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Trans-Formative Change: Meaghan Winter interviews Dean Spade

May 2, 2013

America’s first openly transgender law professor on the power of zines, the sacrifice social movements require, and the limits of legal reform.

The average lifespan of a transgender person is twenty-three years. The statistic is shocking, until it begins to make sense. Gender non-conformists face routine exclusion and violence. Transgender people are disproportionately poor, homeless, and incarcerated. Many of the systems and facilities intended to help low-income people are sex-segregated and thereby alienate those who don’t comply with state-imposed categories. A trans woman may not be able to secure a bed in a homeless shelter, for example. Spade writes that just as the feminist movement tended to “focus on gender-universalized white women’s experience as ‘women’s experience,’” the lesbian- and gay-rights movement has focused primarily on a white, middle-class politic, centered on marriage and mainstream social mores.

In 2002, Spade founded Sylvia Rivera Law Project, the first center of its kind, which provides free legal services to low-income transgender and gender non-conforming people and advocates for policy reform that would eliminate gender expression-based discrimination and violence. The center is a collective. It works from the assumption that economic, racial, and gender issues are inseparable.

Spade asks that we rethink equality. As the Assistant Professor of Law at Seattle University, he’s the first openly trans tenure-track law professor in the U.S. (or at least the first that he knows of), but he envisions a movement that de-emphasizes lawsuits, the go-to weapon of American political struggles. Legislation, Spade says, can bring change, but it usually just invites more people into the privileged circle within an unjust system. Violence continues for those, like gender nonconformists, not fully accepted as citizens. Likewise, Spade interrogates the current nonprofit model, one that he argues often adopts and maintains capitalist rules, values and hierarchies.

Spade’s writing, and his example, forces his readers, especially those involved in nonprofit work and progressive politics, into vigorous self-reflection. He doesn’t allow himself or his audience the comfort of easy answers. There’s no dreariness or nihilism to Spade though. He seeks a social transformation that will allow no person to feel impossible.

—Meaghan Winter for Guernica

Guernica: What are some of the limitations of the popular view that trans rights/issues are a subset of gay and lesbian issues?

Dean Spade: I think that that idea comes from some important historical precedent and contemporary experiences. Gender norms and norms about sexuality are very intertwined in our culture, and people targeted for breaking those norms include lots of kinds of queer and trans people, so it makes sense that we would be in a fight together and we’ve been perceived by people who are targeting us for violence as people who are similar. I think there’s a lot of important overlap in that politics that makes a lot of sense.

Lots of gay and lesbian people haven’t experienced not having a gender that the government recognizes.

The dilemma is that there are a couple of different trajectories that make that a limitation. One is that since the sixties and seventies a strand emerged in gay and lesbian politics that really looked to divorce itself from trans people and people of color and low-income people and looked to pursue a gay and lesbian politics that is kind of cleaned up and more socially acceptable to existing norms and existing frameworks. And that has meant that there’s been a lot of bad blood between people promoting that politics and those they’ve separated themselves from, including trans people.

Another thing is that on the ground and in daily life, there are some specific issues that trans people face that are different from what non-trans gay and lesbian people face. And so having a politics that doesn’t recognize that there are differences in and amongst different people targeted by gender and sexuality norms means you’re going to have a politics that doesn’t actually address everybody’s needs. For example, trans people have a huge set of legal issues around how various government agencies and other entities see our gender, and lots of gay and lesbian people haven’t experienced not having a gender that the government recognizes. So if we just pursue a politics that pretends we’re all the same, there are people we’re going to miss, and oftentimes people who are highly vulnerable are the ones whose issues we’re going to miss.

Guernica: Can you tell me about your forthcoming book?

Dean Spade: Yeah, it’s coming out September 2011 from South End Press. It’s a book that tries to describe what a critical trans politics looks like. We’re in this moment where there’s this gay and lesbian politics that’s really lacking in its racial and economic justice analysis and overly relies on legal reform for its strategy and doesn’t really look at people in dire need today. So this book says, okay, we have the option to focus on hate crime laws and other legal reforms or we can reframe what trans politics is and center economic and racial justice. We can realize that changing the law doesn’t change people’s lives and have an understanding of the limitations of the nonprofit form, the ways in which concentrating leadership in professionals and having nondemocratic models for organizations and movements harms and undermines the transformative change we are seeking. The book lays out those frameworks that I call a critical trans politics.

What’s emerged is a very thin national narrative about social change that often says that groups that are marginalized should just win lawsuits.

Guernica: How does focusing on law reform fall short? Why is legal inclusion a flawed ideal?

