Episode 57: A Matter of Survival — Trivializing Trans Rights as Boutique “Identity” Issue
Citations Needed | November 14, 2018 | Transcript
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s 2016 election, one of the first responses among liberals, conservatives and unfortunately even some on the left, was to blame, so-called “identity politics” for Hillary Clinton’s loss.
Adam: Yeah. Commentaries from Mark Lilla to David Brooks to Bill Maher pushed this narrative. But in these counter narratives, one major and important point was suppressed over and over again, that the so-called “identity issues” of trans people are not a matter of self-esteem or feeling good about themselves or some sort of academic notion of recognition, but in many concrete ways, as we’ll discuss with our guest, these are issues of actual matter of life and death. Conveying this notion to the broader cis public has been almost impossible for trans activists as media narratives surrounding trans issues, when they’re not outright hostile and glib, have disproportionately focused on surface level improvements among the wealthy and those in spaces occupied by us militarism like entry into the army or the navy. The question is, how do we break through these corrosive narratives of either outright contempt towards trans people or when we focus on trans issues, centering bourgeois imperialists narratives?
Nima: Instead, how do we elevate narratives that affect the vast majority of trans people? Things like housing, police terror, legal status, healthcare, basic human dignity, while at the same time pushing back against liberal and even left holdouts who dismiss trans issues as simply another distraction. Today we are joined by Dean Spade, Associate Professor at Seattle University School of Law and founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. He is the author of Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law.
Dean Spade: You know, when we talk about why the military is not a good job for trans people or anyone both because of what the military does as the world’s largest source of violence and the world’s largest polluter and because of like what it’s like to work in the military, which is that people experience increased dismissals if they are people of color, dishonorable discharge or people, you know, experience sexual assault, like we could ask those questions about trans people’s well-being. And then I just, I just expect the left media to be a little bit better at asking like where did this agenda come from? How many people are actually backing it and what is the grassroots work around this look like? And I feel like there’s like a media taboo to talk in complex ways about these things.
Adam: In the lead up to the 2016 election and immediately after it, a popular knee jerk response is to quote unquote, “why Trump won,” uh, was to blame a focus by Clinton and other liberals on so-called “identity politics.” Despite not being able to support any of this with any data, as in zero data by the way, this, this is an assertion that’s been thrown out dozens and dozens of times, but there’s actually zero evidence to support this. It quickly became conventional wisdom that Trump’s win was a response to some runaway political correctness embodied by the Trump campaign and there was no greater punching bag for this narrative than the issue of trans rights, specifically those surrounding what they called the “bathroom issue.”
Nima: A perfect example of this is when The New York Times’ Frank Bruni appeared on MSNBC Live the morning after the 2016 election and he was speaking with host Stephanie Ruhle about where Democrats went wrong and it was Ruhle who brought up this concept of “LGBT initiatives” and quote “transgender bathrooms.”
Stephanie Ruhle: When many of the initiatives that represent Obama, when you think about LGBT initiatives, and it matters to so many people, many people can say, transgender bathrooms in high schools, how many people is that going to impact in this country? Not so many.
Frank Bruni: Well I think in a way that has really come back to haunt the Democratic Party, not just in the presidential race, but we also thought for a long time the Democrats were going to take control of the Senate. They didn’t. We thought they’d pick up more houses, more seats in the house than they did. I think in a lot of ways the Democratic Party has become this collection of boutique issues. That they think if you add them all together, you get to 51 percent or 52. But when you do those sorts of boutique issues, and you put all your firepower and all your rhetoric there, there’s a lot of the country that feels ignored.
Adam: And then two weeks later, Mark Lilla, who’s a professor at Columbia University and a popular author, and traffics in a lot of the sort of TED Talk crowd, wrote a missive in The New York Times where he basically blamed, um, what he called “identity liberalism” on Trump’s win. And again, I want to stress over and over again, there’s no actual empirical evidence to support this. He wrote, quote, “As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale. (To paraphrase Bernie Sanders, America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms.)” He was paraphrasing the Bernie Sanders thing where he said, um, America is tired of hearing about the damn emails. But he said America, so he’s sort of saying America doesn’t want to hear about bathrooms. The trans bathrooms issues, they need to wait because they, they, they provoke some, again, unknown, unspecified unquantified, unresearched cohort of Trump voters. And then he went onto mock identity issues as taking over outside of the United States, saying that he, um, he recently read a tale about a transgender person in Egypt, he said doing so quote, “contributes nothing to educating Americans about the powerful, political and religious currents that will undermine Egypt’s failure, and indirectly, or own. No major news outlet in the European world would think of adopting such a focus.” So he sees this broader identity politics, somehow this Op-Ed by a trans person in Egypt is what gave us Trump I guess.
Nima: Yeah. And like its really pissing him off for some reason. I, I also want to point out that when, when you say to paraphrase Bernie Sanders, like right after the election, that is clearly read as like Bernie Sanders basically said that he’s sick and tired of hearing about liberals damn bathrooms. Like it doesn’t read that, uh, you know, that’s not something Bernie said specifically. He’s basically using Bernie Sanders as a foil to attack this notion of identity politics specifically. And I mean, not, not that, you know, I need to fucking defend Bernie fucking Sanders, who cares, but like, that’s not what he said. And yet this is published in The New York Times as an example of like, ‘look, even Sanders says get over this shit,’ which is not what happened.
Adam: Yeah it seems like what he’s implying.
Adam: Uh, so then, then David Brooks also in The New York Times, earlier that summer before the election, but was sort of commenting on why Trump was popular and white democrats were doomed in one of his many tweets about identity politics, he said, quote, “The laws commanding where transgender people go to the bathroom, on the other hand, show how the culture war has devolved into an over politicized set of gestures designed to push people’s emotional hot buttons.” So again, you have this idea that it’s boutique, that these are gestures, that they’re a little, what Lilla calls “symbolic.” And this is a trope we see over and over again that this, this quote unquote “bathroom issue” is some kind of academic nicety. Again, as opposed to something that actually is a matter of life and death in many ways for lots of trans people.
