by dean spade
The mission statement of this event talks about bringing trans people and allies together to create new discourses about trans identities in academia and to jump start the creation of networks of student, profs, and administrators. What I want to talk about today is why I think trans activist and academic work that centralizes on anti-racism and anti-poverty analysis is essential, and why I think there is a gap in that work now.
Start out with anecdote: Stonewall to SONDA. Who fought back first, why (low income trannies of color who were facing horrible police harassment in bars and on street)? And when it was time to win rights, who won (gender identity excluded from SONDA)? Average of 13 years people wait to when left out of those initial bills. In NY legislature, it could be 50 years. at the same time, in the neighborhood where the stonewall inn is located a coalition of gay and straight high income renters and home owners have teamed up to rid their streets of the queer and trans youth of color who have found each other and formed community in the public spaces of that neighborhood for years. the residents, whose group is aptly named “rid” residents in distress-engage in vigilantism and have sicked the 6th precinct on the youth, resulting in rampant brutality and false arrests, which for homeless and marginally housed teens, turn into warrants and eventual time in the juvenile and adult injustice systems.
what I would like to see most is trans activism and trans analysis that reflects the most urgent issues in trans life, and that creates dynamic responses and ideas that move us to think in new ways about the systems and institutions we’re dismantling and the alliance we’re building for the world we want to live in. One obstacle, of course, that has always existed in education at all levels and that is particularly acute in higher education is the severe inequality in access to educational institutions and publishing. Immigrants, people of color and low income people are even less likely than two decades ago to have access to education. Public schools are under attack, financial aid is being steadily defunded and denied to various criminalized classes like people with drug convictions, and affirmative action has been abolished in many of this countries university systems. New “work fare” requirements instituted after “welfare reform” have driven thousands of college students out of school. The post-September 11 mobilization of racism and xenophobia prompted a policy change in the city university of New York college system, more than doubling tuition for undocumented students with no warning. Attacks like this are increasingly common, making it more difficult than ever for the voices of immigrants, people of color and low income people to be represented in academia and campus activism. So its always important to think about who isn’t here-who are the missing bodies? Why are they missing? Whose voice isn’t in this conversation?
In order to talk about the urgency of a trans analysis and activism rooted in anti-racism and anti-poverty, I want to give a little bit of a big picture about how trans and gender variant people are overrepresented in punitive systems whose punitive measures are driven by racist and anti-poor cultural understandings.
Trans people face enormous, and mostly unaddressed, discrimination in education, employment, health care, and public benefits. Many trans people start out their lives with the obstacle of abuse or harassment at home, or being kicked out of their homes by their parents on the basis of their gender identity or expression. Some turn to foster care, but often end up homeless when they experiene harassment and violence at the hands of staff and other residents in foster care facilities. The adult homeless shelter system, similarly, is inaccessible to them due to the fact that most facilities are gender segregated and will either turn down a trans person outright or refuse to house them according to their lived gender identity. Similarly, harassment and violence against trans and gender different students is rampant in schools, and many drop out before finishing or are kicked out. Many trans people also do not pursue higher education because of fears about having to apply to schools and having their paperwork reveal their old name and birth sex because they have not been able to change these on their documents. Furthermore, trans people face severe discrimination in the job market, and are routinely fired for transitioning on the job or when their gender identity or expression comes to their supervisor’s attention. In most of the US, this kind of discrimination is still not explicitly illegal.
