On Saturday, February 2, Dean Spade had to pee. So after six hours of protests in the bitter New York City cold outside the World Economic Forum, Dean and his affinity group entered Grand Central station in search of relief. Dean entered the restroom marked "men's" and was followed by a police officer, who demanded identification. Dean explained that he was in the right restroom, that he is transgender but understood the officer's confusion, and offered to use the premises quickly and leave. Craig Willse entered the bathroom after his friend and attempted to defuse the situation. When Dean attempted to leave the bathroom, however, the police officer pushed him against the wall and called for back-up. Craig tried to intervene in the arrest and shouted for help. Both were arrested, and while leaving the bathroom another member of their group, Ananda LaVita, attempted to un-arrest Dean. All three were then dragged out of the train station.
The three were held for 23 hours and three different precincts. They were released on their own recognizance to a courtroom packed with friends and allies wearing "Living Trans in Not a Crime" stickers. Among the three of them, they were charged with multiple counts of disorderly conduct, trespassing, resisting arrest, and obstruction of government administration. While all charges were dropped at the following court appearance in March, Dean Spade (who is also a lawyer) and a number of other progressive legal organizations are pursuing the case to highlight the everyday violence of gender enforcement, transphobia and its role in the maintenance of the state and capital. A zine was quickly produced about the arrests called Piss and Vinegar and is distributed by the members of the Anti-Capitalist Tranny Brigade. (More details about the arrest are in the zine.) Mimi Nguyen chatted with Dean and Craig about the politics of transgender activism, and about the linkages between gender regulation, the state, and globalization.
MRR: The "commonsense" assumption about gender is that it is innate, a metaphysical substance which is hardwired into our genes or hormones or some more ethereal essence. Of course, a closer look would reveal that what counts as "appropriate" gender has always been negotiated and regulated which would suggest that there is nothing "natural" about gender (or sexuality) after all. In the Western nations in the late 1800s it was suggested that education rotted the uterus, in the 1950s it was "obscene" for women to wear pants. What is your understanding of gender, and by extension transgender?
Dean Spade (DS): I guess I see gender as a regulatory system-a hierarchical set of mandates that require certain people to do certain things at certain times-that orders the lives of everyone in ways that foreclose everyone's possibilities for fully inhabiting and self-determining our bodies and minds. As you point out, what those mandates are, and how they work, varies widely on cultural, racial, economic, and historical bases. In any arrangement, though, resources are distributed according to this regulatory system, and it is harshly enforced with consequences ranging from social stigma to death. Transgender, to me, is about disrupting those regulatory systems, and interacting with gender in a way that is specifically aimed at disruption. This means violating the two basic rules of gender: 1) that you can't change your gender identity and 2) that you have to occupy a single gender category cohesively-meaning fully inhabiting the characteristics associated with "male" or "female." So, to engage transgender politics is to let go of these two rules, and to allow yourself and other to move within gendered meanings as we wish. It means using the pronouns people want to be used, calling people by names they want to be called, not telling them how they have to look or talk or act or move in order to conform to gender norms, and supporting changing the world so that the methods of coercion (social, legal, medical, educational) used to regulate gender are eliminated.
Craig Willse (CW): My understanding of gender is that, yes, it is obscene for women to wear pants!
No really, I think gender is a lie. All gender is policing. All gender is about setting limits on what a body can look like, what a body can do in the world. If you feel bad about your body, about how you look, that's you feeling gender oppression. Though certainly some folks benefit more than others do from dichotomous gender regimes, and in fact some people access gender privilege quite well, for who does gender really work? Whose gender is right? And I'm not only thinking here of people who obviously do gender wrong to great and sexy effects (like butches, fairies, genderqueers, andros, robots, etc.), but what straight guy doesn't spend his time worrying that he's too fat/too skinny, not tall enough, not macho enough? I also think we need to understand gender as variable in terms of race and class. Racism interacts with gender privilege, such that white maleness and Latino maleness bear very different costs and privileges.
I like to think of the "trans" in "transgender" as being an active element, an invitation to dynamically move across a field of gender, and not in only one direction. I hope that doesn't make me sound like a hippie, but I'm trying to point out that everyone's gender is trans. We all understand our bodies in relation to movement, and this is often painful and policing (a vertical movement that places some better gendered bodies above ours, some wrong bodies below ours, with us trying to claw our way to the top). But that movement can also be horizontal, improvised, unplanned and changing. Doesn't the second option sound like more fun?
