This section includes eighty-six short original essays commissioned for the inaugural issue of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. Written by emerging academics, community-based writers, and senior scholars, each essay in this special issue, “Postposttranssexual: Key Concepts for a Twenty-First-Century Transgender Studies,” revolves around a particular keyword or concept. Some contributions focus on a concept central to transgender studies; others describe a term of art from another discipline or interdisciplinary area and show how it might relate to transgender studies. While far from providing a complete picture of the field, these keywords begin to elucidate a conceptual vocabulary for transgender studies. Some of the submissions offer a deep and resilient resistance to the entire project of mapping the field terminologically; some reveal yet-unrealized critical potentials for the field; some take existing terms from canonical thinkers and develop the significance for transgender studies; some offer overviews of well-known methodologies and demonstrate their applicability within transgender studies; some suggest how transgender issues play out in various fields; and some map the productive tensions between trans studies and other interdisciplines.
One night in June 2011, as they walked through a South Minneapolis neighborhood to the grocery store, CeCe McDonald, a young African American trans woman, and a group of her friends, all also African American and queer, were attacked by a group of white people who yelled racist and transphobic slurs at them, including “faggots,” “niggers,” and “chicks with dicks.” When one of their attackers smashed a glass into McDonald's face, the attack escalated into a physical fight, during which one of her attackers was fatally stabbed. When police arrived on the scene, they arrested only McDonald.1
McDonald was later charged with two counts of second-degree murder. Initially, she was placed in solitary confinement at the Hennepin County men's jail, and she received insufficient medical care for a serious cut on her face, which eventually became infected. In May 2012, McDonald accepted a plea agreement in which she pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to prison for forty-one months. In June, she was transferred to the men's prison in St. Cloud, Minnesota. In January 2014, McDonald was released from prison after serving nineteen months.
McDonald's experiences stitch together a web of racialized, gendered, and sexualized violence and criminalization that many trans people, especially trans women of color, experience daily. Her story is emblematic of the experiences of trans people whose lives come in contact with the prison-industrial complex. Over the past decade, some scholars and activists have begun to use the term prison-industrial complex to describe the mutually beneficial and far-reaching relationship between state and private interests that promotes the prison system as a central response to social, economic, and racial problems (see, e.g., Davis 2003; Gilmore 2007; Rodríguez 2006). The prison-industrial complex is a dynamic and productive web of white supremacist, neoliberal, heteropatriarchal, and gender-normative power that targets social deviance for criminalization and imprisonment and secures normativity. In practice, certain populations marked as racially, sexually, gender, and/or class deviant — such as low-income African American men, trans women of color, and gender-nonconforming queer women of color or aggressives — are criminalized, portrayed as suspicious and dangerous, disproportionately incarcerated, and subjected to violence, while whiteness, heterosexuality, and non-trans status are decriminalized. In other words, policing, prisons, and punishment are organized by and help construct race, gender, sexuality, and class in the United States.
While throughout its history the prison system has been a central site of social, racial, gender, and sexual formation and control, it has taken on new importance since the 1970s. Responding to the needs of globalization and deindustrialization and as part of the backlash against racial justice movements of the 1950s to 1970s, the United States began to rapidly grow its prison population from an average daily population of about 300,000 at the beginning of the 1970s to nearly 2.3 million today. This rise in prison population has been fueled by racialized law enforcement, prosecution, and sentencing that have produced a prison population that is approximately 70 percent people of color. The new mass scale of the prison system has been termed “mass incarceration” to mark how certain populations are targeted for systematic imprisonment and to describe its devastating impacts on targeted communities, most centrally low-income black communities but also many trans and queer communities.
Law enforcement's targeting of queer, gender-nonconforming, and transgender people is not new. The history of trans people in the United States has been a history of criminalization. Throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, gender nonconformity, cross-dressing, and homosexuality were criminalized through laws and policing practices. Susan Stryker (2008) argues that trans communities and identities often formed and coalesced in response to experiences of persistent police scrutiny, harassment, and violence. This history produced what Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock (2010) call “queer criminal archetypes,” which persist into the present.
Today, people who are visibly gender nonconforming, especially those who are also marked as racially and/or economically deviant, are often viewed by police as particularly suspicious and subject to intense surveillance, violence, and arrest. Trans women often report being stopped by police under the suspicion that they are sex workers, an experience so common it has been labeled “walking while trans.” Queer criminal archetypes affect policing and also prosecution, sentencing, and treatment within penal institutions. This criminalization, coupled with endemic employment discrimination, poverty, homelessness, racism, and family rejection, has led to the disproportionate incarceration of trans and gender-nonconforming people. Within jails and prisons, trans people are almost always placed in a sex-segregated institution based on their genitals and are expected to conform to the norms of the sex of the institutions. Prison administrators often view gender-nonconforming and trans prisoners as security threats and subject them to increased surveillance and punishment, denial of medical care and appropriately gendered clothing and grooming products, isolation in segregation, and verbal, physical, and sexual harassment and assault.
Imprisoned trans and gender-nonconforming people, like McDonald, have fought against their criminalization and the prison-industrial complex's attacks on their gender identities and expressions for more than a century (Kunzel 2008; Stanley and Smith 2011). Yet their words, lives, and experiences are rarely part of trans studies conversations. As criminalization and disproportionate incarceration continue and as trans people continue to experience harassment and violence throughout the prison-industrial complex, the experiences and life chances of significant segments of our communities will be intimately bound to the prison-industrial complex.
1. For more on McDonald's case and to read some of her writing, go to supportcece.wordpress.com.