It is time for progressive queers to open up a fundamentally different and more expansive conversation around anti-queer violence and the creation of safe communities—a conversation that this time includes all queer communities, not merely the most racially and economically privileged of us. A conversation emphasizing the integrity of community relationships and commitment to the creation of safety for queers within the context of racial, gender, and economic justice.
Homophobic and transphobic violence has a long, grim history in this country, and it remains widespread. It’s touched my life, as it’s touched the lives of many others. Its reduction and prevention require our best thinking and most creative and passionate efforts. But which responses have the potential to produce real change while also challenging the larger culture of violence that surrounds us, and which responses complicate and reinforce already existing violence and injustice?
For more than a decade, I have been meeting with groups across the country, listening to others, writing, and speaking about the increasing reliance by many LGBTQ organizations and communities on policing and harsher sentencing to respond to anti-queer violence, a reliance that takes the form of hate crime laws, intensified “quality of life” campaigns in privileged neighborhoods with significant gay concentrations, and the like. I allied with other progressive queer activists familiar with law enforcement violence who were already identifying the problems inherent in hate crime laws and increasingly have been exploring new antiviolence strategies that do not depend on increased policing and harsher punishments.
Simply put, a disturbing paradox rests at the heart of “get tough” approaches to crime. These approaches do speak directly to the fears many people have about violence and crime, and they respond to a widespread (and reasonable) public expectation that we should be safe walking the streets and gathering in public spaces. Yet far from securing safety and justice, “law and order” measures actually reproduce and expand the fear, pain, and violence that oppressed communities are trying to escape. Penalty enhancements, “quality of life” policing, and other “get tough” measures actually place more queers at greater risk of violence—not only at the hands of the criminal legal system, but also as a result of the influential role that system plays in distributing injustice and economic inequality.
In this essay, I take note of the ways in which “law and order” measures and “get tough on crime” policies in the United States have become disturbing proxies for racial, gender, sexual, and economic justice—and for a broader public commitment to the well being of all communities. The terrible irony is that even dedicated justice advocates—including many LGBTQ activists and organizations—have accepted these proxies, without first examining the profound injustices, inequality, and violence embedded in them. A progressive LGBTQ movement must not only challenge this framework and work to deconstruct it, but also work in light of a transformative vision that envisions safety within an unshakeable framework of justice for all and public commitment to community wholeness and well-being.
New visions of justice, antiviolence grassroots community organizing, and new policies are imperative in a society that over the past three decades has increasingly been structured by the politics of fear, resentment, anxiety, scarcity, and the privatization of public resources. A politics that shatters communities and promotes poverty has replaced the New Deal social contract which, however thin and imperfectly realized, was a civic commitment to use public dollars to help provide for the common good. Moreover, “get tough on crime” rhetoric and policy present not just a political problem, but a spiritual and ethical one as well. Their momentum has constrained the LGBTQ movement’s ability to envision racial, gender, and economic justice as central elements of effective, grassroots queer community organizing.
I begin this discussion with the assumption that all of us want anti-queer violence to end; that we want to provide meaningful support to those who have been hurt by violence and help ensure their (and our own) safety; that we want to hold those who do violence to others accountable for their actions and stop them from hurting anyone else. And I assume that the vast majority of us harbor deep longing for safe and just communities in which we can live economically secure lives, cherished for who we are, free to pursue our dreams and desires and able to care for our families (chosen, biological, extended), free from the threat of harassment, abuse, exploitation, coercion, intimidation, and violence. These common aspirations are the root from which fresh approaches to antiviolence organizing can grow. But the obstacles to nurturing those aspirations are formidable.
Barriers to a Bolder Vision
It is simply not possible for LGBTQ communities to police and punish our way to safety. Not now. Not ever. To fully grasp why this is so, we must examine the ways in which a steadily increasing US reliance on prisons, policing, and harsher sentencing wreaks so much economic, social, and spiritual havoc. “Get tough on crime” policies and approaches do not prevent racist, misogynist, and antiqueer mistreatment and violence; they escalate it, albeit in forms that are often hidden from public view and silenced in mainstream political conversation.
