Reina Gossett, an activist, writer, and artist — currently the Artist-In-Residence at Barnard College’s Center for Research on Women — recently came to Brown University to speak about her work in the LGBTQ movement and the trans prison abolition movement, and offer a workshop on organizing and allyship in social justice movements. Her emphasis on remembering the voices of “forgotten and erased ancestors” in the queer and trans liberation movement is an effort towards building community and resisting silence. In that way her work is both restorative and generative.
I was interested to hear more about her relationship with trans prison abolition and LGBTQ organizing, so I sat down with her for a conversation!
Rheem Brooks: Thank you so much for your talk and your workshop, they felt really great to me. I’m interested to hear how you’ve arrived here, so I was wondering what impelled you to start LGBTQ organizing and your prison abolition work?
Reina Gossett: Not sure. It doesn’t feel like one answer. It’s probably a lot of things, but one was my own experiences with myself or family members, like being policed or incarcerated, or held in different institutions forcibly, and just my experience of that and trying to make sense of it. And I found that being a huge experience for me, really navigating and holding a lot of shame about those experiences or feeling really isolated and not knowing that other people were navigating them and not knowing how to connect about them. It’s a whole bunch of people just being really ashamed that they and their family members had come in contact in a very wide range of ways with the prison-industrial complex. And then I started teaching these creative writing classes at Rikers, which is a jail in New York City, when I was a student in college, and I joined this organization in 2005 called Critical Resistance and it was wonderful. It was a lot of people who had a wide range of relationships to the violence of the prison-industrial complex, and together we were figuring out ways to change and dismantle and build other things. Then kind of around that time I joined this group called Queers for Economic Justice, which doesn’t exist anymore but was part of this group called the Welfare Warriors around 2005, where it was people who were LGBTQ, gender non-conforming, queer and trans, who had experienced poverty before or who were currently living in poverty and were coming together and thinking about what we wanted to do around these experiences. And then those spaces really overlapped and moved and shifted my life around for the past 10 years.
RB: I’m wondering how you saw the struggles for queer and trans liberation as intersecting with the prison abolition work you were doing with Critical Resistance (CR)?
Reina: I came on staff at CR in like 2007, and part of the work I was doing was around really building other folks’ analysis and practice around queer and trans liberation as prison abolition. And there was definitely a lot of resistance to that – I think it’s different now – but people were not understanding that people who were queer and trans were particularly vulnerable to state violence – that especially people of color, and low-income people, or disabled people who were queer and trans had a heightened level of interacting with the state.
And so part of it was working with groups that already started with that knowledge. So the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP) works with trans and gender non-conforming people who are in prison, that’s a lot of the work that SRLP does, and really helped to create a framework to support other people of knowing that. Really it’s more of remembering it, because that movement originated as one that centered people who were incarcerated, and a lot of times queer and trans people have been pushed out of anti-authoritarian or anti-prison or even abolitionist spaces, so it’s addressing kind of the violences in those spaces so we can all be a part of that movement.
RB: Considering that this is a movement, what did you hope people would take away from your workshop and talk that you offered at Brown University?
I think a few things. One, I wanted to offer a way that people came together to fight oppression and violence of the state using strategies and tactics that the state wasn’t deeming as important. So levitating a police precinct is a really wonderful strategy and way to be in the world and isn’t necessarily seen as consequential or valued by institutions. I really wanted to offer ways that we can move through the world that have large impacts that aren’t valued by institutions or the state, but have their own wonderful meaning. And their own complications and contradictions, too. I think when people have a very close relationship with an institution like the university, often times, and not in a bad way, that can really facilitate what tactics feel appropriate or what strategies feel appropriate, or how we move the whole “is the university in my head or in my heart” conversation.
And then, I also wanted to talk about – so, one was magic – but also how a feminist future is inextricably linked to holding the past of queer and trans people of color, people who have been exiled out of feminist movements and spaces, and that we actually can’t do that work of imagining unless we do the invitations of those lives.
RB: So this and your workshop resurfaced something I’m constantly thinking about, and it is that topic of contradictions that come with the relationships to the institutions that we all have. I mentioned to you before that I’ve watched and loved the series that you and Dean Spade did called “No One Is Disposable: Everyday Practices of Prison Abolition.” What does it mean to you to live prison abolition every day, and what do you see as your biggest challenges for living that out?
I think it means it’s not necessarily an action. It’s thinking about: How is the state up in me? How is the state moving through me, through all of the everyday decisions that I make? It’s not even necessarily on the level of calling the police. It’s on the level of who am I paying attention to? Whose actions and voices are registering on my radar? And really questioning that, and being in a deep practice of unlearning or learning again or having new learnings around value and what value actually is, around un-valuing things, or around productivity and being unproductive. Just paying close attention to small interactions. I think that to me is abolition every day, because that allows for me, at least when I’m more grounded and more thoughtful and more intentional in interactions, to make choices that I feel better reflect the principles that I have. So taking things slow helps me make decisions and actions that I’m like, “Well, this is actually how I want to be in the world.”
So I think one of them is around safety. If we are saying that calling the police actually makes everything worse, in a very concrete way a lot of times for queer and trans people of color — the person who was surviving or fighting back or resisting the violence and then called the police, so often becomes the person who is arrested. If that’s someone’s lived reality, if the police don’t actually make anyone safe, not just because prisons don’t make things safe, but actually the people who are requesting the help of the police are then policed, how do we create a safety for each other in that moment? And it’s really hard, especially for those of us who are really on the edge of resource and on the edge of capacity. For me, how I’m doing that is not alone, it’s with a group of people. And the group of people that I’ve done that the most with are groups in the Miss Major-Jay Toole Building for Social Justice in New York City. So that’s Sylvia Rivera, Queers for Economic Justice, the Audre Lorde Project, FIERCE, Streetwise and Safe…
RB: Where are going now? What are you working on now and what do you see moving forward?
So Marsha [P. Johnson] gave these brilliant, really deeply beyond, beyond interviews and insights about violence and how to navigate it, and how to create in the face of that, how to fight back, and also got on stage in gold lamé and a disco ball headband and was reading poetry, and then was walking through the world as the queen of hearts — but it was a parade and also a play. I think that’s like where I’m going. I want to inhabit that space much more.