Troubling the Terms of Engagement: Queer Rhetorical Listening as Carceral Interruption

Troubling the Terms of Engagement: Queer Rhetorical Listening as Carceral Interruption

Author: Rachel Lewis

Bio: Rachel Lewis (they/she) is a graduate student at Northeastern University and an organizer with Black and Pink Boston. Their dissertation research analyzes queer relational politics in the literacy practices of incarcerated activists. Most recently, their work appeared in Reflections: A Journal of Community-Engaged Writing and Rhetoric.

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As accounts of unsafe responses to COVID-19 stream out of prisons, I feel troubled. 

In Massachusetts, where I’ve organized for prison abolition for several years, it becomes evident that prisoners do not have access to soap, masks, or social distancing measures. Departments of correction and state politicians appear prepared to let prisoners die rather than release them (see Becker, “Coalition Calls”). Maintaining a death grip on the lives of those most vulnerable to illness is posited as safety for others, notably by Boston Police Commissioner William Gross. Speaking alongside Mayor Marty Walsh at a press conference, Gross suggested that releasing prisoners threatened the safety of those of us outside prison, implying that releasing vulnerable prisoners would encourage harm in the community because “you can do whatever you want because there are no repercussions from the court” (“Let Them Stay”). 

Deliberate acts of disidentification are common in public rhetoric about incarcerated people, and it isn’t a surprise to have my safety pitted against theirs by cops. But Gross’s disidentification is troubling because it reveals even more starkly than usual the depth of the difference in our positions. In the name of my life, the deaths of others will be rationalized. For the many of us on the outside who share some common ground of family, friendship, or political solidarity with incarcerated people, the distortion of a complex network of community relationships to an us/them binary is disorienting. Such positioning throws into sharp relief the uneven power dynamics that characterize relationships across carceral boundaries. How is it possible to communicate, organize, and build relationships when our very lives are in competition? The efforts of free and incarcerated prison abolitionists who are committed to co-organizing practices motivate this question and, perhaps less obviously, so does a queer understanding of rhetorical listening. For queer abolitionists, like those of us in Black and Pink Boston, a prison abolition organization providing support to and community with LBGTQIA+ and/or HIV+ prisoners, relationships are powerful sites of potential social and institutional change because they offer opportunities to remake some of the stock identifications and disidentifications that structure broader impressions and general acceptances of state violence and those who are most vulnerable to it, as well as provide solidarity to incarcerated people who may, due to ever-increasing prison restrictions, have few relationships with those outside of their individual prison and small circle of supporters on the outside. 

Revisiting Krista Ratcliffe’s Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness draws out some of the potentials and limits of coalitional practice through the relational modes of individuals—Ratcliffe’s book raises multiple examples of particular relationships that deepen and exemplify rhetorical listening—beginning, of course, with her own relationship to Jacqueline Jones Royster, a prominent Black feminist scholar in the field and former chair of CCCC (in Ratcliffe’s account, Royster’s chair’s address generates the entry points into rhetorical listening). In the practice of rhetorical listening, reflection on the relationship between the individual and the institutional is a component of non-identification, a reflective “pause” where listeners might weigh divisive or oppressive cultural discourses and structures alongside the potential of individually-acted codes of cross-cultural communication that “may interrupt” them (75). What rhetorical listening offers to queer prison abolition, then, is a detailed mechanic for how and why we might simultaneously leverage these interruptions and explore their limitations in the face of a public discourse that bargains with the bodies of prisoners. In return, what queer abolition offers to rhetorical listening is an explicit rendering of how carceral logics—the frames that move us toward easy dis/identifications with others—map onto the cultural logics, the value systems that, in Ratcliffe’s view, can reveal the reasoning skills of those with whom we harbor fundamental disagreements. As I demonstrate here, the varied cultural logics that contextualize a spectrum of claims related to tropes of gender and race vary principally in terms of who and how they might exclude in order to make their claims.  As a result, I read the understanding of “simultaneous commonalities and differences,” an essential component of Ratcliffe’s conscious identification (itself a mark of successful rhetorical listening), as partially crafted by shared and unshared carceral investments in exclusion and disposability. Exclusion, as noted above, describes the terms of who, if not everyone, is included in practices of conscious identification, or in the “cultures” that create rhetorical listening’s interest in cross-cultural communication. Disposability, a correlative concept, sets the level of concern afforded to what happens to excluded subjects, or how their exclusion creates (additional) vulnerabilities. 