“Get tough” approaches also divert desperately needed public funding for human needs and civic infrastructure into policing, prisons, and the domestic militarization of our communities. This diversion of resources, combined with economic policies favoring the well-to-do, intensifies the violence of poverty, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, resegregation, homelessness, employment discrimination, and the lack of well-paid jobs, education, and health care. Drug and alcohol dependency, mental illness, and sexual violence remain serious social problems. It is this havoc—with its far-reaching racial, gender, sexual, cultural, and economic implications—that remains rarely discussed in too many gay arenas.
Obviously, LGBTQ communities did not create these problems, and hate crime laws and other gay-supported “law and order” measures constitute only a minuscule part of a much larger tidal wave of “get tough on crime” policies in the United States. But if we are to build a powerful, progressive queer movement, then our vision must be clear enough to see how the small pieces relate to a much larger picture
The cost of not doing so has already been considerable. “Law and order” measures—and the uncritical embrace of them—function as a kind of quality control trap for our movement, forcing us to accept (often unacknowledged) hierarchies of queer worthiness. Whose queer lives are worthy of our regard, and whose are we willing to discard? To openly answer this question brings us face to face with unsettling truths about the ways that racism, misogyny, economic exploitation, and the policing of sex and gender historically have structured the US criminal legal system—and how they continue to do so today.
In fact, it is the voices of those who experience both anti-queer violence and the routine violence of law enforcement that should be framing the conversation. They include poor, low-income, and homeless queers, a wildly disproportionate number of whom are people of color. Youth, trans people, single mothers, sex workers, and people with mental and physical disabilities are also heavily (over)represented in the numbers of queers who are poor and working poor. But making this shift would begin to transform power relationships within our movement. As Ejeris Dixon, former coordinator of the Audre Lorde Project’s Safe OUTside the System (SOS) Collective observes, “It’s easier to talk about hate than power.”
The “hate crime” framework relies upon a simple, uncomplicated story that presents queer people and communities as victims whose protection must come from more policing, more militarization of our neighborhoods, longer prison sentences. Yet we should be fighting against all forms of violence—sexual abuse and rape, battering and abuse, violence, community- and state-sponsored violence—inspired not only by justifiable anger against that violence, and informed not only by our fear and pain, but also by our longing, hopes, and dreams for safe and just, queer-inclusive communities. Our visions and dreams should call us not only to name and confront the harms of violence, but also to support the individual and collective self-empowerment of violence survivors—not as vigilantes or wannabe cops, but as determined, respected, and capable co-creators of justice in their/our own communities.
Unfortunately, a decades-long shadow of more policing, more prisons, more punishment has steadily reinforced our sense of the inevitability of policing and prison-based approaches to safety, and it obscures our ability to envision safety in more just and life–affirming ways.
“Law and Order” Comes of Age: 1968–2010
In one 40-year period, the long shadow of “law and order” has fallen over almost every aspect of civic life, driven by right-wing insistence that safety and security can only be purchased with more policing, more high-tech security, more prisons with more people in them, preemptive wars, trampling of constitutional rights, and flagrant abuses of human rights (including torture) justified by the specious, post-9/11 rhetoric of “homeland security.”
The great range of radical and progressive social and political movements that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s—including black power, antiwar, civil rights, feminism, gay liberation, environmental protection, and other struggles for racial and economic justice—collectively lifted up profoundly important and democratizing voices. They fused politics with practical service to communities, offering breakfast and nutrition programs for children, free clinics, women’s health care, schools for those without equal access to decent education, protection from police violence, shelters for those who had been sexually assaulted and physically abused, and more. Activist and scholar Lisa Duggan accurately describes the progressive–left social movements of the 1960s and 1970s as “overlapping, interrelated (if conflicted) cultures of downward redistribution” of money, political power, rights, cultural expression, and freedom.