Nima: And it also has a lot to do with absolving people of their own bigotry.
Nima: That the idea is that these are simply, you know, your kind of needling people to be, you know, and kind of mocking them for being uncomfortable with who you are and like, you know, look, you know, ‘be whoever you are in the privacy of your own fucking bathroom, but like get it out of our lives.’ And it’s this really ugly, ugly notion of somehow justifying extreme discrimination for no other reason than to kind of maintain the idea that cis gendered society is kind of the baseline status quo and anything deviating from that is in fact deviant.
Nima: Uh, this kind of reminds me actually of something that The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen wrote a number of years ago back in 2014, which was about this kind of absolving racism on the mantle of normalcy. And it was in a different context. It’s not about, it’s not about trans rights or trans people. Uh, but it, it gets to the crux of something that I think is very similar and it’s this, he wrote, quote, “Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the Tea Party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.” End Quote.
Adam: So you see this time and again, which is, Bill Maher’s mastered this too which we’ll talk about later, where people project their own bigotry onto some nebulous white working class voter who must be protected at all costs.
Nima: And that their sensibilities must be respected.
Adam: Yeah, for some, like per se, that’s what’s important. Um, ‘whereas I don’t find these things bad, but some nebulous voter does, therefore we ought not talk about them.’
Nima: Right. ‘Mixed race couples are vomit inducing, not to me, but to a large swath of America.’
Adam: Yeah. Of course not. And this was, by the way, for those who read a lot about Jim Crow, this was the sort of number one reason why people would have segregated establishments, even if they didn’t legally have to, they’d say, ‘Oh, I have no problem with mixing the races, but my customers do.’ There’s always some sort of, ‘I’m not the one who is a hateful person’ and you see this all the time with trans issues, which is, ‘I don’t care but there’s this mythical white working class or middle class person who we have to coddle, and if we push our rights too fast, we’ll scare them away.’
Nima: And that, that’s why they elect people like Trump.
Adam: Yeah. Not because they want lower taxes or are just themselves racist, but because of some sort of identity politics that have sort of gone too far. And you saw this with CNN’s conservative commentator Mary Katharine Ham.
Mary Katharine Ham: Hey, I have some questions about that and here’s where you run into the problem that I think many, many folks voted Trump because of. It is this message from the cultural left that says, if you have any questions about this sort of radical change in the way we’re doing things in our society than you are a hater. You were the haterist hater that ever hated and you will shut up now, and that kind of cultural bullying led people to look to frankly another cultural bully in Donald Trump, who was willing to stand up against it. And I don’t think it’s particularly great for society if we keep having battles in this way, but it is not just the right who has to answer for that. It is the left as well.
Nima: Unfortunately, you also see this on the left. Take for example writer Sam Kriss who wrote quote, “Trump won among voters who ticked the box for Obama in 2008 and 2012, he won decisively among white women, he picked up a far bigger share of ethnic minority voters than anyone would have reasonably expected, he won because the standard formula of American liberalism — eternal war abroad coupled with rationally administered dispossession at home and an ethics centered on where people should be allowed to piss and shit — is a toxic and unlovable ideology, and his candidacy turned it from an invisible consensus to one option among others.” End quote.
Adam: Yeah, and then of course the far-right to this to a Glenn Beck wrote an article quote, “How Selling Out Women to Transgender Bullies Helped Elect Trump.” Then you have Robby Soave, who is a libertarian who sort of travels in liberal circles, in an article called “Trump Won Because Leftist Political Correctness Inspired a Terrifying Backlash.” That was shared by our favorite liberal Jonathan Chait of the New Yorker, Soave wrote quote, “A lot of people think there are only two genders — boy and girl. Maybe they’re wrong. Maybe they should change that view. Maybe it’s insensitive to the trans community. Maybe it even flies in the face of modern social psychology. But people think it. Political correctness is the social force that holds them in contempt for that, or punishes them outright. If you’re a leftist reading this,” I love when libertarians give leftists advice-
Adam: Quote, “you probably think that’s stupid. You probably can’t understand why someone would get so bent out of shape about being told their words are hurtful. You probably think it’s not a big deal and these people need to get over themselves. Who’s the delicate snowflake now, huh? you’re probably thinking. I’m telling you: your failure to acknowledge this miscalculation and adjust your approach has delivered the country to Trump.” And again, I want to repeat, there’s actually no evidence of this. There’s no empirical evidence two years since the election that any political correctness feelings are what motivated voters.
Nima: You even had The Washington Post quote this like random Clinton campaign chair in Ohio, following the election, doing the same song and dance. Basically saying that the Clinton campaign itself was to blame because of this kind of bathroom messaging. So The Post wrote that “Rust Belt Dems broke for Trump because they thought Clinton cared more about bathrooms than jobs.” And the campaign chair is then quoted, “Look, I’m as progressive as anybody, okay? But people in the heartland thought the Democratic Party cared more about where someone else went to the restroom than whether they had a good-paying job,” he complained. “‘Stronger together’ doesn’t get anyone a job.”
Adam: Yeah. That’s the, that’s the, uh, ‘I’m not racist but-’ which is invariably followed by something racist. ‘I’m as progressive as the next guy but trans people wait your turn.’ And by the way, if this is sort of like the never criticize Democrats thing, where like anytime you criticize Democrats, like, ‘oh, not before an election.’ It’s like, ‘don’t talk about trans rights now, you have to wait.’ But they never specify when that time is that it’s okay to do it. You saw this with the Civil Rights Movement too. ‘Oh wait, your turn. Wait, wait. Later. Now it’s not the time.’ It’s never the right time. Because again, we have to coddle the feelings of ill defined unquantified cohort of, of white voters who were, who can’t be told that they’re bigots because that will therefore then make them the bigot.