Identifications with others, writes Ratcliffe, are often troubled by “uneven power dynamics, oppressive history, and ignorance,” but may be revised through “conscious identifications” to better “foster cross-cultural communication on any topic” (19). A queer abolitionist reconsideration of carceral logics tests some of the radical potential of rhetorical listening—and not only in prisons or other sites of detention. Queer abolitionist readings of power uplift coalitional politics by affirming relationship building and decoding the orientations toward exclusion and disposability that inform how difference functions across what are often deeply entrenched and violent power dynamics. The negotiation of oppressive power dynamics, history, and ignorance cannot be circumvented by the efforts of personal agency alone. As Ratcliffe notes, such attempts at rhetorical listening, in which the personal attempts to interrupt the institutional, will always be partial (75). However, a fuller articulation of the trouble that “haunts” potential identifications across institutional boundaries can enable more expansive listening practices by exposing the carceral logics that delineate who may be heard.

Relationships and Coalition: How Institutional Power Sets Terms of Engagement

In Ratcliffe’s theory, rhetorical listening is rooted in a response to Jacqueline Jones Royster’s call for cross-cultural communication that enacts the coalitional, with an emphasis on sharing location or place.  In “When the First Voice You Hear Is Not Your Own,” Royster refers to the knowledges of her home community: “People in the neighborhood where I grew up would say, ‘Where is their home training?’” she writes, “Imbedded in the question is the idea that when you visit other people’s ‘home places,’ especially when you have not been invited, you simply can not go tramping around the house like you own the place […]” (32). In Royster’s illustration, a rhetorical “tramping” across cultural boundaries is a form of trespass, necessitating a “negotiator” who can “cross boundaries and serve as a guide and translator for Others” (34). It is Royster’s ability to make those crossings—cultural, physical, and linguistic—that give her insights that her white colleagues don’t yet know they don’t know. The microaggressions and racism from colleagues detailed in “When the First Voice You Hear Is Not Your Own” highlight the violence of the predominately white institution. In response, Royster suggests relational transformation within the profession and the auspices of NCTE/CCCC. “Much, however, depends on the ways in which we talk and listen and talk again in crossing boundaries and creating, or not, the common ground of engagement,” she concludes (40). Ratcliffe highlights the role of negotiator in understanding identifications troubled by power divides in particular, but cross-cultural communication on an interpersonal scale is richest and most relevant when we can do the difficult work of exposing our investments in the carceral logics of exclusion and disposability and what those exposures tell us about who might be missing, cut off, or thrown out of contention. In this way, we might revise rhetorical listening itself to be more attentive to the relationships that don’t, as Royster and Ratcliffe’s do, occur within a shared institution. We might reconsider the very orientations that give access to relationships with others in the first place.

Tracing the trouble in our identifications by looking to the institutionalized sources of “uneven power dynamics” is a vital element of queering rhetorical listening because queerness itself is coalitional, and coalitions can only be built when diverse lived experiences of difference are centered. Policed, court-involved, and incarcerated people did not come by these positions by happenstance; proximity to and risk of incarceration, policing, and other forms of state violence is itself raced, gendered, and sexualized. As Cathy Cohen notes in her landmark essay, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?”, activist communities defined by “some homogenized identity” cannot be the basis for queer coalitional politics. “If there is any truly radical potential to be found in the idea of queerness and the practice of queer politics,” she writes, “it would seem to be located in its ability to create a space in opposition to dominant norms, a space where transformational political work can begin” (438). Cohen advocates for a queerness that supports identifying comrades by their relationship to heteronormative power, demonstrating the ways that raced bodies are also always sexualized, and sexualized against a privileged heteronormativity. Conscious identifications across a range of relationships to institutional power are necessary in Cohen’s theory of queer coalition.

