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QUEER LIBERATION IS AN ABOLITIONIST AFFAIR

If queerness is that which pushes back against the status quo, it’s necessarily anti-capitalist and anti-white supremacist. It’s abolitionist.

By Namrata Verghese

A photo of last year’s Austin Pride Parade popped up on my Instagram feed recently, paired with the caption: “back before Pride was canceled.” The people in the picture wore rainbow Converse and Calvin Klein bras with eyeshadow that glittered in the Texas sun. 

What that Instagram post missed, however, is that the only thing canceled this year is rainbow capitalism. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been lucky enough to bear witness to the most authentic Pride we’ve had in decades: the world once again erupting in protests. Protests that—just like the 1969 Stonewall riots led by Black trans women—condemn the interacting institutions of police brutality, the prison-industrial complex, anti-Blackness and white supremacy in all their capitalist, imperialist, cisheteropatriarchal forms. Protests that call for nothing less than total abolition. 

Pride is not rainbow-spangled, corporate-sponsored, confetti-and-cops parades. Pride is protest. Queer liberation is—has always been—an abolitionist affair. 

By definition, queerness is non-normative. It’s that thing that, as José Esteban Muñoz puts it, “lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing.” Queerness, like abolition, is a project of imagination: of moving beyond the constraints of our society to seek out alternative forms of kinship, life, and futurity. In fact, queerness is already a form of abolition—abolition of the colonial gender binary, of patriarchal gender norms, of the heteronormative reproductive imperative

It’s important to underscore here that both abolition and queerness are radical propositions. Queer liberation does not end with the decriminalization of gay sex, or the passage of gay marriage rights. This is not to say that we shouldn’t actively advocate for these fundamental rights, as they are still systemically denied to people across the globe, but that such unambitious milestones are not enough. Queer theorists and activists are rightfully suspicious of pinkwashed “gay rights”; how can the same state that sanctions the murder of its Black queer and trans subjects turn around and champion a homonormative white gay marriage? “Gay rights” are palatable. Proponents of gay rights strive towards the normalization of homosexuality. The goal of queer politics, however, is never normalization. In Nikki Sullivan’s words, queer politics is “whatever is at odds with the normal, the dominant.” Historically, normalization has been harnessed as a colonial tool of white supremacy: certain (white, cisgender, heterosexual, European) subjects have always been deemed normal and natural, distinguishing them from “deviant” Others, to justify forced social stratification. Because norms are predicated on exclusions, normalization is always a site of violence. By attributing normality to a particular queer archetype (that is, the white, cisgender gay man), we willfully exclude people who fall outside this norm, people who are too fat or dark or disabled or trans to be palatable. 

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Similarly, abolition is not palatable. It’s not a trending Twitter hashtag, or a synonym for “defund.” It’s a paradigm shift that grows out of decades of scholarship and activism. Abolition demands the total destruction of the world as we know it—the end of the capitalist carceral state, and all the systems of violence that enable it. This aim is not negative, nor simply centered on annihilation; rather, abolition is productive work that carves out space for us to imagine other worlds, other futures, and provides us a toolbox with which to build them. 

And in this hefty goal, abolition is, without a doubt, queer. It’s non-normative, it’s messy, it agitates and disturbs and refuses to compromise. Queerness is inherently abolitionist, and abolition is always already queer, a correlation Angela Davis parsed out in a recent statement: “The trans community taught us that it is possible to effectively challenge that which is considered the very foundation of our sense of normalcy. So if it is possible to challenge the gender binary, then we can certainly, effectively, resist prisons and jails and police.” 

The link between queerness and abolition is not just theoretical, but one we see play out every day. Take, for instance, those rainbow Converse shoes on my Instagram feed. They illuminate how capitalism, a system abolitionism seeks to overturn, packages and markets queerness back to us in sneaky ways. This entanglement of queerness and capitalism raises a lot of uncomfortable questions. Who has access to queerness? Who can afford to be “out”? Visible queerness often requires material capital: access to safe housing, financial security, a non-discriminatory work environment, a supportive network. 

Even more, to celebrate queerness through the medium of capitalism comes at an expense far greater than the cost of a rainbow tote bag: capitalism cannot be separated from exploitation. Capitalist violence saturates and enables our lifestyles: the vast majority of corporations rely on labor so cheap it has been dubbed akin to modern enslavement. This exploitation takes place both domestically, through the prison-industrial complex, and internationally, through unethical outsourced labor practices. Commodified visible queerness is therefore currently only attainable via the brutalization of Black and brown people on a global scale. There are, of course, queer people in prison and outsourced workforces. How can we say Pride is for everyone when its very emblems stem from the exploitation of the most marginalized members of the community?

If queerness is that which pushes back against the status quo, it’s necessarily anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and anti-white supremacist. It’s abolitionist. There are no two ways about this. 

Going forward, we can harness the correspondence between abolitionism and queerness in productive ways. First, and most urgently, this link calls for the elevation of Black queer and trans people within the larger Black Lives Matter movement. Queer liberation, as the Stonewall riots taught us, mandates centering the voices systemically pushed to the peripheries. Right now, that means going hard for Black queer and trans people—organizing, educating, donating, and amplifying. 

RECOMMENDED: 6 Facts You May Not Know About The Stonewall Riots

However, the work of abolition doesn’t just play out on the streets, but inside us. As Audre Lorde reminds us, “The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations that we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.” Take this time to reflect on your social circle. The people you date. Do they share characteristics like body size or hair type? Are they from the same racial, religious, or class background as you? Are they all able-bodied? Cisgender? Do they have features that conform to Eurocentric beauty standards? Do they speak like you?

We’re conditioned to assign value to certain characteristics, to draw hard lines between what we consider beautiful and worthy and what we don’t. This is desirability politics, and it isn’t merely an aesthetic preference. It quite literally determines who we value, and how we differentially assign that value. Fundamentally, it lies at the core of who we consider human—who we deem worthy of life, love, and salvation. As so many Black women are saying, it is not inconsequential that Oluwatoyin Salau was a dark-skinned Black woman. Colorism can be deadly. So can featurism, ableism, transphobia, fatphobia, and all other configurations of this hierarchical assignation of value. Unlike the principles of desirability politics, however, queerness embraces deviance. Queerness is deviance. Abolishing hierarchies thus necessitates queering, in a broad non-normative sense, our world and the white supremacist logics that structure it.

In “The End of White Supremacy, An American Romance,” Saidiya Hartman describes a short story by W.E.B. Du Bois, in which an interracial relationship blooms in apocalyptic conditions. “Catastrophe produces this vast romance,” she writes, “as if ruin is the prerequisite for interracial love, as if the enclosure of blackness could only be breached and caste abolished by the destruction of the world. Is abolition a synonym for love?” Yes, abolition is love. And love, in every form, is hope. It’s the promise of a better world, a better future. What could be more queer?

Namrata Verghese is a JD/PhD student at Stanford. Her work has appeared in Tin House, World Literature Today, Paper Darts, and elsewhere. She’s a double Cancer (sun and moon), which, honestly, explains a lot. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @namrataverghese. 

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