“What’s queer about sex offenders? Are sex offenders the new queers?” That was the provocative title of an all-day conference on sex-offender laws, hosted by the University of Chicago and the Center on Halsted and held at the Center May 27. Speakers included literary theorists, activists, artists, legal scholars and political scientists.
Richard Wright, assistant professor of criminal justice at Bridgewater State College and the editor of the recent book Sex Offender Laws: Failed Policies, New Direction, provided a broad overview of the shifts in sex-offender laws and their effects on the rights of registered sex offenders (RSOs), and argued that the laws had gone too far and needed reform. Over the last many decades, laws punishing and registering sex offenders have so increased in severity that several legal critics now consider them draconian. In early May, federal judge Jack B. Weinstein of the United States District Court in Brooklyn ruled that the electronic monitoring of Peter Polouizzi, a man awaiting retrial on child pornography, was unconstitutional, saying that it violated his procedural due process rights. Currently, depending on the city and state, an RSO may be barred from living in federal housing and may find it impossible to get a job. Many RSOs slide into lives of poverty and despair as basics like housing are put out of their reach.
One major problem with the punishment of RSOs is that the laws are made so that “one size fits all,” instead of being calibrated to reflect the severity of the crime. For that reason, someone who looks at child pornography may be punished exactly like someone who rapes a child. According to Wright, these laws are not only burdensome on RSOs but also extremely expensive because state and local agencies have to funnel valuable time and energy into constant monitoring of sex offenders. In addition, he said, “there is no definite empirical evidence that exclusionary zones reduce sex offender recidivism” and, in fact, by banishing RSOs to a few areas, the laws aid “the development of high-risk sex offender enclaves.”
But what does any of this have to do with queers? Don Kulick, professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago and a conference organizer, said that until recently, “homosexuality was a sex offense, homosexuals were sex offenders.” Joe Fischel, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Chicago and an organizer of the event, pointed out a historical concurrence: the relatively high level of acceptance and even protection of LGBTs in the past 15 years has coincided with a rise in the punishment and monitoring of RSOs. As he put it, “the sex offender takes up the space now vacated by the homosexual.”
Speakers also pointed out that children’s sexuality has been erased from culture. Yet, the figure of the queer child and his/her relationship to older cultural and/or sexual mentors has long been a mainstay of queer culture and literature. Kathleen Stockton, professor of English at the University of Utah and author of The Queer Child: Growing Sideways in the 20th Century looked at key moments in fiction like Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, where children possessed a degree of agency and response to their sexuality.
Laurie Jo Reynolds, artist, activist and adjunct professor at the Film and Video Department at Columbia College, holds a 2010 Soros Justice Project Fellowship; her current work considers the impact of sex-offender statutes in Illinois. She presented a series of staged photographs that provided a visual counterpoint to the traditional banishment of RSOs. In one, an RSO is shown returning from prison to the welcoming arms of family and friends. Reynolds said that the point was to ask what would it mean for an RSO to be meaningfully reintegrated back into their community. She noted that activists had to work with the “dead silence” around laws from both RSOs and their families and what we might presume to be their “natural allies” on the left.
A session with Fischel and Rose Corrigan, assistant professor of law and politics at Drexel University, indicated some tension as the two differed on the ways in which sex-offender laws have been unsuccessful. While Fischel felt that punishment and registries were overly punitive, Corrigan, who has worked with survivors of sexual and domestic violence, stated that not enough was done to provide support for victims of rape and abuse. She also posed a question: “Why do prosecutors who hate rape cases [in that they don’t prosecute them enough] love sex offender cases?” Her answer was that “getting people on the sex-offender registries was an easy way to show they are ‘tough on crime’ without doing a lot of work.”
During question-and-answer sessions, RSOs and their families spoke up and addressed their frustrations at the laws. Craig A., who did not give his last name for reasons of privacy, stated that he had been found guilty of possession of child pornography in Downers Grove in 2006. He was a journalist and a competing newspaper publicized his arrest. According to him, “all the aldermen were suddenly confronted with the fact that a newspaper reporter, who looks “just like me” is also a sex offender.” Craig’s point was that there could be no stereotypes of the “typical” sex offender. He added, “we need to be out and loud.”
Craig A. told Windy City Times that he liked the conference, saying that “it was freeing to be able to get up in a group of strangers and admit what I’ve done, and not be condemned for it. This was the first time [I found] acceptance and support [among strangers] .” Stuart Michaels, undergraduate program chair at the University of Chicago’s Center for Gender Studies and an organizer, spoke added, “This tells me that we have to look at some intersectional and difficult questions. It’s quite historic to have in the same room sex offenders, academics, activists and artists talking about these issues.” The conference ended with a session about the 2007 film Zoo, about zoophiles, which included a conversation with the director Robinson Devor.