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Artist and activist Reina Gossett talks CeCe McDonald, trans liberation, and prison abolition / by Chris Lee

It was 11:30 pm when CeCe McDonald, a fashion design student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, was on her way to the grocery store. The errand should have been simple, but for trans women of color, that is rarely the case. On their way, CeCe and her friends were attacked outside of a bar by a group of people shouting racist and transphobic slurs. A fight ensued, and one of the attackers was fatally stabbed, a crime for which CeCe eventually spent 19 months in a men’s prison. In the months that followed, the Transgender Youth Support Network launched a "Free CeCe" campaign, gaining international support from young activists and defenders of trans rights. Globally, the "Free CeCe" campaign spurred conversations about transphobia, racism, police brutality, and systems of injustice in general.

"One of the lessons of CeCe’s story is that when our lives are criminalized, even our self-defense is criminalized," says Reina Gossett, a Brooklyn-based trans artist and activist. Reina serves as membership director at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP), a collectively-run organization that seeks to address poverty and over-incarceration in trans communities of color. “In CeCe’s instance,” she continues, “when we’re attacked in a very particular way, as she was by white supremacists, she can be charged for saying, 'No, you won’t kill me.’ "

Reina is also the 2014-2015 Activist-In-Residence at Barnard College’s Center for Research on Women. In conjunction with Barnard, this Monday she and SRLP founder Dean Spade will lead a public conversation with CeCe McDonald, "I Use My Love to Guide Me: Surviving and Thriving in the Face of Impossible Situations." The conversation takes place at 7:30 pm at the New School Auditorium in Manhattan and is part of an ongoing conversation series on trans activism and prison abolition, entitled "No One Is Disposable." (Many videos from the series, as well as some conversations with CeCe, are already available to watch online here.)

In advance of Monday's event, we spoke with Reina about her work with the SRLP, the idea of disposability relating to incarceration, connecting with love and humor, and more.

Chris Lee: The event on Monday is part of the series, “No One is Disposable: Everyday Practices of Prison Abolition.” Could you start by speaking to this idea of disposability and how it ties into the politics of incarceration or exile?

Reina: I think ‘No One is Disposable’ speaks particularly to me because we’re in this moment where a lot of people—low income people, people of color, and specifically trans and non-gender-conforming people who are low income—are having to navigate the criminalization of our survival, and being treated like we’re disposable.

It means here in New York City, we’re largely shut out of accessing social services that would allow for us to survive, whether that means healthcare coverage or welfare. There are so many forms of social service environments where we’re constantly navigating violence just to gain access to the care and benefits we need.

With healthcare in New York, there’s actually a state regulation that refuses any transition-related coverage, which is particular because it’s the same kind of health care that is afforded to non-trans people. A non-trans woman can get estrogen for menopause, whereas a trans woman can’t get estrogen for hormone therapy. The same treatments being offered to one group are being denied to another because they’re transgendered.

Despite the American Medical Association saying trans healthcare is necessary, and despite studies done by the city of San Francisco and the state of California suggesting that the costs are negligible for covering trans healthcare and public insurance, despite all of these “facts,” this discrimination of our lives is alive and well in 2014. And it’s one way that we’re told that the care that we need is completely irrelevant to the people who are supposed to be providing it.

Another way we’re treated as disposable is being shut out of formal economies. It’s really hard for trans people to find employment because of job discrimination. And when we’re also denied the services we need, we find ourselves entering criminalized economies, whether that means accessing illegal hormones or other forms of health care, or engaging in sex trade. And by entering criminalized economies, we’re then policed and surveyed; we’re pushed into prisons, detention centers, and psychiatric hospitals. That’s another way we’re treated as disposable, and I think it largely replicates other systems of eugenics, which says that some lives are worth living and that some should be made miserable in order for other people to benefit off of that.

Some people call this eugenics, others call this disposability, but the message to people of color, to low-income and non-gender conforming people is that our lives do not matter. One of the lessons of CeCe’s story is that when our lives are criminalized, even our self-defense is criminalized. So, in CeCe’s instance, when we’re attacked in a very particular way, as she was by white supremacists, she can be charged for saying, “No, you won’t kill me.”

I think “No One is Disposable” is important because it highlights the fact that we are people who are negotiating incredibly violent systems. It shifts the focus from the idea of systems harming us and our being victims, to an idea of agency and power in fighting those systems. We’re building stronger relationships with each other and we’re growing other forms of getting our needs met. It’s an important difference between talking about how police and prisons and jails are bad, and how they hurt trans people; and, instead, talking about how trans people are powerful, how they can fight back, and how we’re staging these movements in the face of these systems.

