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New Report Centers LGBTQ Experiences of Mass Incarceration

02/24/2016 11:53 pm ET
  • Andrea Ritchie Author, attorney, activist and advocate on racial profiling, policing, and criminalization. Co-author of Say Her Name and Queer (In)Justice.

Five years ago, Beacon Press published Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People, a book which provided a comprehensive examination LGBT people in the criminal legal system. Five years later, the Movement Advancement Project's new report Unjust makes a critical contribution to our collective understanding of the wide-ranging impacts of criminalization and mass incarceration.

Unjust collects the latest research highlighting the experiences of LGBTQ people within the criminal legal and immigration detention systems, describes cutting-edge programs, and makes urgent recommendations for change. It comes at a time of unprecedented attention to the impacts of mass incarceration in the United States. It also comes at a time of unprecedented opportunity, as reflected by bipartisan efforts to reform key aspects of the criminal legal system and by the May 2015 report of the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which recommended several measures that would specifically address LGBTQ experiences of profiling and discriminatory treatment.

This report pulls together documentation by grassroots groups, national studies, and academic research to unearth and examine evidence of ongoing and pervasive discrimination against LGBTQ people throughout the criminal legal system, from entry to exit. It also highlights the latest chapters in the long history of LGBTQ people's resistance to criminalization, turning a spotlight on both individual experiences and collective organizing campaigns.

For the past two decades, grassroots groups like the Audre Lorde Project, Community United Against Violence (CUAV), FIERCE, Queer to the Left, Queers for Economic Justice, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and the Transgender Law Center led the way documenting and organizing around LGBTQ people's experiences with policing and punishment at the intersections of race, poverty, gender and sexuality. In 2005, drawing on the expertise of organizers on the ground across the country, Amnesty International released Stonewalled: Police Abuse and Misconduct Against LGBT People in the United States, one of the first national reports on the subject. And in 2009, the Equity Project released the groundbreaking Hidden InJustice: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth in Juvenile Courts.

More recently, grassroots and national organizations from Streetwise and Safe (SAS) to Lambda Legal, BreakOUT! to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, the Young Women's Empowerment Project to the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and Make the Road New York to the National Center for Transgender Equality, to name just a few, have conducted community-based research to further reflect the experiences of LGBTQ people in the criminal legal system. Simultaneously, a growing number of academics, service providers, government statisticians, and policymakers have focused on these issues, providing new data and perspectives. Thanks to this long legacy of work lifting up the lived experiences of criminalized LGBTQ people, we are in a time of unprecedented attention to LGBTQ people's experiences of policing, prisons, and immigration detention.

This report also comes at a time of unprecedented policy advocacy rooted in the experiences of criminalized LGBTQ people. In 2013, over 50 LGBTQ, civil rights, racial justice, anti-violence and civil liberties organizations came together to develop a national LGBT criminal justice advocacy agenda. These recommendations were published in 2014 as A Roadmap for Change: Federal Policy Recommendations for Addressing the Criminalization of LGBT People and People Living with HIV by the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia University, the Center for American Progress, the Center for HIV Law and Policy and Streetwise and Safe (SAS). Since then, dozens of grassroots groups and national organizations have come together into a federal LGBTQ Criminal Justice Working Group to advance the Roadmap recommendations.

Most importantly, this report comes at a time of unprecedented mobilization by and for LGBTQ people directly impacted by policing and criminalization, as reflected by the Get Yr Rights Network, a national network of organizations sharing resources and strategies to challenge the criminalization of LGBTQ youth and their communities founded by Streetwise and Safe (SAS) and BreakOUT!, and by efforts to lift up the experiences of Black LGBTQ people targeted for police violence through the #SayHerName and #BlackLivesMatter campaigns.

Unjust benefits from these legacies and builds on these groundbreaking efforts in this unique historical moment. The work that informed and made this report possible remains critically necessary, and continues to merit our attention, amplification, and resources in order to ensure that efforts to end the criminalization of LGBTQ people and our communities is both driven by and accountable to those on the front lines of the fight.

In reading this report, two principles are essential to keep in mind, both of which draw directly on decades of work done by the organizations highlighted in the Historical Context sidebar on the next page. First, it is beyond dispute that the story of criminalization and mass incarceration in the United States is overwhelmingly one targeting Black people, people of color, immigrants, people labeled with mental illness or addiction, and low-income people--including the LGBTQ people who share these identities or characteristics. The reality is, as much of the research cited within this report confirms, that LGBTQ youth and people of color, transgender and gender nonconforming people, and low-income and homeless LGBTQ people make up the overwhelming majority of the individuals whose experiences animate these pages.

The experiences of LGBTQ people are both similar to and distinct from those of the communities they are a part of. Their stories are inseparable from and an integral part of the larger story of race, gender, immigration, poverty, ableism and the criminal legal system. There is a distinct danger in understanding the criminalization of LGBTQ people as a process somehow distinct from and unrelated to these larger frameworks, affecting LGBTQ people in isolation, only through discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Conversations around criminalization of LGBTQ people should neither be framed nor read as an isolated, additional, or competing narrative, but rather situated in a broader systemic understanding of policing and punishment of gender and sexuality in service of maintaining structures of power based on race, poverty, ability, and place.

The second core principle is alluded to in the report's conclusion: that the system is not necessarily broken at all, but rather working exactly as it is intended to. Put another way, policing and punishment along the axes of race, poverty, ability, gender and sexuality are intrinsic to the operation of the criminal legal system at every stage, and have been throughout its history. Of course, this understanding should not keep us from working to reduce the harms worked by the system on individual lives and communities, for instance by advancing the recommendations of this report. But it should give us pause, and urge us to confront the reality that the criminal legal system is in many instances structured to produce violence and punishment rather than to afford protection and safety for people of color and low-income people, including LGBTQ people.

The hope is that this comprehensive examination of LGBTQ experiences from first contact with police through re-entry can both inform larger conversations about criminalization of the broader communities LGBTQ people are a part of, and simultaneously highlight the ways in which LGBTQ people's experiences must shift our overall strategies, goals, and outcomes. The hope is also that this report will inspire LGBTQ advocates to deepen their engagement in and support for broader struggles against mass incarceration, and against criminal legal responses to poverty, addiction, and mental illness. It is not enough to advocate for non-discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the application of criminal law, or to seek reforms specific only to LGBTQ people. It is essential to keep in view the broader harms experienced by all individuals targeted for discriminatory enforcement of criminal laws, all who experience violence and deprivation throughout the criminal legal system and all who face denial of opportunities upon re-entry. And it is essential to center the leadership and experiences of LGBTQ people-and specifically LGBTQ youth, people of color and low-income people-directly impacted by criminalization within larger efforts to radically re-envision safety and justice for all members of our communities.

(This post is adapted from a foreword to the report)

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