Nima: Exactly. (Laughs.) Don’t say the thing that they are because then they will become that thing.
Adam: Yeah. And invariably Bill Maher was a huge proponent of this both before and after the election, he referred to people who were advocating the trans bathroom issue as being quote, “tricked into college campus pet peeves.” So again, you see it time and again, this idea that trans rights are not an issue of life and death or an issue of basic humanity or an issue of access to public because again, which we’ll talk about with our guest, but this is an issue of you can’t go out, you can’t go to public places, or an issue of survival, an issue of safety, that this is just a kind of boutique nicety, right? It’s kind of this extra thing. It’s like, it’s like dual side airbags. It’s sort of nice to have, but we don’t really need it. And it’s the one thing we want to convey with this show for maybe some of our listeners who aren’t totally sold on this, this is actually not that. This is a issue of urgent moral import. And just because trans rights are just on the national radar in the last three or four years, it’s something that we’re talking about, doesn’t mean that they were sort of invented out of whole cloth. It doesn’t mean that they came out of nowhere. It just means that you know, frankly, people haven’t been paying attention. So what, what we want to do is we want to talk about how this is not a boutique identity issue such that it is, even to the extent that term is useful, but is actually something that has tremendous stakes.
Nima: So to talk about this more, we’re going to be joined by Dean Spade, Associate Professor at Seattle University School of Law. He’ll join us in just a second. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Dean Spade. Thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Dean Spade: Thanks for having me.
Adam: So thank you so much for coming on. I want to start with the first point you made in your piece. And I think the first thing that kind of comes up in these things and something we talked a lot about earlier in the show, which is the idea that trans issues such that they are, are about identity. Identity sort of as a pejorative, obviously there are about identity, but the sort of “identity politics” which has become this kind of centrist or liberal friendly and even sometimes unfortunately leftist friendly way of dismissing the issue as something that’s kind of boutique and only concern for people on the Upper West Side. You referenced the tweet by Michael Pollan, who, who referenced the HHS memo, which we also talked about saying quote, “Don’t take this bait! — he WANTS Dems talking about identity for the next 16 days.” You had a lot of good thoughts on this. I want you to sort of talk about what the issue with this framing is, why it’s problematic or bad or glib and what you see as the kind of rejoinder to this knee jerk claim that has been used by everyone from Bill Maher to Mark Lilla to a lot of liberals?
Dean Spade: Yes. I’m glad you brought this up because I was very upset by Michael Pollan’s tweet, as I think many people were, and what the story is, kind of what the logic is that comes out of that is that trans issues or it sometimes might be gay issues or it might be women’s issues or whoever is being picked out as just being identity issues are kind of not the real issues of the left and that we’re actually splitting the left by talking about our identities or that others are splitting the left by talking about our identities and that we’re somehow divisive and too particular and that instead there’s this like universal left like some universal left subject who doesn’t have an identity because it’s so neutral. And that’s what we should talk about. You know, it’s really frustrating. This is a critique that women of color feminism brought to, the ways in which women of color have often been dismissed in white feminist conversations. That’s a critique we can see over time of this certain kind of, there’s an assumption in there that some of us have these identities and that that is some kind of like surface divisive conversation and what it really misses is the reality that all the systems that we could say the left is kind of at war with and dealing with, whether it’s about poverty or war or whatever, actually play out in very particularistic ways on particular bodies. Right? Some people are more subject to police violence or deportation or you know, being harassed in the welfare office and then others or being homeless and that being able to have an accurate account of these violences and how they work is vital to resisting them. And it’s vital to opposing things like white supremacy and sexism that have pretended that there was a male or white, you know, or non trans or whatever subject. That’s the central subject of left politics. So that’s a problem. And the thing that’s complicated about it is that Michael Pollan is picking up on something that’s real, that we all know, which is that for years and years and years, the left and the right in the US have used these issues that are framed as moral issues like abortion or other things related to gender in the family or gay issues as kind of the hot button issues that really distract from things that sadly the Democrats and Republicans are often aligned on, which is US imperialism, which is neo-liberal economic policy. And so, you know, in that sense, yes, like it makes sense that we would want to notice that that can be a distraction. But the answer to that isn’t to say like, oh, don’t think about trans people and the anti-trans attack that’s coming out, the answer is to put forward a really thoughtful, racial justice, gender justice centered left politics.It doesn’t silence concerns about people who are being targeted but instead says, absolutely. And so those issues are intertwined with all the issues we’re talking about in these ways. And that’s why we are against police violence. And that’s why we are against this deportation machine in all of this. Right? And I think that someone like Michael Pollan, like really missed the boat on that. And that’s a very typical, very sad sort of liberal move that I think a lot of us have, you know, have to constantly contend with and in many of these communities that are framed as having two particular of politics.
Adam: Yeah, I mean there’s something very odd about it, and this is putting a generously, I think it’s sort of obtuse by design, but the idea that somehow people’s identity, like they’re the ones that drew first blood, like they’re the ones who are making it an issue as opposed to, you know, the state or the sort of white supremacist regime or people in power are the ones who specifically targeted people as their identity. You know Trump targets people for being immigrants, he targets them for being black, he targets them for being trans. Like the person who drew first blood is the White House. I mean, it’s not, it’s not as if, you know, people were kind of sitting around and decided that they were gonna form a group of people based on, you know, everyone who has a last name that begins with a vowel. It’s not some arbitrary thing. It’s, it’s people are targeted for their identity and it’s popular and I think unfortunately popular in a lot of leftist circles and one of the things we try to deconstruct on the show, this idea that you can somehow build any resistance to those forces without acknowledging the material reality that certain groups are targeted.
