Queering Abolition

In this episode we examine the relationships between carcerality, gendered and sexual violence on the one hand, and on the other: queer and trans liberation and the abolitionist horizon.

Josue Saldivar and Karolina Lopez from the Arizona-based organization Mariposas Sin Fronteras discuss the ways that migrants fleeing heteropatriarchal and transphobic oppression in their home countries are re-subjected to this abuse through the gendered and sexual operations of the U.S. carceral state and its militarized borders. We also speak with abolitionist scholar and activist, Treva Ellison, who examines the ways in which racial capitalism has continuously reproduced queer criminality, and how queer abolition may fundamentally shift our understanding of the geographies of carcerality.

To learn more about Mariposas Sin Fronteras and ways to support their work, click here.

Image credit: Abby Gordon

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Episode Transcript:

Andrés: Welcome to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, my name is Andrés. In today’s episode, “Queering Abolition,” we examine the relationships between carcerality, gendered and sexual violence on the one hand, and between queer and trans liberation and the abolitionist horizon on the other. We speak first with Josue Saldivar and Karolina Lopez from the Arizona-based organization Mariposas Sin Fronteras. We discuss the ways that migrants fleeing heteropatriarchal and transphobic oppression in their home country are subjected to this abuse anew through the gendered and sexual operations of the U.S. carceral state and its militarized borders.

We then turn to a conversation with abolitionist scholar and activist, Treva Ellison, who examines the ways in which racial capitalism has continuously reproduced queer criminality, as well as the ways queer abolition has the potential not only to fundamentally shift our understanding of the geographies of carcerality, but also to radically renew our practices of imagining and organizing toward another world. But first, here’s Kaif Syed with some news you may have missed.


Kaif Syed: Transgender prisoner and whistleblower Chelsea Manning was released this month from Fort Leavenworth prison after serving 7 years of her 35 year sentence. Chelsea was unjustly incarcerated after leaking classified US military documents to the public, including battlefield reports recounting the deaths of civilians at the hands of Amerikkkan military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. After being subjected to years of solitary confinement, President Obama commuted her sentence in his last few weeks in office. We at Rustbelt Abolition Radio congratulate Chelsea for her bravery in the face of imperialism, and hope she enjoys life outside prison walls.

We return to the case of Bresha Meadows, the 15 year old girl from Ohio who killed her abusive father in the defense of herself and her family. Bresha accepted a plea deal on May 22 for her charge of involuntary manslaughter, giving her a year and a day in jail, six months of residential treatment, and two years probation. Since time already served is being counted, Bresha has only two months left in detention before she goes to treatment. Her incarceration is another example of the injustice perpetuated by the racist and patriarchal nature of the carceral state.

On May 27th, the 40 day long Palestinian prisoner hunger strike came to a tentative conclusion. For 40 days, over 1,500 Palestinian prisoners across multiple prisons under the settler colonial state engaged in a hunger strike to protest abuse and cruelty. Activists and ordinary people across the Palestinian territories and around the globe engaged in actions of solidarity with the prisoners, as well. The hunger strikers reached a deal with Israeli authorities ensuring better treatment, including more visitation.


David Langstaff: I’m David Langstaff here with Kaif Syed and you’re listening to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, an abolitionist media and movement-building project based in Detroit, Michigan.

Kaif Syed: How are queer and trans people criminalized under racial capitalism, and how does the carceral state reproduce forms of gendered and sexual violence? In what ways does the fight for abolition intersect with, and emerge from, queer and trans struggles for liberation? These are the kinds of questions that abolitionists ask. We now turn to back to David, who will introduce our invited speakers.


David Langstaff: Alejo spoke with Josue Saldivar and Karolina Lopez —  two organizers of the Tucson, Arizona-based Mariposas sin Fronteras about the ways in which migrant trans women of color are criminalized and subjected to multiple forms of violence, as well as the ways these communities are resisting, organizing for survival, and toward abolition.