MRR: And to clarify, what is the relationship between transgender and transsexuality? Where do queer debates about butch/femme, androgyny and drag fit in --or don't?
DS: "Transsexual" is a term that is mostly associated with the medical model of understanding people who's gender identities are contrary to the gender they are assigned at birth, and who seek medical intervention in the form of surgery and/or hormones in order to change their gendered characteristics and live in their new gender identity. Many trans people are adverse to this term, or feel it is too constrictive, because it is used in a medical context in which we are pathologized and considered mentally ill. The term transgender has emerged to indicate a broader variety of experiences. Many people use it as an umbrella term (like 'queer') to indicate a variety of genderfucking people: crossdressers, drag kings and queens, genderqueers, transsexuals, FTMs, MTFs, etc. In this way, the term can be used as an organizing tool-a way of calling out to all people who are facing punitive gender norms and subject to gender policing because our gender presentations make people uncomfortable and angry. The term can be used to affirm the experiences and resistances of people living in violation of gender norms.
CW: As far as how I use them, I think of "transsexual" and "transgender" as roughly parallel with the terms "homosexual" and "queer." So, transsexuality and homosexuality reference a pathologized understanding of sex/gender, and both are closed terms-they serve to mark out a small, aberrant group of people from the "general public" against whose normalcy perverts are defined. In contrast, "transgender" (or simply "trans") and "queer" are more politicized terms that signal an oppositional stance to sex/gender regulation and hierarchy. They are open, not closed, in the sense that a transgender identity is not confined to someone who has surgery, or passes, or feels like they are trapped in the wrong body; and queer is not about fucking someone of the "opposite" gender, but fucking gender and dislocating sex from romanticized, heteronormative constructions. Of course, queer has been used in totally reductive ways as a synonym for "gay" by marketers and mainstream groups, and some trans people call themselves "transsexual" but challenge in their lives and politics medical conceptions of coherent gender. Language is always strategic, so the meaning of these terms shift in different contexts, and any word can take on oppressive weight or liberatory potential.
MRR: What are the politics of "passing" and "legitimacy"? What are their uses and limitations?
DS: One of the debates that goes on within trans communities that mirrors debates in many other communities is about how much we should conform to norms in order to gain legitimacy in the eyes of a transphobic world. There is a long history of the medical professions corralling us into gender norms in order to justify their role in our transitions. A "successful" trans person is seen by the medical world often to be one who passes as non-trans, and who is taken by most people as a stunning example of normative maleness or femaleness. Some people feel that this is the safest route for trans people to take, and that if we want legal protections and an end to bias, we should try to be as normal as possible in order to convince others that we deserve this inclusion. Others of us feel, however, that the proper response to normalizing legal and medical structure is to fight, to stand out as people who disobey and break down dichotomous understandings of gender, and to make room for all people to break these gender rules as they see fit. The debate sometimes mirrors debates about assimilation in queer communities, where some people feel that being as close to straight culture, through marriage, monogamy, military participation, consumerism, etc., is the best way to access equality. Others feel that part of a queer project is resisting all of those norms, and occupying an oppositional space in terms of gender, sexuality, race relations, and economic systems. Sometimes the 'assimilationist' approach is associated with a desire to trace sexual orientation to some biological source-a kind of "we can't help it" argument. Similar arguments are made in trans communities. Clearly, my view on these questions is that we should be opposing systems of gender policing in as broad and comprehensive a way as possible, rather than carving out new narrow spaces where only the most normative queers and trannies can be accepted.
CW: We get to this a bit later, but I think the most frustrating response to our case has been trans folks who have basically said, "if you pass this wouldn't have happened, and if you won't do what it takes to pass (spend money on surgery and hormones, perform the most ultra-conservative preppie masculinity, banish all queer forms of femininity from your self) then you have yourself to blame." Assholes who say this shit should sign up for the NYPD, because they'd do great work at Grand Central.