One of the issues that comes up a lot when discussing the prison industrial complex is how to negotiate those kinds of expectations, negotiating micro versus macro politics, and negotiating all of those bullshit binaries that are thrown at us by ideological conditions that suggest that we have to do one thing rather than another, or that we can’t be angry and love each other at the same time.

Considering the upcoming event with CeCe, “I Use My Love to Guide Me, “ it seems like a lot of the coverage of prison abolition honors anger and righteous dissatisfaction with systems. But CeCe specifically mentions love, and how it was important for her to relearn to trust people just to go outside. How do you see activists negotiating loving each other and being angry?

I think more and more I’m having conversations in resistance movements about a politics of austerity, the argument being that the people who are the most austere are the most revolutionary, and that the people who push out feelings of comedy and humor and love-- those people who are the most austere with emotions-- are the true revolutionaries.

I think what CeCe’s talk shows is that, in this moment when we’re being killed off in such extreme ways, and when we’re getting all of these messages that no parts of us are valuable, that it’s incredibly profound and revolutionary to connect with love and humor.

I think about Marsha P. Johnson, a black trans activist who’s incredibly revolutionary and also really funny. I think about how our humor can work to dismantle the state and violent conditions. And I think about how we don’t always have to be moving through righteous anger. It’s actually okay for us to laugh! Laughter is a powerful tool for us to dismantle the prison industrial complex.

Along those same lines, I noticed that you’re hosting the Hey Queen! party on Saturday with Aye Nako in Brooklyn, which I feel is kind of relevant to this idea of connecting with humor and emotions. I love Aye Nako and think everything they do is rad, and they’re always speaking critically to these kinds of issues, while also being out there playing shows and having fun. How do you see the role of parties and dance and benefit shows in raising awareness around activism? Is it an outlet for dealing with exhaustion? Does it supplement radicalism?

Every year at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, we have a great fundraiser; it’s an art auction and party called “Small Works for Big Change,” and it features the artwork of our community members. People who are trans and incarcerated donate artwork, designs, and materials, and people who are not incarcerated, who are firm believers in the mission of SRLP, also donate work and perform. We come together to have a great time.

Part of growing a culture of gender self-determination and liberation is creating spaces where we can be fully comfortable and fully respected in ourselves, where we’re not replicating the micro or macro aggressions and violence that we have to navigate outside these kinds of parties. I think this cultural work and cultural organizing is vital for growing a movement, and vital just for enjoying ourselves. Things don’t always have to have the goal of furthering a movement. If the goal is having complicated and whole people, then it’s important to let them exercise their dance muscle.

Can you talk a little more about your work with the SRLP and how its mission ties into the talk series?

I’m doing this talk with the fellowship that I have with Barnard, so while it’s not organized through the SRLP, I think that it connects deeply to the work of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Particularly it connects to our work of increasing the leadership and ownership of trans people, low-income people, and people of color in resistance movements. And this speaks to the understanding that transphobia is inextricably linked to forms of repression like anti-black racism, colonialism, and ableism. I think that the talk on Monday is an extension and embodiment of those forms of politics.

This event is about people who are navigating disposability coming together talk about what’s meaningful to us. And that’s not usually a perspective that’s offered a platform.

So often the brilliance of the people who are navigating criminalization is not honored, even, a lot of the time, in activist spaces. I think it’s vital that CeCe and Dean are going to be in conversation, because these interactions represent a perspective that’s not really valued. What the state and the N.P.I.C. (non-profit industrial complex) try to teach people is that the expertise lies with those who are leading foundations or within academia—and that’s fine sometimes… People in those positions can be experts. But I think what the state actively tries to do is undermine the credibility and the brilliance of people who aren’t in those positions, but who have been living their lives and continuing to push back against violence.

I definitely agree that it’s important to hear from people who are most directly impacted by these experiences. And in CeCe’s case it was great that we were able to read her letters and stories. It does seem these accounts about incarceration are not represented in media outlets; and even besides university settings, in mainstream media the only discussions about incarceration align with criminal or state justice. How do you think this idea of presenting counter-narratives, in the spirit of DIY publishing and zine-making, ties into the project of prison abolition?

RG: I think it’s vital! It goes back to growing our own culture of transliberation and self-determination. Here at the SRLP we put out our own publication that is written between people who are incarcerated. People on the outside work with people on the inside to produce a regular publication that goes specifically to people who are incarcerated, so that they can be in conversation with each other.