Dean Spade: The other thing is that we don’t want to ignore that you can do an identity politics that are races left politics, right? So we also can see that there is a Caitlyn Jenner trans politics or a white upper class gay and lesbian politics that can be like, absolutely. We embrace trans Republican billionaires who love the military. That is not the politics that I’m advocating for. And I call that out as single issue politics. And I can see that that allows politicians and institutions to do a bait and switch where they’re like, ‘we’re good on gays so we’re progressive.’ Like you can see the New York City Police Department having like a rainbow flag on their police car is an iteration of this kind of politics. We See many versions of this. And so I think what Michael Pollan’s tweet requires of us is to get clear about what an actually left anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, queer and trans politics is and say that’s why we stand against this and this Trump anti-trans memo and this whole politics. And we see it as part and parcel of the attack on immigrants and workers and the environment. Instead of this kind of like we have to either ignore it as Michael Pollan is saying and get back to what matters and just throw those people under the bus or we have to embrace it and be distracted from its actual entanglement with all things we care the most about.
Nima: So Dean, you bring up something so interesting to me and that you have been involved in for quite a long time, and it’s that during those kind of rare times when the fight for trans rights is publicly recognized in our, in our discourse, in our media, this is often done cynically to uphold and reinforce really violent institutions like, as you said, the NYPD, or also more broadly the military both here in the United States and also like in Israel. Can you discuss the problems of this kind of transwashing and how it tends to play out both in our politics and the press?
Dean Spade: Yeah, definitely. So there is this term specifically pinkwashing that’s really emerged especially I would say like the last ten years and it emerged in the context of the unleashing by the state of Israel of a campaign of propaganda called Brand Israel, which they put forward like very openly. It wasn’t like a secret. So they worked with all these ad agencies in the US and stuff and created this campaign called Brand Israel that is supposed to promote Israel as this like forward-thinking, innovative, technologically green, diverse country as a way of pushing back against the power of the BDS Movement internationally and Israel’s international reputation as like, you know, a genocidal brutal military regime.
Nima: Apartheid state.
Dean Spade: Yeah. And so a part of that campaign was to lift up the idea that Israel is, um, a gay friendly country. So you saw lots and lots of media images of how you can be gay in the Israeli military. And then you saw, um, you know, now they have like a trans military officer who just goes around the US and Canada and Europe and then says like, ‘look, I’m trans and this high up in the Israeli military,’ even though his entire job is propaganda. And so you see that whole framing and that, so Israel is kind of like the gold standard of this strategy. But of course the strategy is being used as I mentioned by lots of institutions. So you can see this in the, you know, the NYPD, you can see it in the Obama administration, I think in the second term Obama like starting to be like ‘I’m pro gay marriage’ and the Hillary Clinton made her speech about how like gay rights are human rights, like this was a moment in which the Obama administration had utterly failed on all of its promises to the left. Guantanamo hadn’t been closed. They were going after whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. He was the president of the most imprisoning country in the world and their deportation machine. And they needed things to make them look progressive. So you saw them kind of like grab this sort of, um, imaging of gay politics. There was some magazine that had on the cover, that said he was like the gay president, had a rainbow halo over his head. This was the sort of messaging. And you see this also with corporations, you see it with police departments, you see it with like, you know, here in Washington state where I live, like right after the election, all the politicians, you know, got together and had a big press conference and declared Washington a hate-free state and their talking points were all like ‘we love trans and Muslim people.’ So there they are being like, ‘look, we love hated groups.’ Meanwhile they’re literally like building prisons and jails and like going after immigrant activists, you know. So this strategy, this pinkwashing, which also has the specific sometimes transwashing is really common and it’s really confusing right now I think for people because there has been a major mainstreaming of trans politics in the last five years or so. Right? Like suddenly there’s trans characters on like every TV show where we used to only appear as like, you know, murderers on Law and Order and stuff. So there’s this, there’s this thing where trans people, some version of trans people is more visible than it’s ever been. And people associate that with meaning that things have gotten better for trans people. And that’s the classic move in the US of sort of mainstreaming, we can see the same thing happening with lots of populations over time and so people are like, ‘oh, things must have gotten way better for those folks’ and people and the representations that get put on TV that are supposedly good representations often represent trans people as often like upper class or white or not, not struggling in the actual systems where trans people are struggling most. So all of that kind of goes together. It’s like all these institutions and politicians can get clout for supporting us. The media presents us in this very limited narrow way with like people like Caitlyn Jenner front and center and then the actual problems trans people face either stay the same or get worse because of backlash. Like the whole Bathroom Bill backlash. Like backlashes like that actually stir the pot and cause a lot more anti-trans sentiment to come up in like people’s day to day lives. And especially for people who are in places like prisons or welfare officers or foster care group homes. Those spaces where people have a lot more discretion over them become even more dangerous when that transphobia is getting seriously stirred. So visibility that and this kind of backlash, you know, this isn’t necessarily a positive for most trans people whose lives have not really gotten better because actually like poverty is worse in the United States and immigration enforcement is worse and policing is worse. Like those things are still on their track to be worsening and worsening and that most trans people are disproportionately very, very poor and very much more likely to be subject to the systems of state violence. So it’s a wild road, right? To see that on one hand we get like more and more and more spaces saying we love trans people, we love gay people, we embrace this and this very thin version of, you know, kind of who that really is, which is, you know, towards people with a lot of privilege. And on the other hand conditions actually worsening plus the added layer of backlash to the new visibility. I’m so glad that you guys think about about media because this is one of the places where I feel the most frustration with this.
Nima: The idea that the United States government is progressive when it comes to trans rights as long as trans people are then equipped with guns and dropping bombs on black and brown populations all across the world. That seems to be kind of a tricky situation there. Can you also explain how trans people in the military is not really a fight that is at the core of what the trans community is really concerned about? Where does that come from? Why is that such a well known piece of, of the kind of liberal fight for trans rights? Where does that really come from?
