On “Captive Genders”: An Interview with Nat Smith & Eric Stanley – Jay Donahue

Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, published by AK Press in the fall of 2011 is an important and unique contribution to both trans, queer and anti Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) organizing. Currently mainstream queer organizing in the United States is squarely focused on procuring so-called “marriage equality,” allowing lesbian and gay identified individuals to enter the military and pushing hate crimes legislation–all actions that not only preserve a status quo that has never benefited trans and gender queer individuals, but that also strengthen the PIC. Captive Genders challenges us to both remember our roots and the struggle that has brought our communities to where we are today, but also to take a realistic look at both present and future organizing for trans liberation. I wanted to interview the editors, Eric Stanley and Nat Smith, because I think they offer different and complimentary perspectives on the importance of Captive Genders and also bring to the table knowledge and experience that can help to inform others who are part of the struggle for trans and queer liberation.

Jay Donahue: What was the impetus for Captive Genders and what do you see as the importance of having this body of work in the world?

Nat Smith: At the time that Eric and I started this project it was a really crucial moment in the queer liberation struggle. Liberal gays and lesbians were embroiled in the Trojan horse of “the right to marry.” Hate crime legislation was on the rise, and poverty and unemployment for queer and trans folks were hitting an all time high. I was actively organizing in the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) abolitionist movement and was feeling a lack of recognition of the unique struggles that trans people face within and against the PIC, in that movement and I was simply disgusted with mainstream LGBT movements and their focus on identity politics rather than the ways in which trans identity was informed by capitalism and the state. I think all those things hold true today. Seven years later, not that much has changed.

Eric Stanley: When Nat and I first started working on this project together it was, at least for me, driven by the reality that so many queer and trans people, especially trans women of color, are held within the grasp of the PIC. We also wanted to push LGBT politics to think about, and hopefully organize against, mass incarceration. While it is true that trans and queer folks are subject to relentless forms of personal and state violence, currently the PIC is the only “solution” offered. Captive Genders helps show how these same systems that are offered as “solutions” actually produce more violence and offer very little. To this end, Nat and I wanted abolition as the primary point of contact for the book, meaning that we wanted all the essays to offer some form of an abolitionist politic. 


JD: Can you talk about why it was essential to have contributions from people inside and maybe illustrate both the challenges and movement/ relationship building aspects of that process?

ES: Yes, when we first began collecting submissions we knew that it was vital to have pieces from people writing from the inside as well as from formerly incarcerated folks.  Also, we wanted to push on the definition of the PIC and understand how it works in often unexpected ways. To this end, we also wanted to include experiences and analyses of people who were living the slow death of the carceral state, even if they were not currently incarcerated. For example, Ralowe T. Ampu’s piece, “Hotel Hell” talks about her daily life living in a residents’ hotel, which functions, like prisons and jails, through multiple forms of surveillance. We want our abolitionist analysis to also account for spaces like residents’ hotels that are often not included in anti-PIC work.

NS: Any liberatory struggle needs to be led by the people who are living that reality daily. Communications through the walls of the PIC are the crux of that struggle and one of the ways in which the PIC exists is by breaking up communities, creating isolation, and discouraging self-determination. So the day-to-day communication with the contributors was very difficult and dependent on the guard who sorted the mail, the guard who distributed the mail, whether they were having a bad day, whether they had a grudge, whether they were racist as well as the strict regulations of the prison regarding mail. Additionally, I was not just soliciting contributions, but also building relationships and that’s hard to do when you don’t know each other at all. Writing about your life and your very personal experiences for a stranger’s book was a big leap of faith and I appreciate that.

JD: Can you talk about the importance of having components of both theory and practice in the book and how they inform each other?

NS: While academia has traditionally been the right only of the privileged, that needs to be separated from down and dirty education. We’ve got libraries and we’ve got each other and we have our elders, some of whom have a big vocabulary and some of whom do not. For me discussing theory needs to be reclaimed (and already is in a variety of communities and struggles) by the people who are also doing the day-to-day grueling liberatory work, and vice versa.  So for me it was important that the book include, and display the relationship between analysis, theory, and action while keeping in mind that analysis alone is not action and that action devoid of analysis is short sighted.

ES: For me, I did not want to decide in advance what would be “accessible” to someone. In this project I wanted to keep the question of theory and practice open. For sure we wanted to have examples of people doing the work of abolition right now, but we also wanted to share the analysis that is produced by this kind of organizing. There is sometimes a tendency in anti-PIC work and writing to assume analysis has to be “straightforward”, but in Captive Genders I think some of the stories, especially the pieces written by folks inside, offer an example of lived theory. I think we need to work on proliferating our tactics and analyses and use the creative abundance of our queer imaginations to help us all to be free.

JD:  How do you hope this book will be used?

ES: I would love to see the book used by folks both inside and outside prisons, which I think it is. It holds a lot of the amazing organizing and thinking that people have been doing. For sure, queer prison abolition organizing (even when done under different names) has been around for a long time. But Captive Genders existing in book form is important because it works as a point of convergence that can help conversation and organizing around trans/queer prison abolition flourish.

NS: People need to read this book and not just buy and put it on their shelf with other dope books they haven’t read yet. I purposely put in three exercises for folks to do with family, friends, etc. Do the exercises!  One of the exercises in particular engages the reader by looking at the long-term successes of their own work to help them to make sure they aren’t strengthening the PIC. Non- academics should analyze and critique the academic pieces and professors should use the book in their classes. I see this book as playing a crucial role in raising voices, in lending analysis, in challenging both the anti-PIC and LGBT “rights” movements and in educating people who are interested––trans identified or not––in widening the scope of their understanding of trans liberation struggle. It will probably protect you from the rain too.

Support independent publishers and get your copy of Capitve Genders from AK Press (www.akpress.org). AK Press also offers a 20% discount on books ordered by or for prisoners.

Jay Donahue organizes with Critical Resistance, fighting to abolish the prison industrial complex (PIC) and end our reliance on prisons, policing and surveillance as solutions to social problems while simultaneously building strong, self-determined communities. Jay is a competitive long distance runner and when not out logging miles on the road he might be found fly-fishing a Sierra stream or brewing beer in his kitchen. Jay currently lives in Oakland, California.

Eric A. Stanley works at the intersections of radical trans/queer politics, theories of state violence, and visual culture. Eric is currently finishing a PhD in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz and continues to organize with Gay Shame. Along with Chris Vargas, Eric is a co-director of the films Homotopia (2006) and Criminal Queers (2011).

Nat Smith is a light-skinned Black queer gender variant nerd who loves camping, comics, animals, sci-fi, mathematical equations and is proof that none of these things is antithetical to being from the ‘hood. Known to associate with such dangerous organizations as Critical Resistance, Trans/Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project, you can find Nat casually dropping the “PIC abolition” bomb all while in line for wings. Nat would appreciate the sharing of poutine from his Canadian comrades, as we cannot get it in this neck of the woods.