For many queer activists and thinkers, courts, prisons, and street policing are central sites for action in part because they form the axes of dominant norms (e.g., whiteness, heteronormativity, gender conformity, middle and upper class status, and ability) by which we might measure, in Cohen’s words, our “varying relationships to power” (448). In “Reclaiming Our Lineage: Organized Queer, Gender-Nonconforming, and Transgender Resistance to Police Violence,” Che Gossett, Tourmaline, and AJ Lewis draw on histories of queer coalitions to demonstrate that “there is, in significant respects, nothing new about making police violence central to a queer agenda,” and to note “the role of intersectionality in determining who among those communities were historically the most vulnerable to police abuse” (“Reclaiming”). These vulnerabilities reveal that much of the troubling in our identifications stems from carceral logics and their engagement with the tropes of gender, sexuality, and race. 

To that end, I posit that a framework for rhetorical listening might shift to include a deeper consideration of the carceral logics of exclusion and disposability. I argue that these logics act as barriers to the “coalition building across cultural boundaries” (77) rhetorical listening promises, as well as the institutional boundaries created by exclusion (who is already excluded from our vision? With whom are we not allowed to contemplate shared places?) and disposal (when not included, where do we imagine or place excluded subjects? Where are they allowed to go?). In part, the boundaries we are most in need of bridging are created not merely through cultural logics, but the relationships to institutionalized power that underpin them. I argue that Ratcliffe’s generative framework might make more room for the queer coalitional possibilities outlined by radical queer prison abolition and activism. To build on the coaltitional vision Ratcliffe stakes on rhetorical listening, I suggest that “proceeding from within an accountability logic” (31) necessitates a critical stance toward exclusion and disposability, two threads of carcerality resisted in transformative justice, an abolitionist practice sprouted from Black and queer feminist organizing, and apply an analysis that rethinks the carceral logics of exclusion and disposability to Ratcliffe’s tactic of listening metonymically as a lens for understanding simultaneous commonalities and differences.

Carceral Logics: Exclusion and Disposability

I use the phrase carceral logics to underscore the relationship that carcerality has to a number of the cultural logics outlined in Rhetorical Listening. For example, the history of white feminist theory engages both disposability and punishment as scenes of liberation for (frequently white, cisgender, heteronormative, and class privileged) women. In The Feminist War on Crime: The Unexpected Role of Women’s Liberation in Mass Incarceration, Aya Grubar calls attention to the narrative of “failure of law and legal actors to appropriately penalize male offenders” that animates prevalent feminist support for “stricter policing, prosecution, and punishment of gender crimes” (19). Such support has, over the years, expanded incarcerating measures by taking the efforts of state protection at face value. As Jennifer Nash observes, Black feminists have challenged the commitments of “governance feminism and carceral feminism” by doing “world-making work apart from, and even against, law precisely because law is imagined to be the paradigmatic space of antiblack violence” (111). Similarly, Sarah Lamble notes that “queer investments in punishment” have shifted from “older movement goals of de-criminalizing same-gender sex acts” to newer “goals of expanding criminalization through hate crime legislation” (155). Historically, punishment has set boundaries for how movements can imagine justice and, consequently, coalitions with others. A carceral logic sees exclusion from community as inherent to punishment and necessary for the safety of constituents deemed worthy.   