Dean Spade: A lot of my writing is about trying to understand what role legal work has in strategies for transformative social change. Part of the reason that question is so important right now is that there has been widescale attacks on social movements over the last thirty or forty years in response to the very meaningful social movements in the sixties and seventies that had very transformative demands, that were seeking a redistribution of wealth and of life chances in really significant ways. What’s emerged in their place is a very thin national narrative about social change that often centers on the law and often says that groups that are marginalized or experiencing subjugation of various kinds should just win lawsuits and pass laws to change their lives.

But the hard thing is that few lawsuits actually have those effects. On one hand, a lot of laws are not enforced or never implemented. For example, in a lot of places it’s illegal to fire or not hire someone for being trans, but that happens every single day. Very little can be done about that in the current framework. The systemic homelessness and poverty many trans people face doesn’t seem to be sufficiently addressed by passing a law that says we shouldn’t discriminate against trans people. Law reforms declaring race and disability discrimination illegal haven’t solved concentrated joblessness, poverty, homelessness, or criminalization of people with disabilities and people of color. Often people who the law says should have equal chances at jobs still don’t have equal chances at jobs, and they’re still on the losing side of the severe wealth divide in the U.S. So how can we start to strategize for social movements that don’t believe the myth that changing the law is the key way to change people’s lives?

Another thing is that at times what law reform does do is put a window dressing of fairness on systems that are deeply unfair. Maybe some of the people, the most enfranchised in a particular group, will be somewhat better off through law reforms, because they have a lot of other kinds of wealth or privilege in terms of the overall system. Oftentimes, in that way law reform stabilizes a status quo; it stabilizes the existing field of maldistribution. Those people who are worst off really don’t see a lot of change, or may be further marginalized.

A lot of us are trying to look at what has really been powerful in the history of the U.S. in terms of changing people’s lives, and that’s been broad social movements led by people directly impacted by the issues. They often have demands that far exceed what the law could ever give, demands that are not going to be passed by Congress or won in courts. Those demands actually confront the things that America is based on, like white supremacy or settler colonialism. The law can be a useful tool to address certain needs for certain communities, but it’s nowhere near a silver bullet that will make people equal. That mythology is the part of the mythology of our nation, a mythology that people are often not willing to question if they are benefiting from existing conditions of maldistribution.

Guernica: I’ve noticed that you often use the phrase “life chances.” Why not just say “the distribution of wealth”?

Dean Spade: I think that to me “life chances” is a phrase that captures the many, many vectors of harm and well-being that are being distributed in ways that I’m concerned about. For example, whether or not fresh groceries are available in your community, whether there’s toxic waste and polluting industry nearby where you live, whether in your whole life you’re likely to have a job that interests you, what level your local schools are funded at, whether someone in your family is dying or suffering from lack of healthcare and you’re carrying around the stresses of that.

Ruth Gilmore defines racism as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death,” and I think that’s really useful for thinking about what we’re trying to get at. This definition turns our attention away from the questions that discrimination law gets us caught up in: did someone intentionally exclude you because of your identity and can you prove that? Instead, it lets us see that where we find population-level maldistribution of life chances, there is injustice. It doesn’t matter whether we can find one individual with a bad intention, or whether the law stated an intent to exclude a certain group. If a group is being exposed to premature death through overexposure to pollution, police violence, hunger, lack of healthcare, poverty, homelessness, military occupation—those conditions must be remedied and the systems causing them must be dismantled. Sometimes movements have gotten too concerned with law reform or just trying to get government recognition instead of actually trying to change people’s chances at living. We need to not be satisfied until people actually have good housing, healthcare, education, and all those things that you actually need to live well and thrive.

Guernica: Can you tell me about the Sylvia Rivera Law Project? Are you still involved in that?

Dean Spade: Yes, I’m still involved. SRLP provides free legal help to low-income people and people of color facing discrimination based on gender identity and expression, and does broader policy reform work, litigation, public education, and organizing support. Our day-to-day work includes providing poor people with urgently-needed legal help to contest their welfare benefits being cut off, or to prevent them from being evicted, or help them get to a homeless shelter, or prevent them from being deported. We work on changing racist, transphobic, anti-poor, anti-immigrant policies in shelter systems, foster care systems, criminal punishment systems, schools, healthcare settings, and other high-stakes spaces of harm for our constituents. Our work is centered in demands for racial and economic justice, prison abolition, and an end to immigration enforcement. We believe that to reach those broader goals we need to both provide immediate support to people suffering in violent systems as part of creating resistance in which people experiencing the most vulnerability have political leadership and take collective action to make change.

