The COVID-19 pandemic and international protests of the violences of the prison industrial complex (PIC) have put matters of health, safety, and healing at the forefront of social justice struggles. Prison abolitionists around the world are asking: How do we dismantle systems of oppression foundational to carceral institutions within which and from which we find ourselves needing to heal? Or as Adaku Utah, Nigerian healer and liberation educator, prompts: how do we “create systems and structures that build wellness, safety, care, and power and depend less on the state and systems of violence? What do we need to transform in ourselves and in our organizations to build this kind of world?”1 (emphasis added) These questions—arguably more urgent than ever in the face of multiple pandemics, unmitigated police violence, and climate catastrophe—animate the articles, essays, poems, and speculative fiction that make up this special issue on queer healing and Transformative Justice.2 Our contributors, writing from a range of origins, locations, abilities, identities, and subject positions, demonstrate that the work of queer(ing) healing and reimagining how we prevent, disrupt, and intervene in harm is foundational to building abolitionist worlds, in the here and now.
Navigating the Dual Pandemics of COVID-19 and the PIC
Many prison abolitionists, following the brown sisters’ lead to “learn from the apocalypse with grace, rigor, and curiosity”3 (Wright, this issue), imagined the COVID-19 pandemic to be a catalyst for collective transformation, a generative opportunity to restructure social relations away from ableist-racial capitalism and towards interdependence and collective care. Yet, much of the world pushes for a “return to normal,” prioritizing individual choice, corporate profit, and opportunities for travel and leisure over disabled, immune-compromised, elderly, and poor and working-class lives. In the face of multiple pandemics, economic recessions, waves of state-sanctioned and interpersonal violence, and climate catastrophe, political leaders have largely neglected to take on the robust social, economic, environmental, and political transformations that actually keep people safe and well.
The inadequate responses to the concurrent crises of recent years highlight the eugenicist underpinnings of hegemonic frameworks for health and safety. Whose health and safety are valued, and at what cost? The burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic are disproportionately borne by disabled and immune-compromised people, people of color, immigrants, undocumented people, poor and working-class communities, incarcerated people, caregivers, and people living in the Global South. Corporate greed, xenophobia, and antiblackness have resulted in global disparities in vaccine access as well as scapegoating of racialized populations as cause and carriers of transmission.4 Around the world, bureaucrats, administrators, and business owners are lifting mask mandates, retiring remote access options, and withdrawing relief funds, eviction moratoriums, and vaccines, testing, and treatment.
In a world where “public safety” is largely exercised as the suppression of disorder and dissent, systematically disenfranchised communities—often the very same who are at increased risk of contraction and complications from COVID-19—are disproportionately targeted for policing and criminalization. Prisons, detention centers, and border patrol agents are mass carriers of COVID-19, as well as other preventable, infectious diseases, like hepatitis and HIV.5 Riot police routinely use tear gas and other chemical agents on protestors, engaging in respiratory warfare in the midst of an airborne virus threatening chronic pulmonary disease.