Trans people also have a difficult time accessing the entitlements that exist, though in a reduced and diminished format, to support poor people. Discrimination on the basis of gender identity in welfare offices, on workfare job sites, in Medicaid offices, in Administrative Law Hearings for welfare, Medicaid, and Social Security Disability benefits. These benefit programs have been decimated in the last 10 years, and are generally operated with a punitive approach that includes frequent illegal termination of benefits and the failure to provide people their entitlements. For most people seeking to access these programs consistently during a time of need, the availability of an attorney or advocate to help navigate the hearings process has been essential to maintaining benefits. Unfortunately, most poverty attorneys and advocacy organizations are still severely lacking in basic information about serving trans clients, and may reject cases on the basis of a person’s gender identity or create such an unwelcoming environment that a trans client will not return for services. Based on community awareness of this problem, many trans people will not even seek these services, expecting that they will be subjected to humilating and unhelpful treatment. The resulting lack of access to even the remaining shreds of the welfare system leaves a disproportionate number of trans people in severe poverty and engaging in criminalized work such as prostitution or the drug economy in order to survive. This, in turn, results in large numbers of trans people being entangled in the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems where they are subjected to extreme harassment and violence.
so that is the depressing picture and the reality, and its one that I think all trans people can relate to on various levels, but it may be that at this event a lot of us can be here because we haven’t gotten deeply involved in these systems-we’re not, for example---involved in a revolving door of being homeless, being rejected from countless shelters, and then spending periods in the most well funded housing for the poor-prisons and jails, only to return to a unsustainable life under the close scrutiny of parole and probation programs before returning, again to prison. we all interact with gender segregated facilities and institutions, like bathrooms and locker rooms, but many of us haven’t thought about what it means that almost every institution designed to house, exploit the labor of and control low income people and people of color is gender segregated and a location where gender binaries are enforced by means of humiliation, assault and rape. we are aware that the prison industry is sustained by false discourses of crime and safety, that the cutbacks in welfare are justified by an entrenched and racist belief that poverty stems from personal irresponsibility rather than structural market forces, that the drug war, responsible for mass incarceration of people of color in the US for non violent crimes as well as for US military violence abroad in places like Columbia, is similarly fueled by racism and anti-poor sentiment. However, in part because a white liberal civil rights discourse has framed the LGB (fake T) rights movement, the vital importance of these issues to the lives of most trans people has remained often under documented, under analyzed, and insufficiently acted upon by our emergent movements.
I want to take a minute to draw some connections, as well, to what is often referred to as the anti-globalization movement, but which I refer to think about as the resistance movement to the increasing consolidation of global capital.
what do I mean by that, what am I talking about? these words get thrown around a lot, and it’s better if you know what I mean by it. what I’m thinking about is economic/ethnic warfare-western/rich/white countries making war on poor/former colony/nonwhite countries. it’s about a set of economic policies that operate to siphon resources out of poor countries and concentrate wealth in the hands of an increasingly small # of western capitalists. this warfare has already killed over 11 billion people, by conservative estimates. its mechanism are somewhat different form the images that come to mind when we think of war-bombs guns tanks (though all of those are being used, don’t get me wrong) but it also includes free trade agreements, international banking institutions and new governing bodies that supercede sovereign nations (like the WTO). these economic policies that may appear on the surface to be less violent than traditional warfare have in fact proven more deadly. one example I heard at a third world within event a while back is that more people have been killed in Viet Nam because of economic sanctions between 1975 and 1995 than were killed in wars with France and the US between 1945 and 1975. structural adjustment programs are another clear example of deadly economic policies encompassed in “globalization”. SAPS are imposed on countries with high levels of dept to the IMF, they force indebted countries to adopt economic policies that benefit western imperialists in exchange for desperately needed aid. its like, we originally came here and enslaved your people and destroyed your economy and ruined your sustainable crops so you could grow cash crops we could export and now you have no infrastructure and we’ll lend you the money but only if you do everything we say-like eliminate all funding to higher education so that you can send that money to us, and eliminate all workplace safety and environmental rules so that we can use your labor and land more cheaply and detrimentally, and make countries export all their crops even if their own people are in famine.
so probably you can see where I’m going with this. this consolidation of global capital, clearly, isn’t a first world/third world issue in terms of geography. people in the US, like people on other colonized and stolen lands throughout the world, are being exploited. 2 million people in the US are imprisoned, and universities like this one probably are full of equipment produced by their labor. while those people work in prison for pennies, their bodies are counted in the census polls for the communities where they are imprisoned, the same communities that vie for prison building projects because of the jobs the produce, and the prisoners’ home communities are further deprived of funding and services. this is just one example of the rampant exploitation of low income communities and communities of color, trapped in revolving door systems of various sorts that abuse and profit off of people at the bottom of the economy. under this economic arrangement, those of us who hold up the whole economy, on whom the operation of capitalism is utterly dependent, are blamed vilified and criminalized for our position at the bottom. trans people, of course, are a part of this bottom layer, and this, in my view, is where our analysis, or creative efforts toward change, and our power should stem from.