Dean Spade: I’m so glad you asked about this because, you know, I think that the issue of, at how trans people in the military became a visible trans issue is a really interesting one if we’re looking at what’s happening for social movements in the US in a bunch of ways. You know, for about twenty years I’ve been focusing a lot of my work on, you know, trans people’s issues and being a poverty lawyer for trans people and doing policy advocacy and spending lots of time in trans community, in forums and in spaces one on one with clients, people talking about what it is they need, what’s most important. And, and all those years people are always saying things like police violence, you know, lack of housing, lots of violence, you know, poverty problems in the welfare office, joblessness, no one ever said the problem is the thing we need to put on our agenda. I never heard it in all those years is getting trans people in the military. And of course there were veterans in the community. There are obviously vets in the community and so, but people were talking more maybe about VA benefits or things like that, but never like, that was never on the agenda. And so how did it get on the agenda? Well, the main way it got on the agenda is that this billionaire Jennifer Pritzker, who’s this incredibly wealthy person from this, you know, like all the rich people, corrupt rich family, she, um, gave the largest grant ever given for any kind of trans advocacy to the Palm Center, which is the center that did the work around gays and lesbians in the military to put this on the agenda. So the reason this became so visible is that, and then what happens is, you know, they start doing advocacy around trying to figure out how to get trans people in the military and you know, winning some wins inside that, backed by all of this money, of course, money to get trans people not to be homeless, where is that? Um, money to get trans people to not be killed by the police, where is that? But you see that happening. And then of course we get this Trump response where he, he tweets, he wants trans people out of the military. And what it creates, that whole debate, is like in the media, the story where either you’re left and you want trans people in the military and you get these glorified horrible media images of like trans people being like, ‘it’s so wonderful to be in the military, it’s like a vacation from transphobia,’ like literally there are these media representations made by pro-military and often Pritzker funded otherwise backed by media organizations that are, that have no concerns about US military imperialism or you’re a Trump transphobic who hates trans people in the military. There’s no room for a left position that’s anti-military here. And this is similar to what happened around gay marriage for years and years and years, right? We’ve got this feminist, anti-racist critique of marriage as an institution and we’ve got years of advocacy to reduce the legal significance of marriage and to expose marriage as a site of violence and social control where the state tells you how to shape your family and all the ways that’s done in a racist and anti-indigenous and sexist way. All the ways we have an anti-capitalist critique of marriage as an institution of property. All of that goes out the window and marriage gets resuscitated with a story about how gay people need the dignity of being able to get married. Marriage is suddenly about love and connection and helping each other, which of course we all know marriage is like, you know, an institution of violence that the government and social control, right? So that goes away and I think a lot of this is really terrifying for straight people. It’s like, they’re like, ‘oh my god, I have to be good on gay so I’ve got to be pro-gay marriage.’ So you see for me shows like Democracy Now! which I love and is this, got this left critique of war, but then whenever it comes to gay marriage, they’re like, like in love with it, you know, and totally miss the possibility that what this kind of pinkwashing does is that resuscitates institutions that have been attacked by the left, by making a moral universe in which you’re either like pro trans people in the military, pro gay people in the military, pro gay marriage, or you’re homophobic or transphobic.
Adam: Um, yeah because it’s, it’s tough, right? Because you have to sort of balance the idea of equal rights versus are these rights we really want? And I know that on social media I’ve observed that it’s, especially with the trans military thing and Trump’s attacks on trans people and lesbian and gay people as well, is that there’s a sort of, well, yeah, I may not like marriage per se or I may not like, or have more ideological objections to the military, but you know, if it’s going to exist, it should include everyone. And it’s hard because it’s, this is something that you see with, um, you know, neoliberal co-option of Black Lives Matter, right? And it’s hard. It’s hard to sort of balance that and, and, and I guess, I guess my question is how do you sort of make those leftist critiques in your circles from your perspective while still understanding why people grasp onto these kinds of minor wins? Because I mean again, as a sort of, as, as, as a sort of straight white male it’s sort of not my place to kind of litigate that per se, but I don’t know, I think it’s an interesting tension because maybe a bunch of affluent gay characters on TV or affluent trans characters is like suboptimal, but it’s okay we’ll say, well that’s better than the alternative. How do you navigate that trade off?
Dean Spade: I mean, I think a couple of things. One thing is that I think that the left, the supposed left media participate in the eradication of real left politics by ceding to that fear. Right? So I think that there’s some responsibility there. I mean, in my opinion, when I’m in the position of I’m in the privileged group, I’m like, yeah, it’s my job to somewhat do my homework of what the actual left critiques are.
Dean Spade: You know, not to just grab whatever calls itself the progressive or you know, equality position, but instead to actually study social movements closely enough that I could notice like wow is one of them backed by a billionaire Republican pro-military person or is some other agenda backed by the hard work of, of like grassroots people of color organizing and to actually care about that and I feel like that’s missed because people are moving from this fear that I think you’re referencing of just, which of course we all have like, I don’t want to be, you know, but it’s not really ‘I don’t want to be homophobic’ because ‘I don’t wanna be perceived as homophobic or transphobic,’ I think that’s often the fear. It’s one that comes from people’s actual homophobia and transphobia. I think that’s a question. But I mean the real thing is like if we were to talk about the military and trans people we would, how could we talk about that? Like literally on Democracy Now! it’d be like Amy Goodman just finished telling us for five minutes about the extreme extreme sexual assault that’s being exposed in the military and then like one minute later it’s like wonderful trans people should join.
Dean Spade: Like there’s kind of a like amnesia about what we even believe and I guess I just actually think we are more complicated than that and are able to be, um, to be able to say, because the equal rights framework that you’re suggesting, like ‘if it exists people should be able to join it,’ one thing that misses is actually who sets the agenda. Like that part of what we’re doing is we’re trying to resist philanthropic control of social movements that push movements towards aims and fund movements towards aims that are, that will be nondisruptive to the status quo.