But by the early 1970s, a powerful political and economic counter response was already underway, characterized by Duggan as, “a pro-business counter movement intent on building a culture of upward (re)distribution.” The counter response sought to gut the economic programs of the New Deal, long despised by conservatives. It also pursued an ambitious “wrecking ball” agenda that undermined and sought to roll back or limit the pursuit of social justice and equitable distribution of civil and human rights. The engines of racism, xenophobia, sexism, and homophobia play a central role in this upward redistribution of wealth and privilege. The key tactical triumph of the counter response has been harnessing an economic agenda of divestment in human needs and civic infrastructure to an expansive agenda of “culture wars” against communities of color, the poor, queers, women, youth, people with disabilities, and others. The steady, rhetorical drumbeat is this: “They are assaulting our way of life; they are stealing from us what rightfully is ours.”
One of the most far-reaching accomplishments of the counter response was reframing public discourse about justice and government responsibility for helping to meet human needs into a new narrative about crime, menace, punishment, and safety. This shift in thinking and public discourse occurred at a moment when white America was already anxious and fearful about escalating black frustration and rage. Barry Goldwater’s failed 1964 campaign for the presidency had already begun to conflate white resistance to civil rights gains with a crusade against “crime.” With Richard Nixon’s election to the presidency, the politics of resentment and polarization exploded. Demands for justice increasingly were reframed in racially coded ways as the distribution of multiple social and economic forms of theft, menace, and danger. This message would be strengthened, amplified, and translated into public policy in myriad forms for the ensuing decades. Tapping into both conscious and unacknowledged racial fears, it would resonate not only with conservative Republicans, right-wing ideologues, and “Reagan Democrats,” but also with many centrists, moderates, liberals and progressives.
One particularly potent racist icon was that of the sexually violent and murderous “criminal.” This culturally criminalizing image of African American males resonates back into times of slavery and the post-Reconstruction epidemic of lynching that lasted well into the twentieth century. The solution: more investment in policing, prisons, and locking criminals up for longer periods of time. Used with stunning effectiveness by an arm of the prophetically named National Security Political Action Committee to help George H.W. Bush win the 1988 presidential election, the racist “criminal” icon—personified by prisoner William (shortened to “Willie” by Republican admen) Horton—was used to accuse the Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis (and by extension anyone else who opposed the “law and order” agenda), of being “soft on crime.” This racially volatile cultural image still haunts crime policy debates today, influencing people who have simply never thought much about the racial coding that is always deeply embedded in discussion of crime policy in the United States.
Not surprisingly, the counter response began to produce massive social and economic fallout: the widening gap between rich and poor, severe shortages of affordable housing and health care, job outsourcing, the gutting of workplace benefits, retirement, and pension programs and crumbling civic and educational infrastructure. “Law and order” is the right’s answer to this fallout, a cynical form of white political “call and response” that permits the right to profit from the social and economic violence produced or bolstered by its own policies.
The exhortation to “get tough on crime” was accompanied by an accelerated criminalization of poverty and inequality. Funding for legal services for poor people was slashed to the bone. Educational and rehabilitation programs for incarcerated people were decimated. Immigrants of color came under increased attack. Prisons and jails came to house more people with mental illness than health care institutions. Led by extreme drug sentencing laws, racially coded, and enforced in an obviously racist manner, an explosion of “harsher penalty” laws, mandatory minimum sentences, and three-strike laws began to litter the landscape, filling up jails and prisons and providing the impetus for a for-profit prison services industry. Public spending on policing and prisons increased through the 1980s and 1990s, and in the post-9/11 era, investment in “homeland security” and militarization skyrocketed. Billions of public dollars have been turned into a form of corporate welfare going directly into the pockets of private contractors providing domestic and international security services and technology.
