth of meritocracy in the United States, coupled with the renewed rhetoric of ‘personal responsibility,’ suggests that those benefiting from the upward distribution are doing so because of their moral fitness, and, respectively, that those on the losing end are blameworthy, lazy, and, of course, s dangerous.” (58). I conclude, neoliberalism creates a space in which institutionalized inequalities are denied and then argued out of existence by programs which claim to have already remedied them, despite the persistence of these inequalities in the lives of individuals.  Then, individuals who are privileged enough to know nothing first-hand about the lived experiences of disenfranchised peoples deny the reality or the severity of “so-called oppressions,” in society and instead blame the choices of individuals for the condition of marginalized communities.  Neoliberal politics are of the sneakiest variety, but once their structural patterns have been identified, as they have been by Spade, it is more possible to recognize and thwart their reiteration of oppressions.


By Rosalind Rini

Dean Spade is My Soul Mate: Intersectional Impacts of Normative Appeals

            White, cis-normative, economically privileged, and professionally educated gay and lesbian communities stigmatize those who cannot fit into one or any of those normative categories via appeals to normativity in their politics.  My previous post discussed (yes, I’ll admit, ranted) how this appeal to normativity from trans-normative spaces alienates genderqueer expression from both trans and cis-gay circles, but I failed to mention any other intersectional identities, a crucial aspect to the ways in which neoliberalism operates within these normative gay communities. 

            Dean Spade opened my eyes to the ways in which intersectional identities fit within the dichotomous framework of “normative versus deviant” ways of being.  When mainstream society dictates what constitutes “normal” and “deviant,” every person who does not fit within categories of white, cis-male, heterosexual, upper middle class, able-bodied, English-speaking, middle-aged, American born, Christian-identified (and other categories I’m probably missing) within the United States gets thrown into this category of deviance with its own complicated and mainstream-dictated hierarchy. 

            Every deviant person, then, becomes placed in this category (and ultimately hierarchy) among all of those other deviantly-labeled people with whom they cannot all possibly identify or have similar experiences.  For instance, white and cis-normative upper middle class gay men are labeled “deviant” along with trans feminine economically disadvantaged identities of color.  The former group is only slightly deviant compared to the latter, and that shows through appeals to normativity that manifest themselves through “equality” legislation (Spade 59-66).  In these ways, this former group does not take into account the intersectional identities like those in the latter group despite the fact that both groups are labeled “deviant.”  So when slightly deviant groups get thrown into an umbrella of “deviance” with which to dichotomously compare to the normative category, the more deviant groups become even more oppressed as the slightly deviant groups push for inclusion into normative spaces (Spade 68). 

          This oppression of the more and more deviant groups manifests itself not only inadvertently in “equality” legislation, but also purposefully through blatant discrimination.  The former group of privileged gay men may not only overlook the ways in which to include intersectional oppression in their politics, but there may also exist racist, classist, misogynistic, transphobic, and/or even transmisogynistic undertones within their politics and everyday lives.  These privileged-but-deviantly-labeled individuals may become leaders of LGBT spaces on college campuses or faces of entire movements just to spew racist, sexist, and classist sentiment in their supposed call for “social justice.”

          These calls to normativity by slightly deviant categories lead to an even more unjust world.  For instance, cis-normative white upper middle class gays and lesbians have shifted their agenda to promote “the class and race privilege of a small number of elite gay and lesbian professionals while marginalizing or overtly excluding the needs and experiences of people of color, immigrants, people with disabilities, indigenous people, trans people, and poor people” (Spade 65).  This kind of shift is evident when comparing the unjust deaths of Matthew Shepard, a cis white gay male, and Tyra Hunter, an African American trans woman. 

          Nowhere else is there an outcry against mainstream practices than when a slightly deviant cis, white, and economically privileged male dies unjustly.  The brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, an out gay man in Laramie, Wyoming in October of 1998, gained so much publicity that not only were countless books written on his life and death, but hate crime legislation was written as a response to his murder, and it was signed into law eleven years later by Barack Obama.  The Matthew Shepard Foundation even claims that Matthew’s murder was “one of the most notorious anti-gay hate crimes in American history” (Matthew Shepard Foundation’s “Our Story” Page: see bottom for link). 