Josue Saldivar: My name is Josue Saldivar.  I have been part of Mariposas sin fronteras since 2014.  When it first started as an official organization, we were exclusively a bond fund before. But I joined Mariposas in a time where the LGBTQ community in detention needed more resources.  It’s a population that is very vulnerable.  A lot of abuse, assaults, harassments, discrimination happen when they are in detention, and Mariposas saw a need to not just provide visits and letters, but also to extend the resources that currently Mariposas was providing, and with the help of outreach and including more people, we’re doing much more things like supporting bonds, going more regularly to detention centers to visit people there, continuous writing letters, we have done public campaigns to push ICE for relief, we provide outside support too once they’re outside, regarding living arrangements, employment opportunities, medical and mental health support, and various other aspects that come with our programming and education.  I myself am undocumented, with DACA, and so I am also at risk for detainment and possible deportation too, and so this is an issue that directly impacts me as well, which is a big value that Mariposas has, to center the voices and participation of directly affected individuals.

Alejo Stark: Thank you, Josue. Karolina?

Karolina Lopez [translation]: Well, my name is Karolina Lopez. I am a Mexican transgender woman who has been living in the United States for more than twenty years. I got involved in activism because of bad experiences I’ve lived through. For instance, for being a transgender woman I was locked up several times. I was locked up in jails and in 2009 I was detained in the Eloy Detention Center where I unfortunately suffered through several abuses and faced severe discrimination. I was even hit multiple times.

When I was in that detention center I didn’t know of any group that supported the LGBT community. So when I got out I was asked by two people who were supporting the LGBT community but didn’t really know how else to support the community, how to do it, how to start it. I mean, they were already supporting two trans women by paying for their bail bonds but they wanted to know more, how else they could help. How more they can support, and so at that point they asked me — what is what I most needed when I was in detention. And that’s when, well, I said that many people come from their countries due to violence, mistreatment, death threats. I met a lot of folks inside who lived through those situations. I was one of those people. I realized then that my current life situation was very vulnerable, but also that because of my vulnerability I had to do something. I had to struggle and I had to raise my voice. I think that Mariposas sin Fronteras has allowed me to raise my voice and be heard.

Like Josue said, we have made many visits to people in detention, we have supported many, many people, by supporting them by taking them out of detention, supporting them by giving them housing and mental health services, and we are going to keep doing that for as long as we can. We are not going to promise anything that we can’t give. On a personal level, even though Mariposas sin Fronteras didn’t get to support while I was inside, they supported me once I got out. And that for me has been huge, it has made a huge difference in my life.

Alejo Stark: Karolina, you were sharing with us your story about being in detention. Can you tell us how you ended up in detention, how that process was for you and how you ended up in Arizona in the first place?

Karolina Lopez [translation]: I’ve come from my country to escape from transphobia, homophobia, and the mistreatment I faced at home — in particular from my parents. I arrived to Phoenix in 1995. I was locked up several times simply for being a trans woman. The first time, I was locked up,  was for being a colored trans woman. The police officers accused me of being a prostitute when in reality I was not doing anything of the sort. And well, for that and other things I was arrested several other times too. The last time I ended up in jail, and this is why I don’t believe in the government, or the police, or in the political process more generally, is because in 2009 my personal bag was stolen. My bag at the time contained really important documents that I was carrying. In an attempt to get my bag back I ended up calling the police so that they can help me to get my stuff back. And well, the police, instead of helping me, ended up arresting me. The police then falsely accused me of committing a crime, which was clearly not true. After that they locked me up.

At that point I decided to fight back and fight the false charges that they put on me. But by that time immigration had put a hold on me and well I was sent to the Eloy detention center. It was there in Eloy that I found another transgender woman who was in the struggle. It was there that I mustered the courage and truly began to fight back. Though, I must say that life in detention is a living hell. Like I’ve said before, while in detention I was hit, I was forced to do things I didn’t want to, and they spit on my food. Well, I lived through an infinity of horrible things that one cannot even begin to imagine and that I really wouldn’t wish to anyone.

Alejo Stark: You both kept mentioning how vulnerable trans women of color are to various forms of violence — both inside and outside detention centers and prisons and so on. Can you tell us more about that?