In 1972, about 330,000 people were incarcerated. Despite stable or falling rates of violent crime, the number of people in prison or jail skyrocketed to 2.3 million by 2008, a seven-fold increase. More than 60 percent of those imprisoned are people of color; about half are of African descent, despite the fact that US Census data confirm that black people constitute about 12.8 percent of the population. The rate of women’s imprisonment is now growing at a rate double that of men. Today, slightly more than 1 in every 100 adults—1 in every 9 young adult black males and 1 in every 36 Latinos—is in prison or jail, and more than 5 million people are on probation or parole. Many former prisoners have been denied by law access to public housing, educational loans, and other basic economic supports. Millions of people convicted of felonies, overwhelmingly people of color, have been temporarily or permanently disenfranchised in terms of voting rights.
Sociologist Elliott Curie underscores this reality with a startling observation: “Short of major wars, mass incarceration has been the most thoroughly implemented government social program of our time.” War images saturate the political and economic climate: government-declared wars on drugs, crime, immigrants and undocumented workers, and terrorism. With less justice, more fear, increasingly scarce resources devoted to human needs, and a host of “culture wars” fracturing the possibility that people would come together across constituencies to demand change, people increasingly feel vulnerable and threatened. The concept of safety is now thoroughly conflated in the public imagination with stronger, more extensive policing and punishment of “the enemy.” In such circumstances, it is not at all surprising that so many people—including queers—would so willingly embrace the rhetoric of “law and order,” and “get tough on crime.”
- Queer Watch, a justice advocacy group that also led in opposing the death penalty, voiced opposition to hate crime laws at least since the late 1990s. Progressive journalist Alexander Cockburn was an early voice critiquing and opposing hate crime laws in both the Nation and Counterpunch. In 2000, Carolina Cordero Dyer, then a board member of the Audre Lorde Project, a community organizing center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, two-spirit, and transgender people of color, penned a much-quoted Newsday op-ed piece that simultaneously acknowledged escalating anti-LGBTQ violence and called on queer communities to create “effective ways to reduce violence against our communities without relying on enhanced criminalization.” (Accessed January 26, 2012). I authored the 2001 American Friends Service Committee’s progressive challenge to hate crime law, In a Time of Broken Bones: A Call to Dialogue on Hate Violence and the Limitations of Hate Crimes Legislation. Some years later, a group of New York City-based organizations, including the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, the Audre Lorde Project (as an organization), Queers for Economic Justice, FIERCE, and the Peter Cicchino Youth Project publicly challenged the hate crime framework. Additionally, organizations such as Gender JUST (Chicago) and the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois have challenged “get tough on crime” approaches to creating safety for queers. [Return to text]
- Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock, Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2011). [Return to text]
- Ejeris Dixon, personal interview, 19 Nov. 2007. [Return to text]
- Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2003) xvii. [Return to text]
- See Walter F. Murphy and Joseph Tanenhaus, “Public Opinion and Supreme Court: The Goldwater Campaign,” Public Opinion Quarterly 32.1 (1968): 33-36; and John J. DiIulio, Jr., “A Limited War on Crime That We Can Win: Two Lost Wars Later” Brookings Review 10.4 (1992): 7. [Return to text]
- See, for example, Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (New York: Scribner, 2008). This book provides a compelling retelling and analysis of US politics between 1964 and 1972, with an emphasis on how the intentional marketing of polarization, resentment, and paranoia shaped and influenced the US political mainstream. [Return to text]
- See, for example, Justice Policy Institute, Too Little, Too Late: President Clinton’s Prison Legacy (Washington: Justice Policy Institute, 2001). [Return to text]
- See, for example, David C. Anderson, Crime and the Politics of Hysteria: How the Willie Horton Story Changed American Justice (New York: Crown, 1995). [Return to text]
- Ryan S. King, Marc Mauer, and Malcolm C. Young, Incarceration and Crime: A Complex Relationship (Washington: Sentencing Project, 2005). [Return to text]
- See Sentencing Project, Facts About Prisons and Prisoners (PDF) (Washington: The Sentencing Project, 2010), and US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 2008 (PDF) (Washington: US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2009). [Return to text]
- See The Pew Center on the States, One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008 (Washington: Pew Center on the States, 2008) (Accessed May 16, 2012). [Return to text]
- Elliot Currie, Crime and Punishment in America (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998) 21. [Return to text]