Dean Spade: So that’s like a real threat to the left that needs to be contended with. And the other pieces, like we don’t end up, when that happens, we can’t talk about what any of these institutions are really like. So I, you know, when we talk about why the military is not a good job for trans people or anyone both because of what the military does as the world’s largest source of violence and the world’s largest polluter and because of like what it’s like to work in the military, which is that people experience like increased dismissals if they’re people of color, dishonorable discharge or people, uh, you know, experience sexual assault, like we could ask those questions about trans people’s wellbeing. And then I just, I just expect the left media to be a little bit better at asking like where did this agenda come from? How many people are actually backing it and what the grassroots work around this look like? And I feel like there’s like a media taboo to talk in complex ways about these things.
Adam: Yeah. You are a law professor by trade, I guess your day job, and you have some interesting stuff to say about this kind of liberal rights discourse and the limits of liberal rights discourse. And oftentimes it’s sort of a bit of a siren song specifically on trans issues. Can you talk about that for a minute, what the kind of limits of of rights discourse is and what an alternative kind of justice oriented discourse could look like?
Dean Spade: Yeah, I mean, you know, I definitely, none of this thinking is original. So many people say this, but the thing that’s really obvious is that the United States over the course of the fifties, sixties, seventies and onward from a, from a kind of explicit apartheid system to a story about how a very central national story in the United States is a story that we use to be racist and we fixed it. We used to have slavery and we fixed it, we used to have Jim Crow and we fixed it and we fixed it through law and now the law protects vulnerable people, women, people of color, people with disabilities and that any group that’s marginalized and suffering from harm should seek to get included in the law in this way because then the state becomes your protector against private violence. This entire story obscures the reality that state violence is the largest source of violence in the lives of targeted people and that in the period during which we’ve experienced this supposed thing where like racism became illegal, ableism, sexism became illegal, we’ve actually seen drastic growing material inequality in the United States, both in terms of things like the income and wealth divides, the actual further impoverishment of people of color, of women and people with disabilities and things like the drastic growth of the apparatuses of imprisonment both in terms of immigration enforcement and criminal side so that the actual material conditions for the people who supposedly got freed and protected by the state worsened during this period even while we saw like a, you know, a small black bourgeoisie emerged or we saw this representational politics that we had a black president like that is not too expensive for this particular system that’s really figured out how to do this kind of cover that says the government is your protector. So when I, when I start coming into politics in the mid-nineties, it was when the sort of gay rights movement was doing its version of this equality politics, right? So if you can imagine, if you go back to 1969 Stonewall, that sort of period where there’s all these anti-colonial, anti-racist movements in the US, feminist movements, what you saw is an emerging divide that really, really strongly emerges in the eighties and nineties between, gay rights politics that’s based in these anti-police frameworks, these anti-colonial frameworks, these feminist frameworks, things like we see at Stonewall, which of course was or you know, people throwing things at the cops who were always harassing them and sexually harassing them. You see that politics continue, that politics still continues today, but it’s not heavily funded. It doesn’t get, you know, mainstream media. And then you see the rise, especially in the eighties and nineties of a white lawyer-led gay rights politics that is primarily about-
Adam: I like that “lawyer” is the pejorative term there.
Dean Spade: Oh yeah. It’s legal organizations like Lambda Legal and etcetera, that is all about getting into the military. So, you know, adding hate crime laws, which of course enhance the resources to the police and the power of the prosecutor, which of course will be used against people of color. And then adding marriage, right? So you see literally like, its like a mirror image of a politics that had been part of all the sixties and seventies movements and of course continues today as this other stream, which is like, you know, trying to dismantle marriage, military and police and so, and that politics of course, got that, that more mainstreamed pro-police, pro-marriage etcetera, pro-military, got of course bankrolled hardcore by corporations because that is a, that’s the most convenient, wonderful, lovely gay politics ever. And that gay politics for a long time just excluded trans people altogether because we were like an embarrassment and disgusting and going to hold them back. And then sometime around the early two thousands, they a little bit started to have to like mildly tokenize us just through arc incessant, um, harassment of them. And then when gay marriage was won, they were like, ‘oh no, how do we justify our continued existence? We need to, we need to show that we have funding for something so then now we see the emergence of a trans equality politics that has a lot of these same dilemmas.’ And so a lot of my work is about asking people to think carefully about the difference between what we think of as equality law, which is trying to get into anti-discrimination laws, which we know have these limits about how effective they are, versus I’m asking people to think about the administrative realm as the realm where actually most law hits the bodies of the most people especially the most vulnerable people. So a lot of my work has been about looking at like trans people’s access to IDs, how trans people are placed in sex segregated facilities like prisons and shelters and like where do things that are still part of law, they’re part of what administrative agencies do to you, which may be at the local or municipal level, it may be the state or the federal level, but a lot of it’s at the state level to ask how do those people sort us by gender and how is that a form of gender violence that doesn’t get resolved even if your state passes a law that says you can’t discriminate against trans people? And so how, how to move from the realm of like a symbolic idea that if we pass a law that says transphobia is illegal, trans people will be freed. Not that that logs us in most places, but you know, whatever, having that would be where all of our resources go versus a kind of very material question about if we’re going to do legal advocacy, which already has its limits, can we do it around the issues where trans people have the most skin in the game and are experiencing the most violence, especially those who have the most contact with state violence? Like people who are super poor or imprisoned or um, you know, live in public housing, things like that.
Adam: So what you’re saying is that the human rights campaign giving an award to Raytheon for inclusion is not the pathway to liberation.
Dean Spade: I didn’t notice increased liberation from that. (Chuckles.)