These exclusions, if not carefully located and articulated, prefigure the horizon of possible identifications with others. Rhetorical listening, possible in a space of “pause,” is one site where carceral logics might be probed and more radical coalitional prospects built. However, exclusion as punishment and punished/excluded subjects as disposable remain unexamined in some of the framing for rhetorical listening. Ratcliffe herself evokes incarceration (of “serial killers”) as an example of a positive social product of disidentification, a rare case wherein we are not asked to pause before engaging disidentification. Further, the example of rhetorical listening that closes her definitional chapter suggests that rhetorical listening is more suited to listening to and making discernments about discourses on incarcerated subjects, rather than engaging them in conversation. In an extended example from Ratcliffe’s text, Rachel, a student grappling with the resonances between a literature class, in which she has read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and a criminology class, in which she has listened to a lecture presenting a rationale for granting parole, is able to constellate two different discourses that “likened people to animals” (43). Rachel’s listening is important, as it enables her to draw out and recognize dehumanizing rhetorics at work in both instances. However, the work of accountability logic offered in this example is directed only toward the guest lecturer (in operating from this accountability logic, Rachel says she is “sure” the guest lecturer is a “very nice guy,” presumably despite his use of dehumanizing rhetorics to describe potential parolees). While I don’t doubt that the suspension of blame is useful in this analysis, the incarcerated people at the heart of the conversation are not offered the same consideration, demonstrating that rhetorical listening, when happening among certain subjects, can reinforce the imposed silences of incarcerated or otherwise “disappeared” people in conversations about their lives and freedoms. On one hand, Rachel maintains a stance of openness to the lecturer that, ultimately, guides her to an insight into his dehumanizing language about parolees. On the other, her act of rhetorical listening is limited by the absences of the subjects of incarceration. It is not uncommon, even today, for universities to discuss prison and policing without the input and presence of the very prisoners they reference; Rachel’s listening, as well as its conclusions, are shaped by an institutional norming (not including incarcerated people in conversations about their rights and well-being) that pre-figures who can be heard. Since Rachel has ambitions of working “within the prison system,” (43) this situation reinforces exclusions of incarcerated people along their institutional relationships to power that may actually have come to harm them—how can rhetorical listening attend to these silences and the carceral stratifications they represent? Ratcliffe suggests that the commonalities and differences Rachel surfaces between the lecturer and Morrison’s novel reflect both claims and cultural logics. The difference Ratcliffe presents centers the cultural logics recognized by her student; in Ratcliffe’s words, the difference between a logic of “an inhumane slave economy” and “reform for the prison economy in Wisconsin” (44). And yet, in recognizing these different cultural logics, the shared carceral logic (and practice) of exclusion of incarcerated voices is not presented as a commonality. If rhetorical listening is to enact radical change though the transformation of institutional power dynamics, the trouble we trace must extend beyond the institutional boundaries we share, and across those we do not. Otherwise, those transformations will always be controlled by institutional protocols, even in ways that, as queer prison abolition activism has shown us, need not be as inevitable as they are for Rachel.

As illustrated here, carceral logics imbue even the terms by which we contemplate rhetorical listening happening. In this way, carceral logics might shield us from confronting some of our most entrenched boundaries. In short, the power dynamics of incarceration call attention to some of the limits of our negotiations. If we reach for narratives of hyper-criminality as justification for incarceration (and attendant disidentification), the need for prison is further established. If we invest in rhetorical listening that engages dehumanizing language about incarcerated people without including them in the listening itself, we normalize a conversation in which their agency is suspended through representation and circulation of their politicized selves by outsiders. In these examples, incarcerated people are excluded from participating in conversation about themselves, and are, instead, excised from both free society and the communications that define and negotiate that exclusion.

Accountability Logics in Rhetorical Listening and Transformative Justice

In Ratcliffe’s analysis of bell hooks, accountability logic resists some stock unproductive moves in cross-cultural communication, often related to defusing white women’s defensiveness to Black feminist principles. In order to counter typical arguments made for disengaging racial justice, hooks notes that “more obstacles are created if we simply engage in endless debate about who put [racism]” into feminist spaces. Instead, she holds that “women, all women, are accountable for racism continuing to divide us” (157). Ratcliffe’s iteration of accountability in rhetorical listening translates to a similarly powerful simplicity: “all people necessarily have a stake in each other’s quality of life” (31). 

Since the publication of hooks’ Aint I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism, in which these passages appear, Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC) and queer feminists have engaged varied accountability practices within transformative justice frameworks as an alternative to the carceral logic of disposability. A disposability logic holds that when people cause harm, they cause it as individuals, rather than as actors within larger cultural landscapes of injustice and vulnerability. Within disposability logic, destroying or locking up ostensibly dangerous bodies eliminates the prospect of harm in society, while accountability logics, in Ratcliffe and hooks’s accounts, hold to a much more interconnected and interdependent view of harm and healing. In Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements, Charlene Carruthers argues that “disposal” is not merely a state-organized process of punishment (locking someone up for a lifetime, moving an incarcerated person to solitary confinement, or otherwise dispensing with community members who have caused harm), but includes ways that “the carceral state has colonized our own ways of dealing with conflict” (82). In a 2019 interview, Mariame Kaba asserts that part of what makes accountability—the acknowledgement and redress of harm caused—difficult is the fact that carceral logics directly discourage people from taking responsibility for hurtful actions. Taking responsibility for harm caused, a fundamental understanding for activist work according to hooks, is figured as admission of guilt and acceptance of state punishment rather than a collective or community task.