Our demand is not for more people to be comfortable in a binary gender system, it's for an end to the real and daily violence of that system. So in terms of bathrooms this means we want all people, all genderfuckers, to be able to use public restrooms safely and with dignity. Everyone deserves to live a full, complete life in this city. To suggest otherwise is to tell genderqueers to disappear-to say, don't leave your home, don't ever eat or drink anything when you're out because you don't deserve access to a bathroom, don't expect not to get your ass kicked on the street. To call yourself trans or a trans-ally and abandon people who transgress normative gender (intentionally or otherwise) is to play right into the right-wing design to remake New York into a suburban shopping mall for the exclusive enjoyment of white straight consumers. And if you don't see that, or you don't care, you're a fucking idiot.
MRR: The assumption is often made that gender or transgender issues are merely "personal" issues with no bearing on larger social forces. Clearly your arrests would suggest otherwise -- that public space is a contested site for those who transgress gender norms. As Craig writes in his contribution to Piss and Vinegar, "What bodies can travel free of harm through our violently policed cities?" What do you think is the state investment in gender regulation? Why is it explicitly illegal to use the "wrong" restroom?
DS: I think this debate about whether one person's gender expression is a "trivial" matter is essential, and actually brings up a lot of old conversations that feminists made public during the 2nd wave. Up to that time, people thought that issues around women being paid less, women being forced to wear restrictive or sexualizing clothing to work, women being systemically harassed in the workplace, and the like were trivial, personal, and individualized. It was only through a lot of organized effort that more and more people came to see that gender hierarchy had deep impacts on all women, and all men as well, restricting everyone's ability to survive, avoid violence, marry or divorce as they wanted, have kids when they wanted, etc. Similarly, when you look at trans issues as being about the narrow issue of whether one person gets to be called by a certain name or use a certain bathroom, it can seem trivial. However, when you look at how all people are subject to extreme regulation on broad scales like the law as well as narrow issues like what we wear and how and who we fuck, you begin to see that a struggle for transliberation and a deregulation of gender is a struggle to end a lot of systemic violence and suffering. I see where a lot of struggles fit into this, like the struggle over low-income women of color being disproportionately tested and then jailed for having drugs in their systems while pregnant, or conversations about compulsory circumcision for male and female babies, or struggles over rights for immigrant domestic workers working independently in wealthy homes for below survival wages. All of these struggles have some part that is about compulsory enforcement of gendered norms onto the bodies of people, to their extreme detriment. They are also intimately connected with racial and economic privilege, and I see that as an essential component of any inquiry into how gender policing occurs, because it does not occur on the same terms for people in different economic, racial or immigration statuses. The state investment in gender, like in hierarchical systems of race, immigration, and income, is that it is a regulating opportunity whereby the regulation itself becomes invisible or assumed to be natural, when in realitiy it is an artificial condition of oppression.
CW: I think one aspect of the state's investment in gender regulation stems from a keen interest (to put it mildly) in the maintenance and reproduction of capitalism. Gender regulation is big business. Normative gender regimes create and multiply consumer needs-clothes, make-up, gym memberships, sports cars-that are marketed along gendered lines. Why sell just one kind of deodorant when you could sell two-one strong enough for a man, but made for a woman! People in the u.s. grow up believing their gender presentation will never be good enough, but it can be made better through shopping. Men's and women's magazines, men's and women's watches, men's and women's entertainment-these commodities don't simply meet a consumer need, they create and perpetuate gendered consumer markets. We grow into the shapes that markets trace.
MRR: What does it take to be good trans allies?
DS: Good trans allies do more than use the right terms or come to a drag show. Being a good trans ally, like being a good activist in general, involves thinking personally about ideas and applying them to your own life in an intimate way. It means being as invested in transliberation as you think a trans person is, and working as closely to uncover how you participate in gender regulation as you can. So much of gender policing occurs in ways that seem trivial or personal, and it requires each of us to really take apart our minds and find the locations of these norms in order to create safe spaces for new gender actualizations to thrive.