Nima: (Laughs.) How dare you, Adam.
Adam: There was not a net liberation. They gave one to Goldman Sachs too. So maybe that’ll-
Dean Spade: Wonderful. I feel better already.
Nima: (Laughs.) Yeah. So, so can you tell us a little bit more about this leaked memo from the Department of Health and Human Services, what it’s material implications would be on the trans community and how the media is also getting this completely wrong?
Dean Spade: Yeah, I mean I think that, um, of course there’s so much we don’t know about this memo because the leak was so minimal, but I think one of my biggest concerns is, is this exact distinction I was just making between kind of like a civil rights framing versus a attention to the administrative realm. Because I think that because there was a reference in what was leaked about Title IX, people are doing a lot of thinking and covering and discussing this as if this is primarily an issue of civil rights, like of whether or not trans people will be covered in some kind of civil rights law. Whereas what concerns me a lot more is the idea of any federal agency, especially a powerful federal agency using this kind of retrograde definition of gender that is leaked, right? That says that gender is going to be based on birth assignments and unchangeable because right now, and most people don’t know this, I think, like there’s never been a federal definition of gender, right? Every single agency in every single institution in the country that collects gender based data about people or puts gender on ID or sorts people according to gender into different facilities, they all do it their own way, right? So a lot of the advocacy I’ve been involved in my life and a lot of trans advocacy is about trying to change those policies, trying to change the DMV in your state to make it so that trans people can change their gender on their driver’s license in a way that you know is accessible and doesn’t use like outdated standards of, you know, having to prove surgery which most trans people don’t get or things like that or trying to change birth certificate rules which are in departments of health and different in each different state or trying to change the policies at prisons, which all pretty much still put trans women into men’s prisons or trying to get the homeless shelters and domestic violence shelters to change to let trans women into women’s shelters, right? So that work, which we’ve been doing for years and years, you know, for two decades, piece by piece, institution by institution, is a vital important work that really is like where the rubber meets the road with whether trans people will survive or not. Like whether someone will sleep inside or outside, like the basics. Whether when you have, when you have to hand your ID to the cop, what it says and what it shows about you or whether you can get a job in a gender you’re living in, like basic stuff. There’s never been, you know, we’ve never had to contend with a federal definition of gender to do that. And what this signals to me is the possibility that the, that the Trump administration is thinking about doing that in some way in terms of the federal government in terms of administrative agencies. So whether that’s Health and Human Services, which is where the leak was from, or whether that could be, you know, could it go to, to housing and urban development and affect anything about shelters in our towns or could it go, I don’t know, like what agencies that might it go to? And then do those agencies have the power to enforce that through any of their funding of state or local programs? So that’s one concern is that those agencies would actually somehow enforced that definition down into people’s lives and programs from those agencies. The other thing it does, even for places where they don’t enforce it, just having there be a federal definition that’s out there that’s retrograde makes it so much harder to do our work, to push for more appropriate ways of placing and dealing with placing trans people and dealing with gender based data in these systems, right?
Dean Spade: Like it’s, it’s just like you know, your, your local bureaucrat who you’re dealing with is much less likely to, to, to sort this out with you or to like respond to your advocacy if they can just point to this thing at the federal level, which we’ve never had to contend with before. So it’s a really big deal. Not to mention the part I already mentioned about how when you stir the pot of this kind of transphobia, I’m sure that as soon as that came out, there was already more transphobic experiences for people in welfare offices, in foster care group homes and other vulnerable spaces. Just because when you throw out anti-trans hate into the, you know, world it, from the top, it, it authorizes people for violence and we can see that, you know, the Trump administration, we’ve seen that a lot of ways. Like right after the election, we already saw immigration judges making harsher decisions about immigrants even though nothing in the law had changed. So we can really see that, um, that, that matters. So I’m like, this is really a big deal. It’s really scary. Um, and that I think has been pretty much missing from the conversation because people are talking about this kind of like, I think in some ways it was implied by Michael Pollan’s tweet, as if this is about whether the administration likes trans people or recognizes them in some kind of like, you know, loving way as opposed to like what will happen with, you know, which, which jail are you going to be in, which, um, shelter you’re going to be in?
Adam: Yeah. Because I think that’s one of the things that I think is sort of I want to convey for this show. And I think that we try to, that I think is sort of hard to get across, which is the stakes that when people talk about like, you know, there was that banner at Dodger Stadium, you know, about trans lives and that this is an issue of survival. This is not academic or boutique, this isn’t some sort of lefty, you know, neurosis or nicety. That these are real life like life and death situations. And I think one example I was talking to people about how, how even the police interface with trans people, uh, there’s mockery, dehumanization, sexual assault, they are seen as per se sex workers. And for your kind of half listening, half kind of caring liberal type, like what, what would you convey to them as something that they could do or sort of consider or think about or what, what organizations they could look into to kind of do something about it?
