Thursday, August 20, 2015

Dean Spade, Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law

“Trans resistance is emerging in a context of neoliberal politics where the choice to struggle for nothing more than incorporation into the neoliberal order is the most obvious option. We are invited to seek recognition in law that will deliver no actual redistribution of life chances. We are being offered a limited form of visibility, only to the extent that that visibility can prop up existing norms about whose lives matter and whose do not. We are encouraged to fight for inclusion in the systems that the most important movements of our times are trying to dismantle. The paths to ‘equality’ and ‘success’ being modeled by lesbian and gay rights will not reduce the premature death that pervades trans communities, and, in fact, those paths lead to legitimization and expansion of the very systems that most endanger trans lives.”

“[T]he picture of economic marginalization, vulnerability to imprisonment, and other forms of state violence that trans communities are describing suggests that the ‘successes’ of the lesbian and gay rights organizations do not have enough to offer in terms of redistribution of life chances – and that their strategies will in fact further endanger the most marginalized trans populations. If formal legal equality at best opens doors to dominant institutions for those who are already closest to inclusion (i.e., they would be included if it wasn’t for this one characteristic), very few stand to benefit.

A critical trans politics imagines and demands an end to prisons, homelessness, landlords, bosses, immigration enforcement, poverty, and wealth. It imagines a world in which people have what they need and govern themselves in ways that value collectivity, interdependence, and difference.” - Normal Life
Dean Spade’s Normal Life, with its criticism of the elitist priorities and hierarchical structures of mainstream LGBT organizations and celebration of grassroots trans groups mobilizing to dismantle oppressive systems in coalition with other social and economic justice movements, is of course welcome reading for me. His radical, essentially anarchist, vision of trans politics is naturally one I can support, even if in some cases I think he pushes his critique too far. (On a personal note, it was refreshing to read something on the subject that wasn’t a treatise on identity or a personalized argument about bigotry.)

The LGBT movement hasn’t been immune from the effects of neoliberalism, the reactionary backlash against the radical politics of the 1960s and ‘70s, growing inequality, the expansion of the police/prison/security state, and the “professionalization” and NGOization of leftwing organizations. Spade does a fine job of showing how many of the largest LGBT organizations have succumbed to these pressures and enticements in their priorities, practices, and structures. More generally, drawing on the insights of Critical Legal Studies, he argues that the top-down law-centered battles prioritized by these organizations do little to improve the lives of the vast majority of LGBT people, marginalize and exclude those not seen as “deserving” of liberal equality, and often serve to perpetuate the same systems that do the most harm to these groups. His description of an effective and inclusive trans movement is equally thorough, especially in that he addresses several of the obstacles radical activists face in the present context (though he could have said more about the organized opposition of powerful countermovements).

One of the most interesting sections of the book argues for a shifting legal focus. Spade suggests that an exclusive focus on reformist efforts to include trans people in marriage, the military, antidiscrimination and hate-crime laws should give way to campaigns that challenge the administrative systems that categorize and shape people’s life chances – healthcare institutions, welfare programs, employment, shelters, addiction “treatment” programs, immigration bureaucracies, prisons, and so on – and their practices of categorization and surveillance. These systems control “access to food, transportation, public safety, public health, and the like.” As such, they’re “the legal systems that distribute security and vulnerability at the population level and sort the population into those whose lives are cultivated and those who are abandoned, imprisoned, or extinguished.”

I was especially intrigued by the discussion of the “War on Terror” and the expansion of the security state and its surveillance apparatus. The security state, as it always has, attempts to shore up traditional categories and to exclude and police anyone whose identity or behavior is seen to threaten them. The ID programs of recent years also, as Spade points out, push in the direction of fixed and stable identities. “The augmentation of US security culture,” including the sharing and cross-referencing of information across agencies, “has raised the level of stability demanded of our identities and has sharpened the tools that heighten the vulnerability of those who are not ‘fully authorized’ in any particular administrative context.”