Karolina Lopez [translation]: Transgender women are attacked, mistreated and murdered many more times than other members of our community.  So, we are vulnerable because even when we walk in the street they verbally and physically assault us, and we are not socially accepted. That is, we do not feel safe even in going out for walk. In detention it’s even worse. In the Eloy Detention Center, for example, there are women, but they never respect one’s gender. Not one transgender woman, those that are or aren’t operated, their gender isn’t respected. That is, irrespective if how a transgender woman looks like a woman or not, regardless, they are put with the men. In my case, I was put with the men. I spent three years and six months of my life locked up with men.

Josue Saldivar: In the case of Florence… the special processing center, it’s a facility where only males are placed, and there has been instances where transgender women have been placed there, and they are subjected to and at risk for so many things, and that’s a big push for us, to do a public campaign in order for them to be released on the basis of those potential risks that could happen.  We know that detention centers do not respect gender identity, and once in court in front of a judge, it is very likely that judges don’t recognize chosen family within the LGBT community, and the judges end up saying that because individuals do not have blood related relatives in the United States, that they don’t have family, and therefore they’re a flight risk, and that prevents them from getting bond or other legal avenues of relief.

I think that the court’s inability to see the legitimacy and the real aspects of chosen family in the LGBT community, that means more work has to be done within our judicial system, because a lot of the people that come to our detention centers are sometimes people that have been living in the streets, who have been homeless, who were rejected, and told to not be in their homes anymore because of their sexual orientation and sexual identity, and so they come alone, and organizations like Mariposas sin Fronteras become their chosen family, and I do think that there’s a lack of sensitivity in reality that we’re facing those things in detention where, like I mentioned, gender identity is not respected and chosen family is not seen as legitimate.

Alejo Stark: Right, and the point, ultimately is to get everyone out of detention. The Mariposas sin Fronteras mission for example seems to emphasize that, “One day in detention is too long. One deportation is too many,” and that you all envision “ a society that no longer finds solutions in the system of immigration detention or the prison industrial complex.” This is directly from the Mariposas sin Fronteras vision statement. Given this, how do you all understand both the abolition of borders, of prisons, of detention centers in relation to the struggle for queer and trans liberation more generally?

Karolina Lopez [translation]: Well I think that if we are fighting for a person that is in a vulnerable situation, any person that is vulnerable, and in this case if we are fighting for transgender women we are also fighting for dignity of everyone in general.

Josue Saldivar: In terms of abolition , Mariposas sin Fronteras, when it became an organization, had to have a conversation about that, and we came to the realization that if none of us in the movement talk about abolition, we will never have abolition, and so the fact that, we’re planting the seeds so one day abolition can be a reality, I think that’s what Mariposas sin Fronteras has believed and has valued.

The fact is that we might not see abolition in our lifetime, but we need to do our part to make abolition a reality sooner than later, and so we do see it as a personal, and therefore in consequence an organizational, so to speak, responsibility to defy and challenge our legal system in the ways that are within our capacity to do, and if that means confronting ICE for its inhumane treatment of detainees, then that’s what we will do.  If we need to take to the streets and do public campaigns over social media to shine light on the realities of people’s lives and experiences in detention and prison, then that’s what we will do, and so I think that what Karolina was saying is extremely important and it should be noted that a lot of the LGBTQ community’s successes and victories have been as a product and as a participation of a transgender POC woman whose participation and work and sweat, blood, and tears and effort have not been recognized, and that needs to change too.  We need to give respect where respect is due and stop dividing the community in those ways.

Alejo Stark: Thank you so much to you both, Josue and Karolina, for your time and for the tireless work you do with Mariposas sin Fronteras. Are there any last things you’d like to say?

Karolina Lopez (translation): Just that, we will continue the struggle, that we will not sit back and wait. We will continue to fight to be respected and be recognized and be loved and cared for. And, that thank you for everything as well!


David Langstaff: a Maria and Alejo Stark recently spoke with Treva Ellison, abolitionist activist and assistant professor of geography and women, gender, and sexuality studies at Dartmouth College. Treva spoke with us about queer criminality under racial capitalism, the ways in which queer abolition expands our geographical imagination of the carceral, as well as little-known histories of queer resistance and the efforts of the state to contain and co-opt these struggles.

a Maria: Last year you gave a popular education talk in Chicago, framed by George Jackson’s call for a politics of “perfect disorder”, one that necessarily denatures the life-cycle of “law and order”. How has queer criminality been vital to the life-cycle of law and order?

