A conversation with queer author, activist and filmmaker Eric Stanley
There is a rather unsettling folder on Eric Stanley’s computer.
For about six years now, he has filed away “hundreds and hundreds” of cases of violence against trans and queer people in that folder. Many are instances of extremely gruesome murders involving what he calls “overkill”—dismemberment, decapitation, elaborate staging and other malicious actions that go beyond simply killing.
For Stanley, who is a 33-year-old post doctorate candidate in UC Santa Cruz’s history of consciousness program, this trend shows that crimes against LGBT people are more than random.
“It’s possibly about killing that person, but it’s also about killing a certain history or possibility or threat,” Stanley explains. “It’s bound up. … If you’re going to kill, and then do many other things to a person—all of the overkill, the pageantry, the setting the stage—it makes us understand these kinds of violence as something different.”
Stanley started the research (which, he concedes, “is emotionally taxing”) because he couldn’t find the information anywhere else. Along the journey, he has become a leading expert and activist on the subject of trans and queer violence, a filmmaker (he co-directed Homotopia in 2006 and, more recently, Criminal Queers), and the editor of “Captive Genders,” an anthology that explores LGBT issues within the prison industrial complex. The latter will the subject at hand for the Friday, Feb. 10 UCSC event, “Prison Abolition, Legal Violence and Trans Politics: A Conversation between Dean Spade and Eric Stanley.”
Spade is a trans activist, attorney and educator at the forefront of gender identity discourse. The pair will discuss issues the LGBT population faces in the prison system, including proportionately high incarceration rates and high rates of sexual abuse behind bars, as well as what criminalizes them in the first place.
“The way trans and queer people are routinely kicked out of their houses at young ages, forced to work in informal economies, like sex work [and] selling drugs, [means] then you’re outside of the formalized education system, you get stuck in the system of being criminalized and in systems that aren’t meant to help you and, instead, actually hurt you,” explains Stanley, whose own experience living on the streets feeds into this understanding.
He hails from Richmond, Va., where, as a queer youth, he ran into violence and homophobia. He was kicked out of school at age 14, and “didn’t really live anywhere” again until he was 18. It was in that window of time that he found himself camping on the side of the road just north of Santa Cruz on Highway 1.
His first-hand familiarity with homophobic violence stuck with him over the years and led to his desire to study the subject. “The first moments when I became interested [in violence against LGBT people] was from personal experience,” he says. “Later on, through activism and through school, I was given more language and tools to think about it more systemically.”
Stanley is also an active prison abolitionist, and argues that the criminalization of and violence against trans and queer Americans can only be addressed through a fundamental shakedown of the system at large.
“We have the contemporary moment of gay politics—marriage, military and hate crime legislation,” he says. “As a group of people that have historically been highly criminalized, why is it that we are turning to the same system that has harmed us to seek liberty? Hate crime legislation, as a tentacle of the prison industrial complex, will never make us safer. If we’re interested in queer liberation as a project of freedom we need to think about ways that the prison industrial complex equally has to be undone.”
Stanley plans to wrap up his eight years of doctorate work at UCSC this year, after which he’ll finish work on Criminal Queers and release it to wider audiences over summer. Queer issues and rights will remain entwined in what he does, but he’s also itching to tackle other topics, including prison escapes.
“The kind of overarching narrative, if there is one, of my work is that liberation or freedom—whatever you want to call it—is never going to be given to us through the state,” he says. “It’ll be through collective projects that we have to work on together.”
As for that grisly folder on his computer? He’ll keep adding to it, hoping all the while that it will someday be unnecessary.
“Most of these cases are totally underreported or misreported, [and] you can see the sloppy journalism,” explains Stanley. “Really what I’m doing is trying to put back together what happened.”
“Prison Abolition, Legal Violence and Trans Politics: A Conversation between Dean Spade and Eric Stanley” will take place from 2 to 4 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 10 in the Oakes Mural Room at UCSC’s Oakes College. The event is free and open to the community.
Photo: Jason Fritz Michael