Since accountability cannot function as merely an absence of punishment but is a consequential process by which a committed group determines willingness and responsibility to address harm, the identifications and disidentifications we make in the service of accountability are imperative considerations for movement-building. As an alternative to disposal, accountability asks that we contend with the carceral logics that shape politicized, conscious identifications and disidentifications. In her discussion of Kenneth Burke’s theory of identification, Ratcliffe claims that conscious identifications allow for commonality and difference, and that by identifying consciously with others as we are able, we avoid the “coercive force of common ground” (47), reconsidering identifications that center only the ways we are alike, subsuming critical and instructive differences. Accountability logics must include the ways in which our institutional relationships to power (for example, being incarcerated or free) implicate us in each others’ lives, offering stakes more complex and entangled than exclusion and disposal logics allow.

Exclusion and Disposal Shaping Commonalities and Differences

Exclusion and disposability logics shape our listening landscape outside prisons, as well as our relationships to the people living inside them. Indeed, asking ourselves, consistently, who is excluded or disposable in any rhetorical situation offers some insight into how carceral logics, enacted in individual behaviors and by other institutions, might be troubling the very terms under which we engage cross-cultural conversations, encouraging us to listen and speak only within the spheres that appear visible to us.  The potential of individual acts of rhetorical listening to interrupt these logics depend on accountability practices that allow for a clear articulation of the trouble that haunts identification across institutional power dynamics. In addition to speaking across these divides, we also inhabit them, and experience the material and rhetorical consequences as a result. Commonalities and differences, both essential to coalitional practice, are heavily characterized by relationships to power. 

The abilities of rhetorical listening to reveal the exclusion and disposability logics that underpin various cultural logic might transform how we consider the scope of similarities and differences within those same logics. In this spirit, I revisit an integral exchange in Ratcliffe’s analysis of commonality and difference—her analysis of exchanges between Audre Lorde and Mary Daly. By highlighting the carceral logics of exclusion and disposability within commonality and difference in these passages, I consider what rhetorical listening stands to gain from the queer abolitionist theorizing I’ve presented thus far. 

Ratcliffe explains that Lorde’s “An Open Letter to Mary Daly” might be read as an insistence on the racial differences between feminists, whereas Daly’s strategy, in Gyn/Ecology, is to “foreground commonalities” (87), primarily, it would seem, on gender identity and the shared category of “woman.” Rather than privilege one mode over the other, Ratcliffe challenges herself to listen to each of these renderings, distilling the cultural logics and patterns that she believes attends each one (98). By noting the similarity, but not sameness, between these distinct cultural logics of race and gender, she describes the potential for conscious identification as metonymic rather than metaphoric, that is, mutually reflective of both gendered commonalities and racialized differences. In so doing, she hopes that “a focus on simultaneous commonalities and differences may sidestep the binary opposition of who’s right and who’s wrong” (95) but instead allow “each woman’s focus […] to inform and challenge one another” (96).  

I suggest that the conflict between Lorde and Daly is not based merely on the inability to “escape history” when it comes to the racialized and racist construction of the category of “woman” (87), or to how that history shapes both Lorde and Daly’s preference for foregrounding commonalities and differences. Rather, carceral logics underpin how and why commonalities and differences function in these texts, particularly in how they are constructed by Daly. Rather than objecting to the uses of commonalities, Lorde observes how these commonalities are deployed through logics of exclusion and disposability.

