Leading U.S. transgendered lawyer Dean Spade has inspiring appeals for justice
It’s rare that scholarship and activism around transgendered issues leaves the margins, but if Dean Spade has anything to do with it, times they are a-changing.
A transgender man and pioneer in the emerging field of transgender law, Spade has been at the forefront of the trans and activist fight, some might say, since he was born. Raised in rural Virginia by a single working mother on welfare, at the age of 14 he was thrust into the foster care system when she passed away from cancer.
Now an attorney and an erudite teaching fellow in the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, Spade is one of only a handful of legal scholars in the U.S. looking at issues crucial to transgender people’s lives. It’s a huge undertaking when you consider the odds: Only 9 states have laws explicitly protecting transgender people from job discrimination. There are complex state and federal laws and policies that prohibit or make difficult the changing of gender on ID cards and low-income trans populations are also far more at risk of being incarcerated or housed in sex-segregated systems where they are at risk for violence and harassment.
While the challenges are overwhelming, Spade is resolutely optimistic in his activism. In Montreal to give a lecture at McGill and a workshop at the Centre for Gender Advocacy this week, he graciously agreed to talk at length with Hour about the difficulties of poor and trans people in America today and about founding the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, an innovative collective legal organization that provides free legal services to low-income people and people of colour facing gender identity discrimination in the U.S. and engaged in public education, policy reform, and community organizing support focused on issues relevant to trans, intersex and gender non-conforming people.
Hour The Sylvia Rivera Law Project is unique as far as law projects go. Why and how did it come to be?
Dean Spade I started SRLP in 2002 because of the enormous need in the communities that I identified with. There are so many aspects of the law that are based in very dangerous misunderstandings about trans people and result in systemic exclusions and marginalization that make trans people disproportionately low income, incarcerated, and have less access to important social services. So there was a lot to be done. There weren’t existing organizations at the time that focused on poverty, race and trans communities – and that were doing the kind of free legal services that people needed. We ended up using a collective model that is quite different from the ways most legal organizations work in the U.S., more traditional top-down models with big pay differentials. Instead we wanted to do something entirely different that was about turning that upside down – that took into consideration anti-racist and feminist ideas and would centralize power in the hands of the people most affected by the issues.
Hour What are some of the major issues facing low-income people and people of colour regarding gender identity and/or expression in the U.S. today?
Spade The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country in the world by far. We lock up one out of 100 people in the U.S., and those people are disproportionately poor and people of colour. Queer and trans people are disproportionately represented in prisons also, because the kinds of discrimination and police profiling we face leads to higher rates of incarceration and not adequate defence. We do a lot of work with people currently in prison and other people who are in some other way wrapped up in the system (juvenile justice system, on parole or facing charges). Often criminal charges are related to poverty: like prostitution or sleeping outside, or stealing or drugs.
We do a lot of work with people who are dealing with immigration status-related issues and we do a lot of work around foster care, juvenile justice systems, homeless shelters, foster care, prisons – all those systems in the U.S. that house people in a sex-segregated system. For trans people there’s a lot of danger there, because people are usually placed according to the gender the government has on record for them, and not with the gender they understand themselves through and that they express. So there’s a lot of targeting and violence that results from that.
The other big area is ID – identity and documentation. It’s really hard for trans people to get ID papers that say who we say we are, that has the right gender marker. When you don’t have that, it can expose you to a lot of discrimination: in employment, when trying to deal with public benefits or the police.
Hour From a legal and social standpoint, and given the conservative climate in the US right now, is it possible to imagine broad social change that would make identity less restrictive, especially gender markers?
Spade In the U.S., every agency that issues ID papers has its own set of rules. So the Department of Health issues birth certificates but each state has its own rules around these certificates. The Department of Motor Vehicles issues driver’s licences but they each have their own rules too. In some ways it means it’s a bureaucratic nightmare, but in other ways, because there’s not one clear federal rule, it can mean there’s an opportunity to make change at the local level. Local advocacy can actually do a lot depending on the political climate. Certainly we are in a bad political climate for anything having to do with ID, because of the war on terror. We work in coalition with a lot of immigrant rights groups doing a lot of work trying to change the rules around ID.
Hour Ted Kennedy recently championed a version of ENDA [Employment Non-Discrimination Act] that does not include the protection against discrimination based on gender expression. This has split the gay community in the U.S., who fear the bill won’t pass if trans populations are included. What do you think about this bill? What would you say to gays and lesbians who advocate pushing ENDA without including gender expression alongside sexual orientation?