Treva Ellison: Well for me queer criminality isn’t just necessarily pointing back at queerness as a sexual identity, or a piece of sexual or gendered practices. For me, queer is really indexing what João Costa Vargas calls the gendered fact of blackness. The way that racial difference and racialization have always maneuvered and worked through gender and sexuality. And Cedric Robinson also notes at the beginning of Black Marxism was, part of his argument about racial capitalism was that for him the racial was already gendered and sexualized. Trying to think about queerness and criminality, because that’s a really popular, exciting term, that I see happening, both on the academic end, and I see that showing up in activism too, focusing on this idea that race is not just identitarian.

So talking about queer criminality, we’re not talking about identity, but we’re talking about value at the ontological level. And so coming to it from that angle for someone like Hortense Spillers , and she says that Black women’s bodies form the point of passage between the human and the nonhuman world, and that this kind of movement is vital to the reproduction of racial capitalism. She’s writing at the scene of enslavement. Racial difference was vital for the structure that produced and reproduced the prison industrial complex. We can’t think of them without thinking about the plight of their kind of transverse , and transex, and translated through the categories of gender and sexuality and vice versa. That is a symbiotic relationship that has enabled us to be the subjects of politics, and ethics, and reasons that kind of compose modern life. So when I say that queer criminality is kind of vital to the life cycle of law and order, I mean it on the really intimate level, a kind of symbiotic relationship between race, gender, and sexuality.

Or in other words, the way we can’t think about gender norms or gender divisions, or sexual divisions, without understanding the way that those things will work out in a scene of settler colonialism and enslavement on the bodies of Black women, off the bodies of women of color. But then also just the way that all those very same people are denied a certain kind of position for a certain level of legibility in the very symbolic order that we still live in, that we have to kind of frame and arrange our way politics into. So when I say that queer criminality is vital to the life cycle of law and order, I mean it on that level. And so then we see that play out in all kinds of ways.

In my academic work, I do historiography around policing to kind of look at ways that the logics of queer criminality get reproduced even in political movements, or advocacy events that are on their surface trying to be critical of policing or of incarceration. So that’s one way that I think that through. But then I also look at how the racial division of space, and in particular the kind of division and views of space, that are produced in the 1939 Homeowners Loan Corporation map. The infamous redlining map. How those became a template that guided the way that the LAPD made arrests for what was categorized as sex crimes, and sex work. So I think about the ways that what we understand today as queer criminality on a kind of of superficial way, as even in depth the way that queer people are criminalized and thought of outside of the racialization of space. And so then what does that mean for our political, intellectual projects? What does that mean to take that seriously?

a Maria: For our listeners in Detroit who aren’t as familiar with the policing of sex and gender, can you talk a little about the historiographies of policing that you’ve done?

Treva Ellison: I’m working on something right now that specifically is looking at the ways that the Gay Liberation Front and the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, which at the time a lot of members who were also in Gay Liberation Front were working at the center, it was then called the Gay Community Services Center. And now it’s known as the Lawsonage LGBTQ Center, so that thing still exists today. So the people who in the early days when the center was just coming together, one of the things that I kind of detailed were how on the one hand you see how the people who were working in these organizations at the center and the Gay Liberation Front really kind of stepped up, mobilized around the police harassment of LGBT people. But in particular, I’m writing about how people mobilized around the murder of this 20 year old, gender non conforming black person named Laverne Turner.

Laverne Turner was murdered in March of 1970, and a bunch of the early organizations that would form the kind of progressive to liberal, gay and lesbian political formation against vice policing. They stepped up to mobilize around the murder of Laverne Turner, and put her murder in conversations with these other murders that had happened, and had this whole critique of vice policing. But then if you really go into the history of the organization, what you see happening is on the one hand this potential for antiracist politics which was then a lesbian and gay political formation within these white, mostly male led gay political formations.