CW: In my efforts to be a good trans ally, I've tried to start out by being honest about what buttons of mine trans issues push. And I've tried to interrogate those hot spots on my own, without projecting them on to trans people or asking trans people to guide me through my learning process. Don't ask trans people if they've had surgery, what their families say, how they expect to get a job-if a trans person trusts you and thinks they will get something out of that conversation, they will start that dialogue. I've also tried to share some of the burdens that trans people deal with as far as educating and challenging non-trans people. If I invite someone to me and Dean's home, I let them know before they come that we live in a trans and transpositive house, and we expect people's politics to meet those standards. I talk to people who fuck up pronouns. In group settings, I make an extra effort to use lots of gendered terms when referring to trans people present, so new people in the crowd will have an example to follow and won't use "wrong" pronouns because they're making incorrect assumptions about someone's gender. I also don't think I've figured it all out, I expect to make mistakes and though I won't beat myself up for not being perfect, I demand of myself a commitment to doing hard work.
And I think being a good trans ally means simply taking these issues seriously. Think of every moment of every day that someone addresses you by your gender, and think how easy and comfortable that feels. Think about giving that comfort up. If that doesn't seem like a big deal to you, recognize how many lives you are conveniently dismissing.
MRR: What was the general response to your arrests?
DS: We received hundreds of emails from all over the world from people who were shocked by what happened and pledged their support for our case. The emails varied, some from trans people, some from cops, some from queers, and some from anti-capitalists who had never thought about trans issues before but were seeing the connections between their work and trans struggles for the first time. There were also some responses that were negative. Some people wrote to message boards that they thought the arrest was my fault for refusing to show I.D. and that I should have complied with the cop's (illegal) requirements. Others wrote that it was my fault for not passing as a man more, and that I shouldn't use the mens' room if I wasn't going to pass. Of course, this is a ridiculous position because I have been kicked out of both men's and women's restrooms, so the only answer I guess would be to never use restrooms since I don't look enough like a man or a woman to fit in either room all the time. These negative responses were very hard to hear, of course it always sucks to have something violent and awful happen to you and then be told its your fault, but the positive and supportive responses far outweighed the negative. Also, the negative responses created a great opportunity to start conversations in trans and non-trans spaces about what it means to resist police state practices and how we can work to have a broad view of transliberation that includes rights for all trans people, not just those who 'pass' as non-trans men or women.
CW: Though some people have been assholes, the response has been mostly really supportive and outraged. It has been a cool opportunity for people to get politicized around trans issues, and I'm thankful for the mechanisms put in place by the People's Law Collective, Another World is Possible, the Anti-Capitalist Convergence, and Indymedia that have provided resources and also offered a means of outreach for us.
MRR: In Piss & Vinegar you publish some of the comments posted on the Indymedia messageboard, many of which seem to endorse state regulation of gender. The most contradictory comments (coming from a loose community based around anti-globalization protests) seemed to suggest that because you were engaging in "inappropriate social behavior" or "illegal activities" that you "deserved" to be arrested, or "should have known better!" What do you three make of these responses, in terms of their regularity in the anti-globalization movement (or on the left in general) and their seeming incoherence with a radical agenda?
DS: See above.
CW: To me, the response that we shouldn't have engaged "illegal" activities is not too surprising, but pretty disturbing nonetheless. It's both a disavowal of the seriousness of gender violence and a total commitment to carrying out the state's police functions.
I don't know if people outside New York heard much about this, and I hope its not too tangential, but just before the WEF, the city and press circulated information about an ancient local law prohibiting three or more people to wear masks in public together. Obviously, this was a scare tactic aimed at intimidating black bloc folks, and a divide and conquer strategy since of course people were going to have different responses to the law. And it worked. I wore a bandana across my face for much of the protest, both in solidarity with black bloc activists and to hide my face from the cops who were there openly and illegally photographing the crowd. And I got shouted at by other protestors over and over, scolding me, yelling at me that I should take off my mask or the cops were gonna get me. And I was like, well, thanks, I feel real safe now that you've just drawn the attention of two dozen people to me. And this also relates to debates about property destruction, and the eagerness of many activists not simply to say they won't do property destruction, but to interfere with, condemn, ostracize and even snitch on activists who do. This reminds me of a comment made by the brilliant legal activist Natsu Saito regarding armed resistance, which is that if you don't support it fine, but don't do the job of the police for them by subverting efforts of people who do. This connects for me because it points out that specious arguments about moral superiority are not the exclusive terrain of right-wing governments, but are re-created to greatly debilitating effects by activists ourselves.