Spade I think it’s pretty frustrating for trans people and our allies here. It’s also such an artificial distinction because so many gay and lesbian people are discriminated against on the basis of their gender expression and so many trans people are gay or lesbian!
At the same time, I’ll say that for me and a lot of people I work with, we don’t see these anti-decimation bills as the be-all and end-all in the effort to end the marginalization of trans people. Lots of groups who’ve been oppressed in the U.S. have had anti-discrimination bills to protect them for decades, and their oppression hasn’t ended. So while I think it’s disgusting that this bill explicitly excludes people facing gender identity expression discrimination, I also think it’s important to keep our eye on all the strategies not being pursued that are equally as useful. I think a lot of gay and lesbian people assume that our agenda for legal change will be just anti-discrimination laws and hate crime laws because that’s a lot of what their agenda is. But we have a different set of legal issues [in addition]: Our health care is excluded from state health care programs and private health insurers, we have ID issues, and placement problems relating to sex-segregated facilities in homes and prisons. There’s a set of specific issues that make trans people really vulnerable.
Hour Your recent work is around the war on terror and especially how this has resulted in cutbacks to anti-poverty programs, increasing militarization of the police, and rising rates of incarceration in the U.S. How have transgender populations been affected by the conservative climate in the U.S. today and by recent policies relating to the war on terror?
Spade The war on terror is really a frightening set of developments that have rapidly, massively changed many important laws and policies in the U.S. The more you are vulnerable in this context, the more the war on terror will impact you. Obviously, the main targets are immigrants. So low-income and immigrants of colour will experience more exclusion, more difficulty working and getting their basic social needs met – accessing social services, health care and benefits. Trans immigrants experience a high level of discrimination because they also experiencing transphobia. These policy changes are also affecting a lot of people who aren’t immigrants as well because they make it really hard to access different forms of ID changes and documentation (and many poor or homeless, rural and even old people don’t have documents).
The war on terror is also about [amalgamating] all the different administrative agencies in the U.S. that collect data about people, like social security programs who organize our old age and disability benefits and people that draw up driver’s licenses. [New policies] try to uncover people who have any mismatching info between two sets of data. That’s mostly about trying to target undocumented immigrants, but it’s also having a huge impact on trans populations as well, because lots of trans people have a different gender marker on one kind of ID than on another, and different agencies have different rules about when/how you can change that. So that has created a situation where people are having driver’s licences revoked or are being outed to their employers by the federal government.
There are also so many levels of impact around the war on terror [and the accompanying] climate shift towards more surveillance that are making it increasingly hard for all marginalized people to live. These [methods generally only] catch up with people who are already overly surveilled – people of colour, youth, immigrants, trans people, etc. We also spend a huge amount of money on the war on terror and war in Iraq, money that could be spent on other services here in the States, or could be spent on all kinds of justice-related issues, instead of on a climate of heavy policing.
Hour The topic title for your talk in Montreal is "Trans resistance and premature death." Can you tell me more about what this means?
Spade Theorist Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who wrote the Golden Gulag, defines racism as "group differentiated vulnerability to premature death." So, in her view, oppression doesn’t always operate through the framework people are most often taught – individual discrimination (‘I won’t hire you because you are trans,’ ‘I’m going to beat you up because you are trans’). Actually, the way oppression and discrimination works is through the marginalization of entire communities and entire populations in ways that result in their premature death. So, for example, if you don’t have access to health care in your childhood and you also live in a community with a lot of policing, you are far more likely to end up spending time in the juvenile system or prison, and more likely to have long-term chronic health problems, etc.
Premature death refers to all the ways in which the distribution of life chances affects our lifespan. I really like this definition because it argues against the idea that to remedy discrimination, oppression and domination we must use punishment-focused rules and target individual discriminators – build more prisons, and have more policing. It refuses to naturalize the status quo and argues against the idea that the way things are currently divvied up is fair and right. The kind of work SRLP is doing, along with the other groups we work with, is to think about trans resistance in terms of a broader social project. We have a set of demands that are about massively redistributing life chances.
Dean Spade Talk
"Trans Resistance and Premature Death"
At McGill (3480 University, room 304), April 11, at 6 p.m.
Workshop on collective organizing
At 2110 Centre for Gender Advocacy, April 12, all day
To sign up, contact 514-848-2424 (ext. 7431), firstname.lastname@example.org