At the same time, the potential for that was being eroded by the ways that the War on Poverty era programs and the ones after . I looked at general revenue shares under Nixon, and then we can also study and think about what happened under Reagan when all those programs get cut. The way that these political formations, at least in Los Angeles and then the case that I’m looking at, get drawn into the kind of auspices — of what Jennifer Wolch calls the voluntary sector — pose a limit on their ability to operationalize a radical critique of of the state, right. Because now they become dependent on the state for certain kinds of funding, that funding starts to shape and structure the organization. And the politics, like there’s certain things you have to do to get the funding, today people call it the non profit industrial complex.

Although I prefer Jennifer Wolch’s, the way she describes it as the voluntary sector, as a body of what she calls the anti-state state. Because it really presses on what we understand as the mapping of the carceral. For her the anti-state state is about how the like responsibilities, and not just the responsibilities, but the larger culture of the carceral state, get socially dispersed amongst community organizations. And then you see the politics of self determination get drawn into a logic of self help. This example is illustrative of the ways that shifts in capital and state capacity in terms of the voluntary sector place all of these pressures, not just on LGBT political formations, but a number of political formations.

Alejo Stark: What do you think, what you called just recently queer abolition, has to offer to this moment, to this crisis of mass incarceration, to the recurring crisis of racial capitalism?

Treva Ellison: Queer abolition expands our geography of the carceral, because we see how the things we might think of as benevolent institutions actually reproduce these same carceral logics. And I think we see this often most viscerally with looking through the lense of a queer abolitionist politic, or the lense of queer criminality. I recently wrote a piece for Verso about the case of Bresha Meadows. And Bresha Meadows doesn’t identify as queer, but I would argue that queer criminality for me as an analytic and queer abolition as a demand to reorient our mapping of the carceral, asks us to think about how in Bresha’s case all these spaces that were carceral. The home was the primary carceral space, and then the routine, the routine failure of even reformist strategies.

For me what queer abolition does, it refocuses, it expands our geography of the carceral and really presses upon this point that reform is a way to reproduce the system. But I also think it asks us to really think about how to practice care, what a politics of care really looks like. Cuz a lot of these services are framed through a language of care, but I think groups like Survived and Punished, Gay Shame, all the grassroots organizations that have risen up, for example, around Bresha’s case, groups like Fight to Live in New York that organized around Lavonia Mckeen’s case, thinking about Detroit the case of Shelley Hilliard, so there is a grassroots effort to not only respond to these cases, but also to really push the analysis. And I think the way that they’ve responded was deeply about what it really looks like to practice abolition.

Yes, there are certain legislative work that need to happen, but there’s also this really important work of building relationships and valuing relationality that I think you see in groups like for example the Momma’s Day Bailout, and the way they were so intentional about that and about really expanding the notion of motherhood in terms of who they bailed out. I just think one common thread I see around organizing efforts, and practices, and strategies, and tactics, that I would put in the genre of queer abolition is this focus on relationality. And really thinking about what it means to wrest the politics of care from this liberal humanist administration of care that people like Dean Spade have pointed out as so violent.

Alejo Stark: Yeah, hopefully we continue to grapple with this expanded notion of abolition, as you were talking about Treva. Queer abolition in future shows. Hopefully we can have you back on as well. So thank you so much for your time and for your work.


Andrés: Trans and queer liberation movements  have always been at the forefront of the abolitionist struggle. As abolitionist Reina Gossett often reminds us, it wasn’t that long ago that organizations such as Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries fought alongside the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords against State violence.  In many ways, for queer abolition, transphobia and violence against gender-non-conforming bodies cannot be resolved through more violence, that is, with more police, more  prisons, or even citizenship. Queer abolition affirms that making the world anew means transforming social relations at every scale.


Kaif Syed: Thanks for tuning in. Check out our website at w-w-w-dot-rustbeltradio-dot-o-r-g. This show was co-produced by the Rustbelt Abolition Radio Team: Andrés, a Maria, David Langstaff, Kaif Syed, and Alejo Stark. Special thanks to Ludmila Ferrari for dubbing our interview with Mariposas Sin Fronteras. Original music by Bad Infinity.