MRR: Do you think these comments reflect a particular tendency in earlier leftist social movements of the 1960s and 70s, which similarly dismissed feminist and queer concerns?
DS: Yes, to a certain degree I think the comments are made by people who think that anyone who "makes themselves vulnerable" to police harassment by being nonnormative in appearance is to blame for that. This represents to me a full failure to seek a broader vision of activism or justice that would decry police harassment and brutality against anyone, not just people who are keeping in line with gender norms. I mean, its hard for me to see a point in being part of a movement that only includes me to the extent that I hide myself and make myself look like its more gender-normative (privileged) members.
CW: The whole conversation about what activists do and do not have time for is getting pretty tired. I know that many activists of color in New York have more or less written off the viability of engaging the anti-capitalist "community" because of its steadfast refusal to prioritize anti-racist politics into every level of its organizing work. At some point, white activists need to wake up to the reality that if you treat race as an issue you can "add on" to an apparently racially neutral agenda, you are simply reproducing white supremacy through your activism. Similarly, if folks want to dismantle capitalism, we need to see clearly how economics are bound up in gender regulation, and I don't just mean that women are paid less than men, though that's bad. I mean that we live in a gendered economy, we live in gendered public spaces, we work in gendered activist communities. If the world you are fighting to create does not intimately concern itself with the poverty of non-passing, genderqueer, homeless youth of color-what's the point? If you create a world in which middle-class white boys are free to drop out and dumpster dive, well great, but recognize how small that world is and how many people's needs it doesn't begin to address.
MRR: What is the next step for all of you after the charges were dismissed?
CW: We're looking into suing the city for false arrest and just general unpleasantness. I have some hesitation about jumping into a lawsuit-I don't think going to court is the fast path to justice by any means, and I think our culture's obsessive litigiousness is kinda gross-but I think it will be a good organizing opportunity, a chance to continue building the connections that have arisen out of our arrests. We're in pretty privileged positions, being white professional-class people, while most trans people who endure police violence are poor, homeless, or of color. So I hope we can responsibly use the resources to which we have access to make clear that this is not just about what happened to us, but about a system that affects lots of other folks more directly and pervasively. And maybe we can squeeze some money out of the city that could then be used to help fund groups fighting police and prisons in New York.
DS: We intend to bring a civil suit for false arrest and false imprisonment, and to try to use the suit to seek policy changes in police practices. I am currently starting a law project in NYC focused on concerns of low-income trans people. A big part of that project will be trying to get training for cops and lawyers so that trans people will encounter less humiliation and violence in the criminal system. Some cities, like Portland OR, have training for cops and special procedures outlined for when trans people get arrested so that they don't face special dangers in strip-searching and confinement. I'd like to work to develop policies to protect trans arrestees in NY, and also work to make sure trans people don't experience the kind of blatant transphobia I received from my court-appointed lawyer at the arraignment. I know that a lot of public interest lawyers are unaware of the concerns and experiences of trans people, and may often unintentionally practice law in a way that really disserves trans clients. I'm hoping I can intervene on that with training, and also I'll be representing trans clients myself in poverty contexts.
MRR: What was the impetus for the zine MAKE, your first collaboration?
CW: We aim to seduce young and impressionable minds with our big words and dramatic writing.
Make is a sporadic zine and more consistent website (makezine.org) of rants and reflections on politics and organizing. We talk about queer stuff, economic justice, racism and white supremacy, cultural politics, affirmative action, and other juicy topics.
You know how people always dismiss some kinds of activism as "preaching to the converted?" Well, preach to the converted is exactly what I want to do with Make. Like you've said, basic 101 intro conversations are necessary, but also tiring. And I'm motivated by what happens in conversations between people who share an interest in complicated politics that take off from an assumption that racism, poverty and gender oppression overlap multiply and deeply. "Preaching to the converted" is a weak accusation, anyhow, because it suggests that you can "get" politics, and then you have nothing else to learn. Good politics is a process that never ends, and my politics have benefited immensely reading things people write for Make, and from talking with people about stuff I've written.
MRR: How do you envision the linkages between your case and the fact that you were involved in the WEF protests?
