The Cultural and Legal Criminalization of Queer Bodies

By Anna Svoboda-Stel
Note: This is meant to be a preliminary exploration of a future project. All of the concepts in this essay are intended to be expanded upon.

I wish to analyze the policing of “deviance” in the United States, particularly the policing of queer (or perceived queer) bodies as deviant. In order to do this, I need to analyze the qualities of heteronormativity which categorize queerness as deviant. The heteronormative gender binary deeply affects the way queerness is perceived because gender presentation, also tied heteronormatively to perceived sexuality, is an accepted basis for treatment, whether that be acceptance or punishment. It is ignorant and impossible to isolate queerness from the identities of race, class, ability, etc. Intersections between these identities create complex identities which, when compounded, may increase or alleviate stigmas and privileges.

The system of heteronormativity is largely accepted and reinforced, performed both by individuals and through governmental institutions/the state. Heteronormativity is the system framing heterosexuality – constrained within nuclear family structure and shaped by raced, classed, and rigidly dichotomous constructions of gender – as fundamental to society, and as the only natural and accepted form of sexual and gender expression.  These rigidly dichotomous constructions of gender are represented by the gender binary, the complex interplay of cultural and institutional ideas and practices that divide people into two rigidly defined genders (male/female). It is heteronormativity, which encompasses patriarchy and sexism, along with other systems of hierarchical bias such as racism and classism, which allow for the disproportionate results of injustice to affect minority communities.

Perceived gender expressions and roles determine a person’s trustworthiness, morality, sanity, stability, and general worth as a human being. This process of dehumanization – in this example based on gender but that may intersect or be replaced with other markers of identity – allows for the justification to selectively deny them their rights and to criminalize their activities. “Walking while trans” was coined to reflect the reality that trans women often cannot walk down the street without being stopped, harassed, verbally, sexually, and physically abused and arrested, regardless of what they are doing at the time.  Because of their race, class, gender, and sexual identity, they are uniquely vulnerable to violence. They are often kicked out of their families and excluded from the

queer community and mainstream movement because of their transgression of heteronormativity. They are often excluded from their ethnic community as well because of this transgression.

The very definition of crime is socially constructed. In other words, laws serve to legitimate existing misdistributions of wealth and power.  Mass media and its social influences contribute to the constructing and interpreting of crime: cultural representations of presumptively criminalized individuals and communities through sensationalism and exoticism promote further policing. Even if no formal charges can be used against them, these individuals are delegitimized and dehumanized.  Certain bodies, seen as inherently criminal, are policed and punished in a variety of different ways based on their identity(ies). This reality has been coined the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC).

The PIC includes the exploitation of prison labor, the gendered construction of hierarchy, the racist construction of crime, and the retraction of human rights as a replacement for rehabilitation. The lack of transparency through which prisons situate themselves in society in relation to the “free world,” prisons’ economic relationships with nationwide corporations, and the similarity to the military industrial complex dating from the mid-1900s, are additional problematic markers of the PIC. The PIC transforms primarily poor and black bodies into sources of profit, taking away from what might be available in public funds for social programs such as education, housing, childcare, recreation, and drug programs. Through these economic relations, a multitude of companies which would normally be removed from the punishment system have developed major stakes in its perpetuation. The dramatic increase in convicted criminals during a decline in criminal activity, the conflation of non-violent drug crimes with serious dangerous crimes, the extremity of its disproportionately black and poor victims, and the troubling similarity between correctional facilities and slave plantations are the Prison Industrial Complex at work.


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