What if the LGBTQ movement fought for prison abolition instead of same sex marriage?

"There are lots of poor people who have been convinced that this is the way forward by a bunch of upper class gays that have rammed it down everybody’s throats." Part of Transformation's liberation series.

Isabelle Nastasia
4 June 2014
Ryan Conrad, co-founder of the Against Equality collective

Ryan Conrad, co-founder of the Against Equality collective.

How did the movement get here? What if lesbians oppose war? What if gay men don’t want to expand the prison system? What if marriage doesn’t address poverty? These are some of the questions raised by the Against Equality collective in its new book Queer Revolution, Not Mere Inclusion published this year by AK Press.

The Against Equality collective is an archival project created by five queer and trans* activists and writers. First and foremost, their new book is an anthology of critiques of the issues that have come to define gay and lesbian politics over the past 20 years. But it also proposes alternative paths for the movement, putting forth both prison abolition and transformative justice as distinctly queer political projects.

Isabelle Nastasia recently sat down with Ryan Conrad, co-founder of the Against Equality collective, in the East Village to discuss the book and the politics behind his own work.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get here?

I’m from a small mill town in central Maine; it’s actually the second largest town in Maine. However, that doesn’t mean much by most people’s standards. I would blame a combination of the Boy Scouts and Emma Goldman for my orientation and my politics. My birthplace in Rhode Island was socially and economically quite conservative. I moved from there to rural poverty essentially, and that really informs where I come from — a place of non-urban poverty. My community is primarily poor white people and African refugees.

In urban centers, people try to out-critique each other or something as if there’s some kind of social capital to gain from being really critical. But where I’m from, there’s nothing to gain. Being critical actually makes you an outsider. I don’t come from that place of critique for the sake of critique. I believe in critique like your life depends on it.  

Today, gay marriage is centered as the LGBTQ issue. But the first section of the book is an archive of critiques of gay-marriage legislation in favor of more broad-base policies like universal healthcare. Why?

At the first event I ever did, this woman from Athens, Maine, which is a town of a couple hundred people, came. She’s a down-home, DIY mama kind of person. She’s raising a disabled daughter and her partner at the time was disabled. One is an intellectual disability and the other one is a physical disability.

After she came up to me and said, “I’ve been with my partner for 20 years… We would never get married because he’s on social security income, and because my daughter is disabled I have secondary income from the state to support my daughter. If I got married, both my benefits and his benefits would be reduced because we would become a double income family.”

She was explaining that marriage doesn’t work for poor people, and that it doesn’t work for disabled people. Having really simple examples like hers are important.

There are two versions of the critique of marriage: one is cultural and one is materialist. That critique I just shared is materialist. There are other people who think that marriage will ruin the ability of gays to be alternative, and cruise and public sex and blah, blah, blah. And yeah, that’s cool and all, but people are dying. This cultural critique is fine, but it doesn’t hold much water if you are talking about the material realities that people face.

So if marriage isn’t materially beneficial for many people’s lives, how has it coalesced into the central LBGTQ issue? And where do we go from here?

There are lots of poor people who have been convinced that this is the way forward by a bunch of upper class gays that have rammed it down everybody’s throats.

I think that if we get back to people’s actual lives, we can find a way forward. If people want to make the argument that gay marriage will get more people health care, let’s talk about how to get all people health care regardless of marital status. Same thing for immigration. Same thing for having secure family law. Family law should not revolve around the ideology of the nuclear family. It should reflect people’s actual lives.

The law shouldn’t be designed to tell people how to live; the law should be designed to support people in the ways they already live.

The last third of the anthology includes many different LGBTQ perspectives critiquing hate-crime legislation and instead proposing prison abolition as an transformative approach to violence. Can you talk about where these writers are coming from?

The book is an inter-subjective critique. We are trying to come from all sorts of angles. There are trans people, people of color, women, rural folks, amongst others in the book. For me, this is really important in trying to build coalitions across difference.

The reason I focus on hate-crimes legislation specifically is because it’s an opportunity for some gay and lesbian people to think about prisons who might otherwise never think about prisons. I don’t need to convince most queer people of color or trans people or homeless queers that cops and prisons are fucked — many of them know that from their everyday experiences. But this text is an opportunity to open [many more] LGBT people’s eyes to the struggle of prison abolition through something that’s relevant to their lives.

I’m not interested in speaking to a generic population about prison abolition. I want to get gay and lesbian people on board with prison abolition. I feel both a responsibility and a commitment to that as a gay person who grew up with a considerable amount of safety, health and privilege.

Often, the prison abolitionist framework is particularly difficult for many people to swallow. How do you see it?

Everybody always starts with the question: What if you were attacked? Well, let’s flip it. What if you lost your shit and attacked someone? Let’s start there. How do you want to be dealt with?

Everybody always starts with a narrative of victimhood, and I think that it’s more useful to turn the conversation around. We aren’t infallible. We have to have the humility when dealing with people who have been accused of things to know that we have the capability to do similar things.

There’s got to be something more organic than the models that have come out of progressive communities that value the narrative of the accuser over the accused. Or the one who is harmed over the one who has caused the harm.

I feel committed to building a world where both of those people are heard, harm is addressed, and dignity of all involved is restored. This isn’t possible if we throw away people who cause harm and rely on punitive models of justice.

This interview was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

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