CW: Well, most obviously, there probably wouldn't have been thirty cops on toilet patrol at Grand Central if the city hadn't been mobilized to crush any effective WEF protesting. I think we fell into a trap that is pretty common at large demonstrations, which is to pick off people on their way in or out of the relative safety of the masses. And I think our visibly queer crowd attracts surveillance anyhow, so our entering the militarized zone of the train station left us pretty vulnerable. And as I tried to discuss in Piss & Vinegar for me this issues a challenge to organizers of anti-capitalist events-what can be done to guarantee the safe participation of all people in public spaces of dissent? Clearly, any protestor going to pee at Grand Central would have encountered the extreme police presence, but a non-trans protestor whose gender does not render him or her an outlaw could do so more safely.
For me, this also points to really exciting alliances that can be made with disabled people, people of color, immigrant people, homeless people and youth-other folks who both suffer directly under capitalism and endure the hostility of urban spaces. What if our organizing started there? How could the overlap of lived experiences (which is not to suggest these experiences are identical) be a jumping off point for demanding a different, safer, more fulfilling world?
DS: I think that a lot of aspects of the arrest were a part of the WEF cop hysteria. I doubt that if the WEF protests hadn't been going on, there would have been a cop stationed outside the bathrooms at Grand Central. I think that it's important for anti-global capital protesters and organizers to think about how the police mobilization that happens when we come to a city impacts vulnerable populations locally. However, I also don't look at this arrest as a fluke based totally on the protests. While it is unusual for a white, educated tranny like me to get arrested in the bathroom in NYC, police harassment of trans youth, low-income trans people, and trans people of color is systemic in NYC. In the West Village right now residents, many of them gay and lesbian, are organizing with public officials to get more cops into the neighborhood to "clean up" and arrest (usually with no legal basis) all the trans and queer youth and people of color who have hung out in that neighborhood for years. False arrests, harassment, and violence are commonplace for gender variant and trans low income people and people of color, and I hope that the arrests will bring people's attention to this problem as well. My arrest was unusual in some way, because of the WEF stuff and my privilege, but the underlying police practices are not unusual. Also, harassment by non-cops in bathrooms is extremely common for all gender variant and trans people, and it is often accompanied by violence.
MRR: Do you see a future in which the larger anti-globalization movement might comprehensively make these linkages?
DS: I don't know. I mean, most of the time I spend at meetings with people who do anti-globalization work generally is pretty disheartening. Most meetings I go to are run by white straight men, and even when there is supposedly an effort to include the voices of people of color and women, its pretty half-assed. I have come to feel that I'm better off spending my time organizing with people who share my views and respect me than working endlessly to fight racist, classist, and misogynist currents in groups that are fundamentally white, upper-class, and male-run. I like to envision people with privilege really taking to heart and centralizing anti-racist, anti-poverty, pro-queer and pro-trans politics in their anti-globalization work, and I know its the standard I hold myself and my cohorts to, but I don't see it happening generally that much. Mostly race, gender, and class hierarchies that are supposedly being fought by this movement are totally replicated within the larger organizations in the movement. It seems like people have an easier time seeing hierarchy and oppression outside of their own context. They want to fight against a genderalized global notion of poor people being crushed, but they still give all the organizing power to the people at the meeting who own cell phones or cars, and they never think of that as an economic justice wealth distribution issue. I'm not sure what it will take to bring some of those critiques home, but I'm sort of tired of waiting and prefer to make my own spaces where its safe to be trans and organize rather than to wait for those spaces to become safe.
CW: I hope so, and I think lots of folks are working towards linking global capitalism to more localized forms of subjugation. The Colours of Resistance network (www.tao.ca/~colours) does amazing work to this end along lines of race and migrant status. They offer not only a really salient and urgent critique of white supremacy within anti-capitalist organizing, they are also creating a dynamic and productive model for anti-racist resistance to capital domination. Am I being clear about how that's different? It's not about adding a dash of color or a bit of trans to a movement that remains dedicated to a narrow agenda with which only a small handful of privileged people can identify. It's a fundamental transformation of what we recognize as a legitimate battle, it's a re-prioritizing of energy and resources so that we don't just endlessly recreate a U.S. legacy of a "left" that leaves out most everyone.
Dean and Craig rule my school. You can get a copy of Piss & Vinegar or Make by writing:
It's a buck or two, or a trade.