Although police budgets continue to swell, activists around the world are recognizing that decarceration is essential for public health; that prison abolition preserves human life.6 Queer, trans, disabled, and BIPOC activists have been on the frontlines of efforts for decarceration and are leading allied grassroots movements for mutual aid. Black feminists and queer and trans people of color, in particular, have played a vital role in expanding the project of prison abolition beyond the closure of prisons, jails, detention centers, asylums, and other sites of confinement, though indeed these institutions must fall. Thanks to the contributions of these organizers and activists, a growing number of prison abolitionists are recognizing that carcerality creeps beyond borders and prison walls, shaping social institutions, ideologies, interpersonal relations, subjectivities, and embodiments.7 The project of prison abolition thus includes Disability Justice in its work to challenge bodymind normativity and value life marked by ableist-racist capitalism as degenerate, disposable, or criminal; Transformative Justice in its work to eradicate prison logics from social systems and interpersonal relations; and Healing Justice in its work to “remain well inside systems that do not want us to be well or already associate us with disease.”8
Queer Healing and Transformative Justice
Healing can be a contentious term, given that white biomedicine has historically pathologized and objectified queer, trans, intersex, disabled, and racialized people through forced medical experimentation and “corrective” treatments and surgeries. Yet, queer healing is shown in this issue to be subjugated knowledge actively reclaimed by queer, trans, intersex, disabled/mad/crip, and BIPOC communities, and those of us living and theorizing from the intersections of queer subject positions. Drawing on Cara Page and the Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective's conceptualization of Healing Justice,9 this issue considers queer healing to be a collective practice that mitigates the impacts of intergenerational harm and violence while creating conditions for a world that is more survivable. Although the medical-industrial complex tethers healing to rigid models of cure or recovery, our contributors engage with healing as a fluid, nonlinear, and amorphous process that is both deeply personal and necessarily communal and collective. As S. M. Rodriguez suggests in their roundtable conversation with H. Rakes, Kennedy Healy, and Liat Ben-Moshe, “Healing Justice, like other aspects of Transformative Justice and abolition, grounds us in communal relationships and communal forms of support, rather than state-based forms of support.”
Transformative Justice, borne from feminist of color anti-violence organizing, is an abolitionist framework for preventing, disrupting, and intervening in violence without reliance on carceral institutions. Although Transformative Justice is often conflated with “community accountability,”10 our contributors show that harm can be prevented, disrupted, reimagined, and healed in and through education (Brody), health care (Adwalla; Fukui; Sayre and Manalastas; TMHJ:LA), social work (Sandra J.), social justice spaces (Carruthers and Alexander), art, literature, and performance (Munhazim and Zondon; Sansonetti; Yi), and embodiment (Kohn, Whitfield, Rotolo, Boles, and Syedullah; Wright). Throughout this issue, therapy sessions, organizing meetings, podcasts, tarot readings, research teams, and artmaking practices are uplifted as sites for abolitionist care and healing.
Within Transformative Justice movements, queer healing is a methodology for moving in relationship with integrity and accountability. Transformative Justice practitioners ask us to dive inward to expand outward, asking: what do we need to heal to get in right relationship with our bodyminds, people, environments, and movement spaces? As Charlene Carruthers and Qui Alexander discuss in their conversation on queer healing and Black liberation, trauma shows up in embodied and interpersonal relations, often affecting “how we are with each other.” Elliot Fukui explains in this issue: “When I do not honor my body, madness, and capacity, I have learned that I often end up causing harm, being unaccountable, and feeling trapped in my trigger responses and spirals.” Recognizing the link between healing the individual and the collective, Carruthers offers that the work of collective liberation requires unpacking “survival responses” and leaning into an “embodiment rooted in dignity.”
Queer healing and Transformative Justice are thus deeply connected to embodying abolitionist futures; that is, living as if you are already free. In their conversation with Alisha Kohn, Kitty Rotolo, and Brian Boles, Paris E. Whitfield writes of the importance of staying true to oneself in the highly surveilled, punitive environment of the prison, where “the institution is designed to erase away every part of human individuality.” They argue that living in a space of fear and acquiescence, within a system that “seeks to stamp out ideas of Blackness, nonconformity, and queerness” can create an “internal prison, of sorts.” Kitty Rotolo advises on how to navigate this dual-incarceration, stating: “Just keep your head up and keep moving forward, flaunt your beauty, and it will keep you free on the inside” (emphasis added). These sentiments are echoed in Dylan Brody's piece, “Entangled Genders: Unraveling Transformative Justice in the Early Childhood Classroom,” where Brody describes the constraints of cisheteronormativity as an “ensnarement” that binds closeted trans and queer educators and students alike. Although they ruminate on the complex harms that gender normativity inflicts upon students and staff, Brody also explores the liberatory potential of co-creating fugitive spaces for abolition pedagogy and gender-expansive play. Together, these essays approach abolition as both material and embodied—a horizon of possibility that can be practiced in the here and now.
Creativity in Healing and Liberation
As abolition necessitates imagining queer utopic horizons of possibility11 and living as if you are already free, performance, art, literature, and other mediums of worldmaking prove to be critical sites of communal healing and liberation. Annie Sansonetti's article analyzing the abolitionist imaginary of Akwaeke Emezi's PET shows that speculative fiction can provide models for how to live against the prison industrial complex, “as if Black people are already free” and, “how to live after such freedom.” Cass Manalastas reflects in their paper co-authored with Dana Sayre on the liberatory potential of drama therapy: “My clients and I have traveled to the middle of the woods, traversed lands that we could only dream of, and morphed into beings that transcend the virtual space. While the occasional talk therapy grounds us, drama therapy has allowed us to envision a future—not just outside the confines of COVID-19, but also outside the confines of systemic inequity and injustice.” Likewise, A. K. Wright finds the medium of the podcast to be a portal for intimacy and abolition epistemology, writing: “The [How to Survive the End of the World] podcast energizes my curiosity and encourages me to believe in the power of imagination in my teaching, writing and art.” While abolition is often associated with dismantling and destruction, our contributors show that creativity and imagination is a prerequisite for building liberatory worlds.
Queer Healing and Spirituality
The speculative project of queer healing and Transformative Justice moves some of our essays into explorations of spirituality. Christopher Joseph Lee's article considers the widespread phenomenon of queer and trans people turning to astrology and tarot for community building and healing praxis outside of the medical industrial complex. G. Yi uses the medium of virtual reality to propose a paradigm for Activist Church, “a Disability Justice community center and house of worship, where people don't try to heal me or where I have to hide who I am.” Ahmad Qais Munhazim and Wazina Zondon use reflection, conversation, and curation to engage in a collective practice of mourning and remembrance that honors their queer Afghan Muslim refugee experiences. Elias Bouderbaden's poetry collection tenderly traces the contours of hurt and healing, ruminating on spiritual praxis, cultural identity, and queer community as balms for diasporic loss and longing. While queer people have often been positioned as scapegoats, victims, and targets of religious institutions, our contributors show that spirituality can be a generative site for healing and transformation.
Transformative Justice and Institutional Erasures
Tensions between the speculative and material project of Transformative Justice and queer healing are a focal point of submissions focusing on ableist, racist, and homo/transphobic institutions. Ahmed Awadalla, for example, writes that many queers of color seeking psychotherapeutic services “encounter horrific situations navigating a system shaped by whiteness and heteronormativity . . . [that] was not made for us.” Through a critical auto-ethnographic exploration, Awadalla outlines alternative modalities—such as queer grief rituals and humor—that can collectivize healing. In their roundtable conversation, members of Transmasculine Health Justice: Los Angeles reflect on the institutional exclusions and erasures of transmasculine health care and approach community-based education and advocacy as a form of queer worldmaking. As Lylliam Posadas writes: “There is an element of community building and power building that can happen in developing a research project and realizing that you don't need a certificate.”
In the poem, “Dear Abled America,” Theresa Gao links health care, education, media, and infrastructure as sites of ableist oppression and ruminates on leaving America “in search of freedom.” Sandra J., focusing on the incorporation of Transformative Justice principles into social work, argues that assessments of “surviving well” or “surviving poorly” arbitrarily shape the care and services that survivors of violence receive. Offering a framework of “spaciousness,” they leave their readers with probing questions to explore Transformative Justice beyond institutional measures and constraints. In their analysis of the uses of transgender hate crime data, Ren-yo Hwang argues that the “carceral accuracy” demanded by both LGBTQIA+ community members and police precludes transformative solutions to gender-based violence. As they suggest: “When coalitions fighting to end violence are tasked with the labor of quantifying and detailing crime and punishment through numbers, such a possessive investment in carceral data deadens the possibility of collective mobilization or a collective truth-telling of how harm and violence functions beyond criminological and social scientific measurement.” These articles serve as a cautionary tale and guidepost for those struggling for abolition within and beyond carceral systems.
This work offers urgent insights on the complexity of queer healing when many queer, trans, disabled, and BIPOC people “were never meant to survive.”12 Although institutional co-optation, incorporation, and appropriation are always risks, our contributors offer roadmaps for resisting harm and reimagining healing from a variety of social locations. A thread throughout the contributions is the importance of collectivity and collaboration, with many contributors reflecting on the questions: How is the work of queer healing and Transformative Justice at once individual and collective? How do we move between work on ourselves and work in community? Our contributors recognize healing as a political project, one that is intimately tied to the visions and goals of Transformative Justice and prison abolition more broadly. Moving between the liberation of self and liberation of all, our contributors ask: How do we unlearn carceral ideologies of bodymind normativity, punitive thinking, and logics of disposability? As the pandemic rages on and attacks on queer, trans, disabled, and BIPOC lives increase, these are necessary questions to survive and sustain us in ongoing efforts to build queer abolitionist worlds.
Cara Page, Mariame Kaba, and Adaku Utah, “Healing and Transformative Justice: Imagining Black Feminist and Abolitionist Futures,” Goethe Institute, New York, July 29, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3fDHrgaTmpo.
Throughout this article, we capitalize “Transformative,” “Healing,” and “Disability Justice” to pay tribute to the organizers, activists, and visionaries who have crafted these social movements around principles of abolitionist social transformation. Whereas “justice” is a generic concept that can be co-opted and conflated with liberal principles such as equality or freedom, Transformative, Healing, and Disability Justice are organizing movements grounded in anti-capitalist, abolitionist, and decolonial politics.
Autumn and adrienne maree brown, How to Survive the End of the World [Podcast], 2017–2023, https://www.endoftheworldshow.org/ (addressed August 20, 2022).
Joe Penney, “Racism, Rather than Facts, Drove U.S. Coronavirus Travel Bans,” The Intercept, May 16, 2020; Derrick Z. Jackson “Omicron in Blackface: Racist US Travel Ban Scapegoats Africa,” The Equation, December 3, 2021.
Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Erica Meiners, and Beth Richie, Abolition. Feminism. Now (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2022), 126–27.
Zak Cheney-Rice, “Coronavirus Fears Spark Prison Strikes, Protests, and Riots Around the World,” New York Magazine, March 27, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-fears-spark-prison-unrest-worldwide.html; Brian Dooley, “COVID Outbreak in Prison Sparks New Protests in Bahrain,” Human Rights First [blog], April 6, 2021, https://www.humanrightsfirst.org/blog/covid-outbreak-prison-sparks-new-protests-bahrain; Olga Zeveleva, “Prison Riots and the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Global Uprising?” Gulag Echoes [blog], April 15, 2020, https://blogs.helsinki.fi/gulagechoes/2020/04/15/prison-riots-and-the-covid-19-pandemic-a-global-uprising/.
adrienne maree brown, We Will Not Cancel Us: And Other Dreams of Transformative Justice (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2020); Don Lash, “When the Welfare People Come”: Race and Class in the US Child Protection System (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017); Savannah Shange, Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019); Eric Stanley and Nat Smith, eds., Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2015).
“Kindred Collective: Cara Page,” Healing Collective Trauma, February 2013, https://www.healingcollectivetrauma.com/cara-page.html.
Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective, “What Is Healing Justice?,” http://kindredsouthernhjcollective.org/what-is-healing-justice/ (accessed August 15, 2022).
Mariame Kaba, “Be Humble: An Interview with Mariame Kaba,” Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2020): 278–300.
Jose Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009).
Audre Lorde, “A Litany for Survival,” in The Black Unicorn: Poems (New York: Norton, 1978).