“I’m a black, lesbian, feminist from Canada,” Andrea Ritchie said, as she introduced herself to the Sexistentialism journalism class at New York University. The class laughed and Ritchie began recounting how she got to New York, became a police misconduct attorney, advocate and finally first-time co-author of Queer (In) Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States (Beacon Press, Feb. 2011).
The book chronicles the story of queer discrimination in the legal system, giving examples of sex violence, police brutality and prejudice in the courtroom. Since it’s Feb. 15th publication, the work has received many positive reviews. “[This] book is a powerful and productively disorienting book, and essential reading for anyone interested in how queers intersect with the criminal legal system,” wrote Yasmin Nair in Chicago’s Windy City Times. Combining powerful statistics and real-life scenarios, the book tries to make sense of the complicated relationship between queers, social and criminal injustice. “Many of these stories had never been written about in one place,” Ritchie said. “They were like tiles of a mosaic that had never been put together in a big picture.”
Queer (In)Justice is a part of the Queer Ideas series at Beacon Press, which looks at intellectual questions within the LGBT movement. Series editor Michael Bronski feels that the book presents concepts that many people had never thought before, such as the stereotyping of queers as “the homicidal lesbian man hater” or “the gleeful gay killer” in the courtroom. “It is truly, truly a radical book,” Bronski said, “in terms of reframing and reshaping how we think about something as appallingly prevalent and appallingly horrible as the prison system.”
Untold stories of victims of queer criminalization in prison occur throughout the book. In 1999, Roderick Johnson, an African-American gay man was repeatedly sexually, physically and verbally assaulted in a Texas prison. Originally jailed for a drug conviction, Johnson was placed in numerous degrading situations. According to Queer (In)Justice, “Johnson was repeatedly raped, masturbated on, [and] bought and sold by other prisoners to perform sexual acts…” When he reported the abuse to authorities seeking protection, officials dismissed or ridiculed him.
Johnson’s experience is not uncommon, according to the book, which lists similar examples of violence and discrimination against queers, who are defined as gay, lesbian or anyone who does not fit into the traditional male and female gender categories. According to Bronski, also a senior lecturer in Women’s and Gender Studies at Dartmouth College and author of the upcoming book A Queer History of the United States (Beacon Press, May 2011), these stories of police and prison brutality against queer, often minority victims aren’t always told because the LGBT movement is essentially a white, middle-class movement. “As vital as this book is,” he said, “ most people are unprepared to hear what it’s saying.” For Ritchie, illuminating these victims and their experiences will encourage reform of the prison system. “If we put different people’s experiences in our conversations, that brings a different focus,” she said, “then the path forward is pretty clear.”
Throughout her life and career, Ritchie has witnessed police-brutality and prejudice in the legal system. As a relatively young woman, she immigrated from Jamaica to Canada to escape economic and domestic violence. While in Canada, she began working for the anti-police brutality, women’s and civil rights movements, then moved to the United States and attended law school at Howard University School of Law. While clerking for a federal judge, Ritchie wrote and spoke about police violence against women of color, and how gender factors into police profiling. Based on her work, she was asked to serve as an expert consultant and researcher for Amnesty International in a report about police violence against LGBT people in the U.S.
The 2005 report left Ritchie eager to explore the issue more extensively, so Queer (In)Justice became her outlet. The book was a product of four years and “many, many conversations,” among Ritchie and her two co-authors Joey L. Mogul and Kay Whitlock. Mogul is a partner at the People’s Law Office in Chicago and director of the Civil Rights Clinic at DePaul University’s College of Law, and Whitlock is a Montana-based writer, organizer and consultant working for progressive change. The three authors say they worked well together, using their different professional backgrounds to express various points of view. “We started on the journey of writing the book based on the fact that all of us had been frustrated in our activism,” Ritchie said.
Despite countless examples of hate crimes and gender discrimination, there had not been real change for a number of reasons. First, the people informed about the many accounts of injustice are often too busy working with victims to record and publish the events. Even Ritchie admits that she wrote a lot of the book’s chapters in between 3 and 5 a.m. Second, the mainstream LGBT movement tends to shy away from criminal justice issues. Many LGBT organizations are focused on marriage-equality, the military and discrimination within mainstream society. Most groups are, “not trying to upset the structure, but just trying to be a part of it,” Ritchie said.
On the other hand, Queer (In)Justice suggests the need to reform the prison structure now. The authors hope the book will begin a discourse for change and be an empathetic voice for victims of queer criminalization, which can include people who were once prostitutes, drug-addicts or convicts. “It’s not always easy to stand with folks that most of society abhors,” Ritchie said. Instead, she wants readers to realize that, “people are much more than their rap sheets.”
– Danielle Cocanougher