Dean Spade: Absolutely. I mean, I think that one of the, one of the worst dynamics of the, the idea that civil rights law will free people is that it’s totally passive for most people, right? It’s demobilizing. It’s like all I can do is either give money to the ACLU or hope a good court case happens or sit and watch the Kavanaugh hearings and feel like dead inside, but there’s nothing I can do. That is very, very much crafted to demobilize us. There’s actually so much we can do. My personal belief about, because I have this critique of the limits of what can happen in law, especially when we have the judiciaries we have, especially when we have the legislators we have, president, whatever. My, my real feeling is that there’s kind of three pieces of what we need to do. One is we have to back the growth of the apparatuses that are killing people, vulnerable like trans people. So we have to be involved in our towns and localities and being like, you know, don’t build that next jail or prison. Get ICE out of this county. No, we won’t have ICE holds in this jail. I mean, and, and where I live in Seattle, in King County, which is supposed to be a really progressive place, you know, something like 73 percent of the King County budget goes to quote unquote “public safety,” which is like policing. They are always proposing to build a new police bunkers, you know, in every town I go to, people are like, ‘oh yeah, they’re proposing to have new riot gear for the cops, a new tank.’ Like anything we can do to shrink the apparatuses that are actually killing people in our communities is vital. All the work on things like, you know, trying to build rent control, trying to make sure there is transit, like that’s trans justice work. It is. That is what is going to mean life or death for trans people. And then more specifically it can mean like being really involved at a local level and making sure that trans women are allowed in the women’s shelters. It also, the other piece of this, besides kind of beating back the, the, the growth of the apparatuses that are devouring our communities is actually doing the mutual aid work. Right? So right now we, we’ve never been able to, but especially right now, it’s very obvious that we can not depend on the government to save the lives of people who are actually being targeted by the government and by, you know, general people incensed and, and um, and start out by the government. So the real question for me is like how can we do really effective mutual aid work? I’ve been really moved seeing like places where people have created mutual aid networks to give housing to people coming out of prison or I’m really moved by all the prisoner support letter writing programs. There’s a lot of queer and trans focused ones like Black and Pink, which has chapters all over the country so that you can directly write to a trans woman who is in a men’s prison and like send her some commissary money or send her a book or be friends with her or help her plan for when she gets out or help her file complaints if she’s experiencing harassment. Like actually doing the direct work with people who are being devoured. And, you know, here where I live, like people go every Saturday to the Northwest Detention Center and you know, connect with families whose people are inside and see if there’s any way to give them resources and things they need. Like mutual aid is vital and every single person could be involved in that. That could be childcare collectives, like that kind of actually building a structure for society that does what our current structures cannot do and that lifts up those who are thrown away by our current structure is to me is so, so, so essential. And doing that in ways that are not moralistic. So not like, ‘yes, we’ll give you a place to stay as long as you prove that you’re sober and celibate’-
Dean Spade: And not doing what social services does, which is already kick out the most vulnerable people. And then the third piece for me is like we actually have to imagine the world we want, right? Like we can’t, we are not getting what we want from these systems. And to me that’s about being part of abolitionist movements, border and prison abolitionist movements that are imagining like, okay, so the cops don’t keep us safe, people can’t call them without fear that they’ll be hurt more, what are the things we are going to do to produce safety in our communities? Like what kind of prevention work? Like is that relationship skills classes that help teenagers figure out how to avoid dating violence and build deep friendships to support each other? Is that ride shares? Is that like what are we needed to prevent violence and then when things happen, how are we going to produce like ways of actually restoring relationships and processes in our communities instead of processes that throw people away and have them be devoured by the prison system? So to me it’s those three elements like beating back the growth of these systems, doing the mutual aid which is so vital and probably the most important part right now that needs to be done at the largest level and is really the untouched part, like people are very disempowered and demobilized around that. They think like my politics is to brand myself on social media as a leftist or like tell people what I believe and like sadly that can be a nice way to build community or build analysis but it really doesn’t change the material conditions of those who are facing the worst harm and so we need to build like real projects of meeting those needs. And there’s lots of models. After the election when I saw that this was where we were going, I created a website that’s called BigDoorBrigade.com and it’s like a mutual aid toolkit. It’s all these examples of mutual aid projects and like ways to start them and tools for starting them. And I was just trying to help people like think this through because I think a lot of people also want the satisfaction of making a difference when they see this like nightmare unfolding and they feel so sad. Like all these people who went to the airport when the Muslim travel ban came and now the Muslim travel ban is firmly in place. Like I want those 10,000 people who went to the airport in my town to like now plug in to the mutual aid work that’s happening for immigrant families who’ve got people in the detention center and that I don’t see 10,000 people doing that and I want us to build that bridge and say like, this is really possible and I think we have to kind of push back against this demobilization of like give your money to the ACLU or like post something on social media.
Nima: This has been so great talking to you Dean Spade, Associate Professor at Seattle University School of Law. He is the founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and author of Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law which was published by South End Press the second edition of which came out in 2015. Dean, it has been a pleasure to talk to you thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Adam: Thank you so much.
Dean Spade: Thank you so much for having me.
Adam: So before we go, we want it to reference those groups that Dean talked about. Sylvia Rivera Law Project does outstanding work, provides free legal services to trans people in poverty and works to build racial and gender justice. You have the Queer Trans War Ban, it’s a toolkit for anti-military outreach for queer and trans people. Uh, you have the mutual aid toolkit for people who are interested in starting or joining a mutual aid group to meet the basic needs of people targeted by the current system. You can find that at BigDoorBrigade.com.
Nima: You also have Black and Pink an organization coordinating prison pen pals for queer and trans people who are incarcerated all over the United States. You can just go to their site and sign up to get a pen pal that is at blackandpink.org. In addition, uh, if people want to donate to the Trans Justice Funding Project, that gives grants often to very small, very local organizations who do really vital work for the trans community in, in terms of trans survival. So these are just ways to get more involved in this. We will have this in the show notes.
Adam: And we’ll post all these on Twitter when we post the episode. You know, if you’re someone who’s concerned about this issue, wants to do something, groups like Black and Pink and the antiwar trans activist stuff, and even the Sylvia Rivera Law Project are super useful. Again, for someone who’s new to like left spaces, see how, see how you can help see what you can do. Go to the websites, check it out. Try to be a good ally rather than some glib asshole.
Nima: Right. Because this is not just an issue as we’ve been saying of boutique identity. This really is an issue of life and death, so we will leave it there. Thank you everyone for listening as always to Citations Needed. You can follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, Patreon CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. As always, an extra special shout out goes to our critical level supporters through Patreon, they help us immeasurably in keeping the show going. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultant is Josh Kross. Research assistant is Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Our production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks so much for listening everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, November 14, 2018.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.