It’s one of the only publications that is written by, and with an audience for, trans, gender non-conforming people who are currently incarcerated. It has self-interviews, which is necessary because the state doesn’t allow for people in prison writing to each other. It’s actually an incredibly radical, revolutionary act to do a self-interview and publish it, in order to share information. There are also reflections and memoirs, and fun things like crossword puzzles.

The publication ties into the history of growing a transliberation movement, the history of people like Sylvia Rivera in the 60s and 70s, who were strongly organizing around incarceration and staging many interventions in the the gay and lesbian movement against this normalization of white, middle-class people as the embodiment of gay liberation. Our publication really stands in solidarity with that movement, and continues in that legacy of supporting people who are currently incarcerated.

I was really glad to be able to follow the “No One is Disposable” conversations online, both the ones between you and Dean Spade in the last installment of the series, and these most current conversations with CeCe. I feel like there is a kind of discomfort, though, about virtual applications, especially when they have physical or local impacts on communities. Do you have any critical hopes or hesitations about using the Internet for radical causes?

I think we live in a world that’s all complicated. The state tells us that there’s a pure choice and a complicated or unpure choice, and that’s a binary that’s deeply invested in colonialism. I would encourage us to think that, in all of the choices that we make, that there is no good choice or pure choice. We’re constantly navigating through multiple forms of violence and micro-macro aggressions.

For a really long time, for me, and for a lot of the black and Latina trans women I knew, for those of us who weren’t living in homeless shelters but had access to apartments, we would not be leaving these places because of the violence we had to face every single time we left wherever we were staying, whether it was to go to work (if we had jobs), or to go to the subway, or to just get some food.

Isolation is a major form of violence that particularly trans, male-assigned and gender non-conforming people have to navigate every single day. One of our survival strategies can be staying inside, and it can be really hard to stay inside all day and only leave at night.

If we’re thinking about trans people managing this incredible amount of isolation, one tool is going online to connect with other people or watch content on the Internet. I think that it’s an incredible survival tool to have access to online resources that are important to them, or that allows them to feel a deeper sense of somebody-ness.

I think that’s one reason, for me, why I find video content and Internet content to be really powerful, and I don’t think it disallows the critique of where Internet lines are laid down, how they displace indigenous communities, how Apple products are farmed in black communities, or how Facebook and Google are gentrifying communities of color. All of that is incredibly true.

But I think it’s a different conversation to talk about trans people stuck up in homes and having access to content that is specifically for them. This is really rare for trans people of color because they are almost never the intended audience for media content. Whether it’s a great alternative website or a video on Logo or some TV show, we’re never the intended audience. It’s really rare that any content goes online that’s specifically for trans, low-income, people of color. I applaud that any time it happens.

Right, and within physical spaces as well, there is a great kind of connection that happens where people can be intimate and touch each other and give each other things, but there’s also this negotiation of representation, and of visual expectation, and even of conforming to standards about radicalism or alternative culture.

I wrote this piece with my partner after going to a queer dance party where we were really violated and we were misread. My gender was misread… I was read as a guy; all of this transphobia was happening and being put on our bodies. Even the intimate radical spaces of a queer dance party can hold the major violences that we have to circumvent.

Are there any other issues you want to mention before Monday?

I think the movement around the Monica Jones case is really inspiring; she’s a black trans woman who was arrested in Arizona for ‘manifesting prostitution,’ where she was protesting this way that people involved in sex work are policed there. There’s an initiative in Arizona called Project Rose, which arrests people that the police perceives to be involved in sex work and takes them into social services.

So, the police in Arizona are arresting people into social services. The same social services that people are demanding to have to survive and that they’re being denied access to, the police are arresting people into. They do this twice a year, rounding people up, coercing them into deeply unsafe situations. But any other day people are shut out of those social services.

Monica Jones was tried and convicted last Friday; the police officer claims that she was trying sell him sex, whereas she was really arrested for his transphobia, and for simply being a black trans woman. There’s a very compelling movement around her case and against the criminalization of black lives, black trans lives, black women, and sex work.

One last question! This goes back to connecting with humor and love. What kinds of music are you listening to right now? What’s your soundtrack to smashing the state?

Well, right now I’m listening to some John Legend... I really liked his first two albums and didn’t like the third, so I’m trying to re-engage with his fourth… Oh, and a little Lorde. And Alice Coltrane, I’ve started running to her.

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