In Masculinity As Prison: Sexual Identity, Race, and Incarceration, Professor Russell Robinson explores the creation of the K6G unit of the Los Angeles County Jail. Robinson describes how this unit, designed to protect prisoners who may be targets because of their non-normative gender and/or sexual orientation, operates as a site for the enforcement of racialized and classed norms about sexual orientation and gender. In order to be housed in the K6G unit, prisoners must undergo screening performed by two white, heterosexual deputies. These deputies quiz the prisoners on their familiarity with gay subcultural terminology and details about the West Hollywood neighborhood, a gathering place for white gay men in Los Angeles, in order to determine their suitability for the unit. Once prisoners are admitted to the unit, they wear special powder blue uniforms to differentiate them from general-population prisoners, who wear dark blue. Robinson’s article exposes how the racialized, gendered, and classed construction of homosexuality, and the figure of the vulnerable gay prisoner, are produced and enforced in the Los Angeles County Jail to the detriment of queer and trans people of color and poor people who bear the brunt of racist, homophobic, and transphobic policing and criminalization. Robinson argues that the problematic practices of the K6G unit should be contested as a violation of the privacy rights of prisoners. Robinson’s description of the K6G unit and its screening process offers an excellent site for engaging in a critique of projects that seek to protect those facing the most violent consequences of white supremacy, heterosexism, and gender binarism by achieving recognition or legibility for them in state apparatuses of security that are themselves key locations of that violence. This point is broadly useful given the centrality of recognition- and inclusion- focused legal equality strategies in contemporary white gay politics, which have both been a product of and worked to reify the limited and racist framings of gay identity that Robinson critiques in his article. The most well-resourced and well-publicized examples, extensively critiqued by many scholars and activists, are the efforts to seek inclusion in marriage and military service, which have dominated as the most legible political claims of gay and lesbian rights in recent decades. Scholars and activists have also critiqued hate crimes legislation as a project that seeks recognition for those targeted by violence by expanding the punishing power of the criminal punishment system. Critics argue that hate crimes laws not only fail to prevent violence against queer and trans people, they also build the arsenal of the criminal punishment system, which is the most significant perpetrator of violence against queer and trans people. This essay extends this critical engagement with recognition- and inclusion-focused reforms to look at the subject of Robinson’s study, the K6G unit. It asks what Robinson’s findings might suggest about how queer and trans politics addresses criminalization. Specifically, I argue that prison abolition scholarship provides the critical tools necessary to fully understand why reforms like the creation of a special unit in the Los Angeles County Jail for gay and trans prisoners will consistently fail to address violence and will, in fact, become new sites for enforcing racialized gender and sexuality norms to the detriment of the most criminalized populations. Robinson successfully exposes the absurdity of a project to properly identify vulnerable prisoners by quizzing them about and measuring them against white gay cultural norms. I suggest that privacy arguments do not do enough to help us analyze the problems with the K6G unit. We need the politics and analysis developed by prison abolition scholarship and activism in order to even begin to imagine any solutions that would reduce or eliminate the horrifying conditions facing trans, gender non-conforming, and queer prisoners.
By Dean Spade, 2012