To be sure, Lorde objects to Daly’s invocation of “noneuropean women” in Gyn/Ecology, and explains the need for an understanding of differences among women. Importantly, though, Lorde does not object to commonalities foregrounded between women as a necessity for understanding racial difference. Rather, she objects to the particular layout and timing of the commonalities Daly invokes between women. Initially, Lorde was enthusiastic upon reading the First Passage of Gyn/Ecology, even remarking that the focus on “white, western european” women’s histories on the “nature and function of the Godess” engaged her because it “agreed with what I myself have discovered in my searches through African myth/legend/religion […].” Upon seeing whiteness represented uniformly, Lorde first concluded that “Mary has made a conscious decision to narrow her scope and to deal only with the ecology of western european women” (Lorde 67). However, once Lorde reads the Second Passage, she realizes that noneuropean women’s experiences are engaged alongside those of european women’s, but only in the depiction of ritual victimization and exploitation. As Ratcliffe observes, Lorde then concludes that “Black women are portrayed only as perpetrators and victims of patriarchal rituals” in Gyn/Ecology (Lorde qtd. in Ratcliffe 82). And yet, Lorde’s objection to the commonalities between women does not seem to depend only on a desire for foregrounding difference, but on the disparities between when noneuropean women are present and absent in Daly’s text. In Daly’s argument, they have been excluded from the analysis of the Goddess and included “only as victims and preyers—upon each other” (Lorde 67). This conflict itself foregrounds Lorde’s conclusion that Daly is “imply[ing] that all women suffer the same oppression simply because we are women” (67). In short, Lorde insists on a foregrounding of difference because Daly has proved untrustworthy in drawing commonalities and differences between western and non-western histories, excluding Black women from histories of feminine empowerment, and drawing their purported commonalities in only as negative examples. 

I do not believe that Lorde’s insistence on foregrounding difference here is dependent only on the implicit exceptionalism Daly offers white women. But an attention to disposal asks that we explore not only what commonalities and differences are invoked, but where they position the varied subjects of queer coalition. When and how to demarcate commonalities and differences is as politically important as making these identifications (consciously, to the extent that we are able) in the first place. Indeed, Lorde names the potential possibilities for coalition between herself and Daly as a primary site of her pain in reading Gyn/Ecology: “To dismiss our Black foremothers may well be to dismiss where european women learned to love,” she writes, highlighting possible commonalities Daly might have engaged, “As an African-american woman in white patriarchy, I am used to having my archetypal experience distorted and trivialized, but it is terribly painful to feel it being done by a woman whose knowledge so much touches my own” (67-8). The precise, limited contours of the rhetorical scope Daly offers Black women is the foundation of Lorde’s objection to Daly’s analysis. Queering rhetorical listening allows for an attention to the exclusions at work in Daly’s argument; she keeps Black history out of the sacred and gestures toward it only in the delineation of the predatory. It is, perhaps, not the act of finding common ground itself that tends toward the coercive, but the uneven power dynamics engaged when Daly describes what is and isn’t in common. 

Daly’s very insistence on the shared commonality of gender, too, gestures to what Julie Kubala has described as “her commitment to a kind of feminist purity that is explicitly transphobic and implicitly racist” (119). The stability of gender and exclusion of trans women, both hallmarks of Daly’s work and general philosophy, make the gendered commonalities between herself and Lorde particularly suspect. As Kubala notes, “transexclusionary claims are fundamentally intertwined with racism, often through a protectionist narrative that universalizes ‘woman’ through shared possibilities of victimization” (130). These same protectionist narratives are at work in the hyper-criminalization of trans people, who are figured in trans-exclusive feminism as deceptive in their gender presentation and, in multiple pop culture representations, as unfeeling killers (Mogul, Ritchie, and Whitlock 30). Kubala suggests that trans women in particular are endangered by serial killer archetypes (131). In Abolition Now! Ten Years of Strategy and Struggle Against the Prison Industrial Complex, Critical Resistance, a prison abolition organization, suggests that criminality constructs and enacts the disposability with which state power orients toward Black bodies (59).

A queer abolitionist reading of the Lorde-Daly debate, and Ratcliffe’s figuring of it in Rhetorical Listening, does not reject the merit of resisting a “who’s right and who’s wrong” perspective on debates, despite my interrogation of Daly here, nor does it reject the thoughtful uses of commonalities and differences engaged by metonymic and conscious identifications. However, in this essay I have sketched some of the ways that the commonalities and differences illuminated by rhetorical listening practices might retain and reify entrenched carceral boundaries. We all live in a world where people are, in the name of general survival and safety, excluded, disposed of, disappeared, forgotten, and murdered. As important, we have, as Krista Ratcliffe wrote fifteen years ago, “a stake in each other’s lives.” If rhetorical listening seeks to transform relationships and communication, it can, I believe, extend that ambition to listening along and against the very terms by which we imagine engagement with others is possible or desirable.

Works Cited

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