For trans people, this creates an impossible dilemma, given the widely varying requirements for altering identity documents (when they can be altered at all). More generally, in this sense, the state itself, in its most seemingly prosaic administrative acts, institutionalizes and enforces the practice of bad faith. While “people who find the commonly evoked societal norms used in classification familiar and comfortable tend to take these classification systems as neutral givens in their lives,” “the ubiquity of gender data collection in almost every imaginable government and commercial identity verification system” is necessarily “an area of great concern” for trans people and many others. “The consequences of misclassification or the inability to be fit into the existing classification system,” Spade shows, “are extremely high.”

Also significant was his discussion of the administrative denial of health care needed by trans people. I’ve been arguing that this care is comparable to reproductive care and should be socially and materially supported. But Spade introduces another aspect which also relates to bad faith and the essentializing of identity:
Much of the care provided to nontrans people but routinely denied to trans people by Medicaid programs has the sole purpose of confirming the social gender of nontrans patients. Reconstruction of breasts or testicles lost to cancer, hormone treatment to eliminate hair that is considered gender-inappropriate, chest surgery for gynecomastia, and other treatments are provided solely because of the social consequences and mental health impact faced by people who have physical attributes that do not comport with their self-identity and social gender.
Once again, systems prop up “given” identities while denying some people the possibility of living their identities authentically in practice. The costs to trans people, as Spade describes, are enormous: profound emotional suffering, lack of access to other needed services, vulnerability to illness through unsafe procedures, and vulnerability to harassment and violence. But there are costs to all of us.

I do have some criticisms. For one, this is probably the most repetitive book I’ve ever read. One sentence – about mainstream LGBT organizations’ equality and antidiscrimination campaigns pinkwashing, perpetuating, and even expanding the systems that are destroying the lives of LGBT people – appears in some form or another literally dozens of times. But several sentences and ideas reappear frequently throughout the text. I’m OK with this to a point, but here it’s excessive and leaves less space for other worthwhile information.

For example, I would have loved to have seen more, in the last chapters and the afterword, about grassroots trans organizing for social and economic justice in other countries and about cross-national efforts and solidarities. Spade mentions the role of Palestinian activists in bringing attention to Israeli pinkwashing efforts, but provides no sense of what Palestinian or other Middle Eastern LGBT activists are doing on the ground. Similarly, despite the solid discussion of grassroots movements against immigration enforcement in the US, there’s no mention of, for example, Honduran activists and their struggles against the US-supported coup.

While the section on the history of neoliberalism and the deradicalization of the LGBT movement is strong, I do think it leaves out the role of the AIDS epidemic, which has killed hundreds of thousands of gay men in the US since the 1980s, including many leading activists. You could of course argue that this could have led the movement to become more radical had people made different choices – especially given the continuing crisis - but any such history has to recognize the psychological, emotional, and social toll of that plague, and the impact of a deadly sexually transmitted disease on efforts to organize around sexual liberation. (The women’s and gay health movements, the struggle for reproductive freedom and care, and the psych rights movement are also the precursors of the trans health activism Spade recognizes as so important today. In those cases, too, some organizations and campaigns have been co-opted and “mainstreamed,” but others have remained radical. This history could have been emphasized more, especially given the wide potential for solidarity and coalitions in this area.)

The book is also missing a full discussion of what movements are doing, in practical terms, in the area of administrative systems. Spade makes a solid argument that legal efforts should be focused on these systems, but he doesn’t say enough about what these efforts entail on the ground. In some cases – concerning prison and immigration enforcement, for example – he argues that the ultimate goal is abolition, and the movements he discusses in depth are fighting for the abolition of the system as they support those most trapped in and endangered by it. But in terms of the more immediate struggles – eliminating the various impediments to changing identity documents, fighting for the public provision of trans health care, and so on - he provides less information. There’s one interesting discussion of a grassroots New York campaign, but I wanted more detail.

I recommend this book for anyone concerned with the struggles of trans people, the landscape of LGBT politics in the US, and larger questions about movement priorities and practices and the role of legal struggles in advancing radical goals.

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