I think its time we question our alliances-where do we fit in the current mainstream glbfaket movement. this movement, as has been said so many times, has become focused on assimilationist goals, inclusion in institutions like private property, marriage, military participation, boy scouts, etc. these organizations choose to fight for homos to be able to pass our apartments on to each other, rather than for tenants’ rights and more low-income housing. they fight for people who are employed to be able to get their partners on their private health coverage but take no stand on Medicaid and do nothing to promote universal healthcare. they rally around passing hate crimes laws which put more punishment power in the hands of an overtly racist criminal system, but do little or nothing for the countless trans and queer people incarcerated people in the adult and juvenile justice systems. a good example was prop 21 and 22 in CA. prop 21 was a new law that would make it easier to punish juvenile offenders as adults, and put 14 years olds away for life. prop 22 was an anti-gay marriage law. student activists in many of California’s public schools worked on amazing cross-issue campaigns, opposing 21 and 22 with coalitions of queer people, people of color and low income people. the GLBT center in LA rallied around prop 22, but made no statements about prop 21. we see similar things when groups like the Human Rights Campaign or Empire State Pride agenda endorsing conservative politicians like D’Amato and Pataki who are enemies of public education and promoters of the criminal injustice system. these are the same groups that back legislation like ENDA and SONDA that don’t include trans rights. this is representative of the single-issue politics that has emerged as a certain sector of well funded groups and individuals have narrowed the focus of what was, at its inception, a more broad sweeping fight for the rights of queer and trans freaks, to a struggle for the rights of a few race and money privileged people to be able to access their birthright piece of the capitalist pie. with every passing year, I feel more alienated from that struggle, and more invested in finding and building alliances with groups that are working on the issues that I think pose the most serious obstacles to trans people’s ability to live with dignity and self determination. more and more I’m interested, academically, in making alliances and connections to the methods of analysis used by other people whose bodies are labeled wrong---disabled people, fat people, for example---who've pioneered methods of examining rights discourses and medico-legal governance that have vital crossovers with trans experience.
Ultimately, I know we are fighting battles for our lives, and the lives of those we love, and to win we’ll have to use every strategy in our arsenal-including litigation, mass protest, graffiti, zines, media activism, filmmaking, one-on-one and group consciousness-raising, vandalism, theft and God knows what else. This includes, in my work, sometimes making alliances with groups who’ve formerly taken positions that I think suck-because they have some access or power that can be useful to help a trans person in need right now. But I want us to have a strategy and analysis that is not just about begging the LGBfakeT organizations to finally include and notice us, when they’ve been notoriously unconcerned with the struggles of people fighting the kinds of systems trans people are embroiled in. I want us to reach out to find new coalitions, merge our analysis in new ways with people who are already prioritizing the rights of low income people, people of color, people with disabilities, HIV positive people, old people, and youth. I think the circumstances we’re living in, locally and globally, are overwhelming-and we have to remember that there are more of us suffering under capitalism and imperialism than benefiting from it. It can be easy to drop out of these struggles or to choose to ignore these issues in our analysis if they aren’t knocking down our doors, but we have to remember our responsibility as people living in the belly of the beast by the very nature of being in this room. In this country, many of us receive material benefits from the domination of others, that domination is done in our names and we have opportunities to access and oppose the decision makers who run this game that many people in the world don’t have. It’s our responsibility to embrace a broad view of social justice and to join in a fight against capitalism, racism, and imperialism and to fight to win.