Why can't we just make up?: On the hypocrisy of transactivism in the prison abolition movement

On the night of June 25 last year, Alex Aleti Seu sexually assaulted a young man in an alleyway and on the grounds of a Dunedin church. Seu, who identifies as transgender, has been sentenced to prison for the attack as well as that of two of his former flatmates. Having entered the prison system, Seu is now among those whose rights No Pride in Prisons (NPIP) defends through its activism, its calls for prison reform and its prison abolitionist demands.In fact, much of NPIP’s work focuses specifically on imprisoned people who identify as transgender.

NPIP is founded on the recognition that the prison system does not to function primarily in the interest of public safety, as we are lead to believe. Reoffending rates are high, and prisons are violent, not rehabilitative, institutions. They do not reduce crime rates – if that was their purpose, indigenous women would not be incarcerated at a higher rate than any other demographic. Instead, prisons play a role consistent with the capitalist, racist society in which they are embedded, as abolitionist Angela Davis explains in her book Are Prisons Obsolete?

The fact that many corporations with global markets now rely on prisons as an important source of profit helps us to understand the rapidity with which prisons began to proliferate precisely at a time when official studies indicated that the crime rate was falling.

In her book, Davis explains the concept of a predatory “prison industrial complex”. She shows how corporations have vested interests in both expanding the prison system and in exploiting the destructive impacts prisons have on communities. Corporations producing all kinds of goods – buildings, electronic devices, hygiene products, food, therapy, healthcare and surveillance equipment – “are now directly involved in the punishment business,” says Davis.

In order to escape organized labor in this country—and thus higher wages, benefits, and so on—corporations roam the world in search of nations providing cheap labor pools. This corporate migration thus leaves entire communities in shambles. Huge numbers of people lose jobs and prospects for future jobs. Because the economic base of these communities is destroyed, education and other surviving social services are profoundly affected. This process turns the men, women, and children who live in these damaged communities into perfect candidates for prison.

It is for reasons like these that NPIP seeks prison abolition, by issuing its fifty demands. Yet recently, NPIP’s activism has focused heavily – disproportionately, even – on transgender inmates. In 2015, NPIP successfully campaigned to move Jade Follett, a male who identifies as transgender, into a women’s prison after he was sentenced to 21 months for stabbing – it took just hours for the government to comply. Several NPIP spokespeople identify as trans themselves, and four of their abolitionist demands are specific to incarcerated people who identify as trans.

These demands seem to supersede any concerns NPIP has for women either in or outside of prisons. For instance, NPIP calls for the government to “End the practice of incarcerating trans people”, while it makes no mention of ending the incarceration of women, even though men who identify as transgender still exhibit the same pattern of violence against women as the general male population, and women commit only a fraction of all violent crime.

NPIP also calls on the government to “Allow for the immediate placement of all trans prisoners in a prison of their choosing”, with no concern for how this might affect women in (overcrowded) women’s prisons. Should Alex Aleti Seu, who committed sexual assault repeatedly, really have access to a women’s prison? Surely women in prison for “crimes” like benefit fraud should not be lumped with the extra punishment of sharing space with male sex offenders like Seu – just because those males might prefer it?

What is perhaps most striking about all of this is that NPIP is a movement that constantly confronts the problem of male violence, but has little or no analysis of that violence as gendered, and institutionalised as such under capitalism. There is a stark disjunction between NPIP’s systemic analysis of race, colonisation, prisons and profit; and its promotion of individualistic concepts of gender identity and medicalisation, and its silence on the connections between male violence and profit making industries like prostitution. Does NPIP not realise that prostitution and pharmaceuticals are patriarchal, and profit-making?

NPIP demands that the government, without delay, “Enable consistent, high-quality access to gender affirmation surgery and hormone replacement therapy” and “Allow all prisoners access to the underwear, other clothing, and makeup of their choice”. The mere fact that these demands are listed together illustrates the extent to which transactivism endorses the gender “industrial complex” at large. Even within these two sentences, it facilitates the promotion of gendered clothing, cosmetics, therapy and medication.

It seems remarkable that an organisation that understands both crime and punishment as the product of racist state collaboration with corporate interests, wouldn’t make any of the same critical analyses of gender. Whilst it challenges the racist prison industrial complex, NPIP appears to fully embrace the “gender complex” industry: the global system that profits from the destructive promotion of sex roles and stereotypes, that generates widespread dysphoria, and that then exploits that dysphoria by selling everything from cosmetics and beauty treatments, to gendered clothing and medical intervention.

Feminist author Janice Raymond describes this system as an empire involving urologists, gynecologists, endocrinologists, and plastic surgeons; collaboration between psychiatrists, psychologists and medical specialists, and physicians with lawyers and legislators. “Ultimately, however, it is medicine that dominates”, says Raymond. “The Transsexual Empire is basically the medical conglomerate that has created the treatment and technology that makes anatomical sex conversion possible”, she says.

The proliferation of treatments that has been generated to take care of the “problem” is astonishing. These range from the initial and basic operative procedures undergone by all transsexuals to highly specialized forms of secondary cosmetic surgery – such as eye, nose, and chin operations – to electrolysis and speech therapy. Drug companies and hospitals – what have been called medical collusion complexes – also benefit from transsexualism. Hormone therapy and surgery are not cheap.