          Now take a look at the death of Tyra Hunter, an African-American trans woman in D.C. who died in August of 1995 of medical neglect from what could have been a non-fatal car crash.  Medical doctors and emergency personnel refused to treat her and let her die because of deep-seated anti-trans and racist sentiment, where emergency personnel laughed and pointed in disgust at her genitals, and medical doctors refused to treat her on the basis of a racial stereotype. 

          What books were written about Tyra?  If you count the Transgender Studies Reader, then there are two whole pages that discuss the discrimination involved in her death.  Wikipedia gives her about a paragraph (see bottom for link).  What legislation passed because of Tyra?  None.  The medical establishment was so intimately involved in her death that any legislation passed would point fingers at the system.  Unless you count a trans organization in Illinois named in her memory, nothing tangible came from this injustice except money during the trial to compensate for her death.  (Money… a fair exchange for life… thanks capitalism!)  Is Tyra’s murder (yes, I’m calling neglect to act on non-fatal injuries to the point of death murder) named one of the “most notorious” hate crimes in the US?  No.  It happened two years before Matthew Shepard died, and no one raised any outcry that gained media attention against the injustice of her death because she did not belong to the slightly deviant category that still demands inclusion in normative structures. 

          Tyra’s death was ignored, and the fact that Matthew’s death gained more media attention because he was the perfect slightly deviant representation of normativity the media could hold onto makes Tyra’s death and the countless other deaths of gender-deviant economically disadvantaged people of color invisible.  That’s right, invisible.  Appeals to normativity by slightly deviant gays and lesbians are appeals to the system that work to oppress those in the “more deviant” category of the deviance hierarchy.  Catering to a system that oppresses based on a “you versus us” dichotomy and ignoring the intersections of race, class, and sexual and gender identity disavow the lives of those deviantly-labeled individuals who fought representatives of the system (ie, police) to survive.  Seeking legislation to end “hate crimes” only appeals to those policemen who systematically ignore and perpetuate the violence against those who are furthest from inclusion in normative spaces.

          There is no real end to this kind of violence against racial, ability, economic, and gender minorities with the neoliberalist solutions of a normative gay and lesbian politic.  Mandy Carter, writer for a news site Color Lines, stresses the necessity of bridging the politics of the sexuality and gender movements with African-American movements.  The fact that intersecting identities challenge the implicitly degrading assumptions of each of these movements (LG movements as cis-white inclusive, African-American movements as cis-het inclusive, neither as trans-inclusive) indicate that a larger force of oppression is at work here. 

          When cis-white gays and lesbians are racist and transphobic, and when cis-African Americans are homophobic and transphobic, non-normative people of color in terms of gender and sexuality are left with no community with which to share stories and are left to their own devices to deal with violence from not only mainstream culture, but also from both less deviant communities to which they cannot belong.  This experience of being torn between two or more “less deviant” communities as a “more deviant” person applies to intersectional identities across the entire mainstream-dictated deviant spectrum.  On the simplest level of explanation via example, I experience dissonance between my lesbian and trans identities, Tyra between her trans and African American identities, and Dean Spade between his trans, queer (used in terms of sexuality because “gay” or “lesbian” cannot fit here), and working class identities. 

           In order to fight this “you versus us,” “deviant versus ‘normal’” dichotomy that mainstream culture sets up at the heart of its systematic and oppressive operations, we need to look at the differences dictating our deviance by mainstream culture instead of overlooking them.  We need to incorporate these differences into an intersectional politics that demands a complete restructuring of mainstream systems like law enforcement and wealth distribution to the point of self-determined governance that values collectivity (Spade 69).  Equality will never be achieved if we keep fighting for these slight equalities that continue to perpetuate injustice.


-Ash Kulak 


 Mandy Carter’s article about Tyra’s death and the intersections between white LGBT movements and Black movements:

Tyra Hunter’s sole paragraph from Wikipedia:

More details on Tyra’s murder:

Matthew Shepard Foundation’s “Our Story” page:

More information on the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act: