Giving less shits, social movement burnout, and gender selfie determination.
Che and Reina Gossett
The phrase “power-siblings” takes on a whole new meaning with Che and Reina Gossett. Between them, there are close to four decades of joy-filled activism for trans liberation, sex workers’ rights, HIV decriminalization, and prison abolition. As artists, archivists, community organizers, educators, and all-around-brilliant spirits, Che and Reina have shared their gifts in many ways and liminal spaces.
Though they are completely uninterested in being seen as exceptional, being around Che and Reina is truly a magical, transcendent experience. Carrying the legacies of both the black radical tradition of their family–their mom is a union organizer and their dad a self-defense-instructor and anti-prison advocate – and of their movement ancestors, they emit the grounding energy of people who know they’ve got history behind them. Having both spent hours upon hours in the archives of those whose legacies they live in, it is a time-warping treat to listen to them recall these stories with an abundance of knowledge, admiration, and love. They speak humbly and carefully, always sure to center the work and lives of people who have been historically unrecognized, and with no shortage of laughter and humor. Refusing to let the collective work of liberation be a joyless process, both Che and Reina are always showing off bright-colored clothing, tattoos, and accessories while emphasizing the importance of acupuncture and chilling with friends. If you’re lucky enough to already follow them on Instagram, then you know that Che posts weekly pics of femme legends like Whitney Houston and Nicki Minaj, while Reina’s is full of selfies of her and her best friend/cat, the gorgeous Jean.
Born and raised in Massachusetts, Reina and Che went to a bilingual elementary school in the Roxbury where “the teachers were abusive,” and later attended suburban schools where they “went from living in poverty to going to school with wealthy people like Mitt Romney’s kids.”
Reina moved to NYC thirteen years ago for college and has stayed ever since, in that time working with organizations like Queers for Economic Justice, Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and Critical Resistance. She’s organized to stop a new jail from being built in the Bronx, advocated for safe and affordable healthcare for trans and gender nonconforming New Yorkers, and archived and published decades of research on the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries and its members. Reina is an activist-in-residence at the Barnard Research Center for Women (BCRW). She is currently making a film called Happy Birthday Marsha!
Che recently moved to Bed Stuy from Philly, where they were involved in AIDS activism and anti HIV criminalization work. Che is a self-identified “proud theory queen and academic gossip girl,” and a scholar-in-residence at the BCRW. They are currently involved in an archival project on legacies of black queer and prison abolitionist solidarity with Palestinian struggles that focuses on the archives of James Baldwin, June Jordan, and George L. Jackson. They are also writing a book on AIDS activist Kiyoshi Kiromiya.
We met up on a blizzarding night in Fort Greene, Brooklyn to grab some drinks and talk about their paths to New York, the traps of trans visibility, whose legacies they cherish, and what they’ve been dreaming about lately. They were wearing the same hat. Who had it first? That’s one secret they’ll never tell.
I first encountered both of your names in the context of your prison abolition work, in Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, which was a huge influence on me when I was starting to learn about intersections of prisons and the criminalization of queer and/or trans people. How did you both get involved with anti-prison activism?
CG: I always felt connected to ideas of abolition. My father was incarcerated for a lot of my life – in both psychiatric institutions and prisons. I got a lot of black radical politics from him. I first heard about George Jackson from a letter that my Dad wrote to me from prison, when I was really young. My mom is also involved in labor movements, so there is definitely an inherited activism – or inherited outrage – in my family. So many people have loved ones who are incarcerated, and that is often an entry point. When I was at graduate school at Brown, I took a class with Joy James, a black feminist and anti-carceral studies professor. I taught in a prison through a program called “Space in Prisons for Arts and Creative Expression.” That was the start of getting involved with prison abolition work.
After that class, I was involved with Critical Resistance in the Bay Area, which gave me the language to express broader power dynamics in the prison industrial complex that I hadn’t been able to articulate before. They have a really strong emphasis on critical pedagogy – prison abolitionist pedagogy – which stayed with me. I was especially struck by learning about how the carceral system reproduces and produces binaries, as a way to legitimize its expansion as an anti-black, anti-trans, capitalist enterprise. Binaries like innocent/criminal. That analysis helped me develop a prison industry complex abolitionist lens, that has been shaped by the critical pedagogy of Black Feminism (which is always already trans) and/or queer and trans liberation movements to ask visioning questions like: What would it look like to have alternate ways of relating to each other instead of carceral ways? What’s causing prisons to exist and what would it look like to have real forms of accountability and transformation that don’t rely on anti-black, anti-trans, anti-queer and settler-colonial ideas of innocence and safety?
What would it look like to have alternate ways of relating to each other instead of carceral ways?
RG: It was definitely a lot of things. Partly, my own experiences with the carceral system and my family’s experiences. In the early 2000s, I was teaching creative writing and arts classes at Rikers Island through my school in a program called Island Academy. There were some poets and artists who were affiliated with the class who were moving in an amazing black arts tradition. They put on slam poetry events in the prisons. I think it was “beats not bars.” There was an affiliation with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and the Prison Moratorium Project. The people I met there were great to be around; they had a practice of not being shameful about things that a lot of us had been taught to be shameful about – like having been incarcerated, or having loved ones who were incarcerated.