Guernica: How is SRLP funded? At the nonprofits I’ve worked for there was sometimes this disconnect between what the employees believed and how our funding required us to act.

Dean Spade: In general, the kind of work SRLP does isn’t funded by the government. Government funding of legal services, generally, was severely undermined in the last few decades, and this particular kind of work is especially off the radar of government grantmaking. We raise money through individual donors, grassroots fundraising, and foundation grants. We believe that the best way to support this work is through grassroots fundraising, which maximizes the accountability of the organization to the communities it serves rather than to wealthy philanthropists, so we put a lot of work into constantly building that aspect of our fundraising.

Guernica: Do you think that it’s best for nonprofits or collectives engaged in social movements to fund themselves, so as not to be hindered by funding requirements?

Dean Spade: We’re not absolutists about anything. Change requires a broad range of people on the left who are concerned about the ways in which funding determines the content of movement work and often ensures that organizations will only do things that are not terribly threatening to the status quo, so we really believe that building more organizations that are coming from the communities affected rather than from large foundations or the government that steer the work is a really important move. For us, that’s always a work in progress.

Obviously it’s hard to raise money from communities that are impoverished, but we consider fundraising part of our organizing and a way of building communities that are going to support and sustain the work for a long time, regardless of whatever happens with any foundation. We want an organization that can survive any decision a foundation makes about our politics. It’s a complicated moment right now. It can be strategic for some organizations to take some funding from foundations or the government, depending on their particular work and approach and what other groups they are in coalition with who are using more autonomous approaches. People in SRLP and our allied organizations are trying to be strategic about the severe lack of resources and trying to figure out how people’s needs can be met while ensuring that movements are not co-opted by government or wealthy philanthropists, and that’s a complicated situation. We spend a lot of time in conversation with our allies and within our organization about these issues and make these decisions with care. This conversation has been strongly influenced and bolstered in the last few years by the publication of the excellent book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the NonProfit Industrial Complex, by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. I highly recommend that book.

I held a sit-in at my school when they were trying to defund a program and fire a teacher, and in high school I discovered feminism.

Guernica: To play devil’s advocate, or to push on this idea, is it a lot to ask or expect of people who are living hand to mouth to also have the means to contribute to an organization or a campaign?

Dean Spade: Social movements require a lot of work. Historically, people have been invested in doing that work because they believe their life depends on it. A lot of different frameworks have existed around membership organizations. People always cite César Chávez, who famously said that all the farm workers should paid dues to the United Farm Workers so it could be theirs and they could own it.

There are organizations like The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty in Toronto using a membership dues approach. Their members are homeless or marginally housed, and they ask for membership dues, and people are excited to contribute. It’s not the only way they raise money, but it’s one way. I think we have to look at some of our assumptions. We need to look at the alternatives. We can either have our work funded by foundations that are owned and run by rich people who are likely to fund work that does not upset the arrangements that allow them to remain rich. Foundation control limits the demands that get made by social movements and the strategies engaged. We need to imagine an alternative. Most organizing work was once unpaid; it was de-professionalized; it was not funded in any way besides small ways like, hey, you guys can work out of my basement. Right now many people engaged in resistance are experimenting with different approaches to these problems. Membership structures with dues are one option, although they aren’t ideal for every organization. Some organizations create revenue-generating activities to sustain themselves, ranging from bake sales to various sliding scale services to retail operations and more. Some organizations focus on building a base of donors who give small amounts monthly while others focus on creating big annual events where they try to raise a significant chunk of their budgets. Some focus on in-kind donations such as free office space. Others choose not to have any paid staff in order to avoid creating a large budget that needs to be raised every year. Different strategies make sense for different groups.

Guernica: What inspired you to become involved in this kind of work, and how did you get started?

Dean Spade: I think I was raised to question authority. My mom was raising us by herself, she had never finished high school, she was working low-wage jobs and relying on welfare, and she gave me a pretty good sense that things were not as they should be. She was not politically active, but she valued critical thinking and protest. I had a sense, even though I was a typical kid trying to fit in, that the racism, sexism, and wealth divide I was mired in was fucked up. I participated in anti-war activities during the first Bush administration and I held a sit-in at my school when they were trying to defund a program and fire a teacher, and in high school I discovered feminism.

