BY DOUG IRELAND | In the mid-1980s, a study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that 23 percent of gay men and 11 percent of lesbians reported they’d been harassed, threatened with violence, or physically attacked by police because of their sexual orientation.
Things have changed for the better since then, haven’t they?
Eight years after sodomy laws struck down, authors find ongoing criminalization of queers
According to the most recent reports by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects (NCAVP), law enforcement officers were the third largest category of perpetrators of anti-LGBT violence. Indeed, between 2007 and 2008, police violence against queers shot up 150%, while the number of law enforcement officers reported to have engaged in abusive treatment of LGBTers went up 12 percent. Even in supposedly “progressive” San Francisco, 50 percent of violence against transgender women was perpetrated by police and private security guards.
Minnesota is also thought of as one of the most “progressive” and queer-friendly states. It was one of the first states to have an out-of-the-closet elected official —State Senator Allen Spear, who was subsequently re-elected for nearly 30 years and served ten years as president of the State Senate; and today the North Star State has a healthy contingent of openly gay elected officials. Yet a recent ten-year study of anti-LGBT violence in Minnesota found a startlingly large number of instances of 911 operators failing to send assistance to queer victims of violence, police mocking and laughing at victims, and officers blaming them for the violence they experienced. During the period studied, police engaged in verbal harassment of victims of homophobic and transphobic violence 12 percent of the time in this “civilized” state.
The Minnesota researchers found that “there continues to be a significant percentage of incidents where officers refuse to file a report indicating that a crime has occurred... Officers refused in 31 percent of the cases to file a general incident report” on anti-queer violence.
And the NCVAP found that, in Minnesota, in 27 percent of such cases, police refused to classify violence against LGBT people as motivated by sexual orientation or gender identity.
If this is the way police treat queers in “liberal” Minnesota, you can imagine that police attitudes are much, much worse in the Bible Belt and the Deep South, where no such studies have as yet been undertaken. Where researchers have issued similar reports, there is undoubtedly an undercount of anti-queer police behavior, which the victims — most often the powerless, the poor and people of color — are frequently reluctant or too frightened to raise.
Yet, note the authors of “Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States,” “As LGBT movements have institutionalized, visions of queer liberation have been tamed into a narrow rhetoric of equality within existing systems rather than challenges to the systemic violence and repression they produce.”
It was police harassment and violence targeting queers that sparked the Stonewall Rebellion, and were critically important targets on the agenda of the early gay liberation movement. But as genuine gay liberationist thinking died out as it was replaced by what gay theoretician Jeffrey Escoffier has called the “gay citizenship movement,” things changed.
“Queer (In)Justice” correctly reports that, “with the exception of sodomy law enforcement, since the mid-1970s resistance to abusive policing of LGBT people has largely been absent from the agendas of national mainstream LGBT organizations, particularly as police have increasingly narrowed their focus to segments of LGBT communities with little power or voice inside and outside such groups.”
“Queer (In)Justice” has just been published by Beacon Press as part of its “Queer Action/ Queer Ideas” series of books assembled under the excellent editorship of Michael Bronski, an important liberationist writer for four decades with a pile of books to his credit. Bronski’s “The Pleasure Principle” remains a seminal liberationist text to this day.
The authors of “Queer (In)Justice” are three veterans of the fight against the criminal legal system’s degradations. Joey Mogul is a Chicago civil rights attorney, specializing in police misconduct, and a well-known Windy City queer activist who has successfully sued the city’s police department, winning a $1 million settlement for a man wrongfully convicted of a “gay murder” on the basis of police-fabricated evidence, even though the man was in jail on an unrelated offense at the time of the killing. He was later pardoned based on his innocence.
Andrea J. Ritchie is also a civil rights attorney and an anti-police misconduct organizer. She is the author of a book forthcoming later this year from South End Press, “Every Day: Police, Law Enforcement Violence Against Women and Trans People of Color.”
Kay Whitlock recently retired as national representative for LGBT issues of the American Friends Service Committee, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Quaker social justice organization that has long been a solid LGBT ally. Whitlock authored a first-rate series of AFSC pamphlets on LGBT and criminal justice issues, including “Corrupting Justice: A Primer for LGBT Communities on Racism, Violence, Human Degradation & the Prison Industrial Complex” and “In a Time of Broken Bones,” which challenges penalty enhancement hate crimes laws as a progressive response to hate violence.