This is not to mention those who promote gender, or sex role stereotypes, to begin with. Children’s toy manufacturers; the fashion industry, television, print media, music, film and entertainment – are all heavily invested in promoting and profiting from the socially destructive promotion of gender and sex roles. The most heavily invested of all are the pimps and pornographers – there are 11 million hours worth of pornography online, and 88% of this quintessentially objectifying material contains male violence against women, many of whom are trafficked. Pimps are also responsible for publishing a great deal of the “women’s” media that has long been correlated with widespread dysphoria, self harm and eating disorders: magazines including Woman’s Day, Cosmopolitan and Dolly are all published by pornographers.

According to Raymond though, gender identity clinics are becoming primary sites for reinforcing sex role stereotypes. After the first transsexual operation was carried out by a German surgeon in 1931, the techniques refined and made public through the 1950s. Then, the opening of the Johns Hopkins Gender Identity Clinic in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1967 was a pivotal moment in the history of patriarchy.

The gender identity clinics where would-be transsexuals are counselled and evaluated – along with the medical establishment foster and reinforce stereotypical behaviour. It is a primary requirement of these centres, in counselling persons who desire to be transsexed, that they “pass” as “true women” in order to qualify for treatment and eventually surgery. “Passing” requirements evaluate everything from feminine dress and feminine body language to feminine positions in intercourse… the influence of these clinics and clinicians in reinforcing sex-role stereotypes is significant.

As sex-role propaganda infiltrates every aspect of social life, from advertising to toys and sports, gender stereotypes are increasingly normalised and naturalised – to the extent that those who do not comply will pathologise themselves instead of this sexist system. As sufferers of dysphoria increasingly opt for medical fixes rather than being offered social analyses of patriarchy, gender and sex roles, Raymond offers another observation.

A not-so-incidental by-product of this particular medical theodicy is the enlargement of medical knowledge about manipulating organs of the body which specifically function to define biological sex. This, of course, works to the ultimate benefit of the sadistic side of the theodicy, enabling medical research and technology to acquire a specialised body of scientific knowledge on the manipulation of human sexuality that probably could not be acquired by any other accepted medical procedure.

The medical establishment has always sought such knowledge and power over women’s biology, including power to appropriate it. In the late nineteenth century, there was a fanatic interest in “prosthetic wombs” as well as the removal of women’s ovaries to “cure insanity”. Transgenderism is based on the same patriarchal medical model that associates behavioural issues with female sex organs: men’s right to own them, even through proposed uterus transplants; women’s need to have them removed.

Davis points out that one way prisoners have been exploited for profit throughout American history, is as “valuable subjects in medical research, thus positioning the prison as a major link between universities and corporations.” During the post-World War II period, says Davis, “medical experimentation on captive populations helped to hasten the development of the pharmaceutical industry.”

Such medical experimentation also took place in concentration camps, as discussed in Janice Raymond’s book The Transsexual Empire. Inmates were subjected to experiments in freezing, bone-grafting, sterilisation and injections with lethal viruses. High altitutude tests were done on prisoners to observe the point at which they stopped breathing. There was also at least one transsexual operation done in the camps, recorded in the published memoirs of Simon Wiesenthal:

I met another boy whom the scientists of Auschwitz, after several operations, had successfully turned into a woman. He was then thirteen years old. After the war, a complicated operation was performed on him in a West German clinic. The doctors restored the man’s physical masculinity, but they couldn’t give back his emotional equilibrium.

These operations at Auschwitz were entirely involuntary, but this is part of the point of comparing the prison and the gender industrial system here. The prison industrial system works cyclically, by using corporate power to break communities and then feed off them – and that is how patriarchy works. This is why Raymond asks how people with dysphoria could be considered “free” within a patriarchal society – and suggests they are, instead, already a captive population under patriarchy.

Raymond points out that transgender surgery is a creation of men, initially developed for men. She says that (like NPIP’s demands) the research and literature is “overwhelmingly oriented to the male-to-constructed-female transsexual and also overwhelmingly authored by men”. As a male-driven “attempt to wrest from women the power inherent in female biology,” transgenderism is not an isolated phenomenon catering to individual need. It relates directly to, and reinforces, all other forms of sex-based oppression and enforced control over women’s bodies: from child marriage, to female infanticide and genital mutilation, restrictions on abortion, and the trade in women through surrogacy clinics and prostitution.

Gender is a prison. Whether through child marriage, female genital mutilation, prostitution, surrogacy or domestic slavery, it is a prison built by men for women to inhabit. In fact – that’s why, as Davis points out, imprisonment was not even seen as sufficient punishment for female convicts when the prison system first became established. Women were already imprisoned, by gender.

The call to “End the practice of incarcerating trans people” is, in some sense, consistent with a general policy of prison abolition. But the emphasis prison abolitionists place, and uncritical approach they take, to gender identity makes the movement for decarceration look like men’s rights activism. It’s time that prison abolitionists evaluated gender and its medicalisation in the same way they have assessed the prison industrial complex itself. Because gender is a prison. So if there is no pride in prisons, there can be no pride in gender.

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2 thoughts on “Why can't we just make up?: On the hypocrisy of transactivism in the prison abolition movement”

  1. Pingback: Why can’t we just make up?: On the hypocrisy of transactivism in the prison abolition movement | Feminist Legal Clinic

  2. Pingback: Pride, police, politicians, pundits and prison abolitionists: What’s going on? – writing by renee

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