When I left home and went to college and found out about queerness, I immediately got very involved both on campus and off campus in queer organizations, but I was disturbed as the mid-nineteen nineties’ welfare reform and immigration reform debates emerged and the gay and lesbian organizations I was working with had very little to say. I became very disillusioned with what I saw at these organizations, who they prioritized, who they hired, how they treated workers, and I joined up with grassroots queer organizing in NYC that was full of former ACT UP activists who were resisting Giuliani’s anti-poor, anti-queer, racist, anti-immigrant, anti-sex work policies. That work introduced me to a lot of new frameworks and direct action strategies, and to mentors who introduced me to new ways of thinking about queer politics and set me on this path.

Law reforms declaring race and disability discrimination illegal haven’t solved concentrated joblessness, poverty, homelessness or criminalization of people with disabilities and people of color.

Guernica: You’re very open in writing about yourself, in terms of class and your own gender identity and experiences. How do you decide whether and how you’re going to make an example of yourself? Is the need or inclination to use yourself as an example an extra burden that you bear as a trans person and professional?

Dean Spade: I came of age around politics in the nineties when there was this zine culture, where people were self-publishing and writing informally and sharing stuff with each other. People frequently spoke from the position of their own experiences and identities to talk about political and social issues. That’s where I got my start writing. I found that culture and way of communicating extremely powerful, especially when I felt alienated from what could be said in academic spaces. I wrote like that for years, and I still sometimes do. Because of the ways in which trans people are objectified in our culture sometimes that’s backfired on me. People have this fascination with trans people that can feel sensationalist and objectifying, so I think over the years my writing has trended away from some of that exposure. There are some things I wish weren’t out there, but I really believe in letting yourself change over time and accepting earlier iterations.

I think it’s really important that people talk more about the emotional dynamics that we are all carrying around class and money and consumerism and our fears of scarcity. I’m doing the Enough blog with Tyrone about money and daily questions and practices that we all contend with about wealth redistribution, and that’s been really important for me in terms of creating space for a personal politics around that stuff. A lot of us who have come from feminism and queer politics and other movements have for a long time had firm ideas that the personal is political, but we don’t always have a space to really talk about our personal discussions and practices. People find talking about wealth distribution really challenging, but I think we’re in need of honest dialogue where people can make themselves vulnerable around issues of money, share dilemmas, and share principles or practices they are trying out. We created Enough to share those kinds of stories and role model those inquiries for each other. I think that’s a useful kind of personal writing to be doing right now.

Guernica: What can people like me do to support trans people and others?

Dean Spade: The most urgent things we can all be involved in are working to oppose the immigration enforcement system and the criminal punishment system and working in our local areas to prevent more prisons and immigration detention centers from being built and laws targeting immigrants or increasing criminal punishment from being expanded. That means standing up against gang ordinances, “aggressive panhandling” laws, increased sentencing for any kind of criminalized behavior, laws that make it harder for immigrants to get drivers’ licenses or healthcare or social services, etc. It also means building coalitions around local campaigns to de-criminalize anything we can and to increase access to basic necessities for immigrants. We can also work to build alternatives to violent state systems. We can all work to educate ourselves about racism, ableism, transphobia, sexism. There are so many things we all can do beyond Facebook activism or or whatever. We can actually look at what’s going on in our actual communities and work with other people directly to change things that concern us.

A lot of communities have passed laws making it harder to make bail or make it illegal to sit out on the sidewalk. It’s worth looking into whether your jurisdiction has signed onto Homeland Security’s Secure Communities, which is a program that puts local law enforcement in collaboration with ICE, and that’s something we can all work on. There’s just tons and tons of room in all of our communities to oppose state violence and systems of violence that we know are happening. There’s just tons of room for more work. In every community the strategy will be different—we have to look at what issues are primed because they will form the basis of excellent coalitional work, meaning they will be of interest to lots of different vulnerable populations, and it is ideal to think about winnability when building campaigns. That doesn’t mean watering down an issue, it just means choosing issues where the particular kinds of reframing we are trying to do are likely to work. I recommend reading about organizing strategy. Rinku Sen’s book Stir It Up is very helpful, as is POWER’s book Toward Land, Work, and Power. The website Organizing Upgrade is also a great resource right now.

Resources Mentioned:

Gender Is Compliance: Trans Politics and Law Reform in a Neoliberal Landscape by Dean Spade.

The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence.

Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy by Rinku Sen.

Towards Land, Work and Power: Charting a Path of Resistance to U.S.-Led Imperialismby POWER.

Enough, a blog by Spade and Tyrone Boucher.

Editors Recommend:

Sweet Nothings: Civil rights champion David Mixner on his battle to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” why the February 2nd Congressional hearings were a bust, and how the policy all but guarantees sexual harassment of women soldiers.

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