In his introduction to “Queer (In)Justice,” Bronski proclaims it “a wake-up call.” Indeed — and it makes for harrowing reading.
Mogul, Ritchie, and Whitlock have collected — with meticulous, footnoted scholarship — a compendium of utterly revolting but perfectly legal persecutions of queer Americans. These stomach-turning horror stories won’t be familiar to the people who frequent those pricey, black-tie fundraisers given by the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, because they mostly concern people of color, or the poor, or gender-benders, and thus often receive little publicity. (The attention paid to such benighted victims of injustice by this newspaper, however, is credited in frequent citations by the trio of authors.)
The book is part theoretical framework, part documented polemic. The authors assert that “queer engagement with the law enforcement system cannot be accurately described, much less analyzed, as a stand-alone generic 'gay’ experience because race, class, and gender are crucial factors in determining how and which queers will bear the brunt of violence at the hands of the criminal legal system.”
Hampering a real understanding of the policing of queerness, they argue, is the inarguable fact that “the growing constellation of national nonprofit LGBT advocacy organizations, as well as many of their state and local counterparts, have been dominated by white, middle-class leadership and membership, and have also relied heavily on the financial support of affluent, white gays. As a result, their agendas tend to favor assimilation into the racial and economic status quo over challenges to the systemic violence and oppressions it produces. The contemporary mainstream gay discourse only sporadically addresses systemic abuses within the criminal legal system... Messages are crafted to emphasize reassuring images of LGBT normalcy and friendliness, not to embrace and highlight the struggles of segments of the LGBT population that continue to be criminalized.”
But those comfortable, assimilated gays, suffused with a warm glow of supposed accomplishment when they get a non-disdainful kind word from an elected official, are deluding themselves, for, as “Queer (In)Justice” argues: “The specter of criminality moves ceaselessly through the lives of LGBT people in the United States. It is the enduring product of persistent melding of homosexuality and gender nonconformity with concepts of danger, degeneracy, disorder, deception, disease, contagion, sexual predation, depravity, subversion, encroachment, treachery, and violence [Italics in the original]. It is so deeply rooted in U.S. society that the term stereotype does not begin to convey its social and political force. The narratives it produces are so vivid, compelling, and entrenched that they are more properly characterized as archetypes — recurring, culturally ingrained representations that evoke strong, often subterranean emotional associations or responses. In the realm of criminal archetypes, anxiety, fear, and dread prevail — potent emotions that can easily overpower reason.”
After reciting a catalogue of hideous cases that prove their point and the effects of all this on police, juries, judges, and prisons, the authors write that “the reality is that queer criminalizing archetypes stick to all of us like unwanted burrs, no matter how much distance we try to put between 'them’ and 'us.’”
This can be seen in the reluctance of LGBT advocates “to tackle issues of police misconduct... in the issue of public sex, which has become today’s LGBT movement’s 'dirty little secret,’ shunned by those focused on proving entitlement to acceptance by mainstream society.”
The authors also argue that hate crimes legislation, the “untouchable ‚'third rail’ of mainstream LGBT politics,” is “compromised by placing primary responsibility for preventing violence in the hands of a criminal legal system that is itself responsible for much of the LGBT violence,” and quotes the NCAVP on how its data underscores that “law enforcement officers remain one of the prime categories of offenders documented by NCAVP each year.”
Despite the 2003 Supreme Court decision overturning the so-called sodomy laws and thus “legalizing” same-sex sexual relations, this book shows how queer lives continue to be criminalized, policed, and punished, including through the use of statutes in all 50 states against “lewd” behavior, which allow police to determine what queer conduct is criminal and which is not.
“Queer (In)Justice” ought to be force-fed to the staffs and boards of directors of every national and state gay organization in the hope that it might open their eyes to a reality they too often deliberately ignore. And if the Gill Foundation wants to do something useful, it should buy copies of this book in bulk, distribute them to those closed-door “Outgiving” conferences of fat-cats whose big checks have such inordinate sway in determining the “gay agenda,” and invite the trio of its activist-authors to address them.
Needless to say, dear reader, you too should make sure “Queer (In)Justice” has a place on your bookshelf. It’s that important.
To read excerpts from “Queer (In)Justice” or blogs by all three of its authors, visit the book’s web site at queerinjustice.com/.
The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States
By Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock
$27.95; 218 pages