Critical Trans Politics and Transformative Social Change

Seattle University Assistant Professor of Law Dean Spade was interviewed in this month’s issue of Guernica.  Spade is the first openly transgendered tenure-track law professor in the U.S.  and the founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a non-profit agency which provides free legal services to low-income transgender and gender non-conforming people and advocates for policy reform to eliminate gender expression-based discrimination and violence.

The average life span of a transgendered person is 23 years, a shocking demographic that should make every LGBT advocate sit up and pay attention. Trans individuals face daily discrimination, threats of violence, homelessness, and poverty, and are disproportionately incarcerated.  They face anti-trans discrimination at school and in the workplace.

While law reform may be a method to bring social awareness to an issue, Spade argues that it is merely a “tool to address certain needs for certain communities,” but is not the answer to solving all social issues.  He believes that changing the law does not always change  people’s lives because anti-discrimination laws are often not enforced or implemented and vulnerable populations may not see change. Sometimes vulnerable people may actually be marginalized further through law reform.  He provides an example:

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.

Spade goes on to discuss what he calls critical trans-politics.  He argues that while non-trans gay and lesbian individuals face marginalization and discrimination, there are specific issues that are unique to transgendered individuals.  For example, he says

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.

Critical trans-politics moves away from gay and lesbian politics and focuses on racial and economic justice analysis in conjunction with gender identity.  It calls for broad social movements led by people directly impacted by the issues, rather than legal reform for social change.  The movements, Spade argues, must focus on changing people’s lives by advocating for “good housing, healthcare, education, and all those things that you actually need to live well and thrive.”

His work does not merely focus on transgender rights but includes a collective approach geared towards economic, racial, and gender issues.  Spade’s interview focused on a lack of equality within the U.S. and the need for social transformation.

Help end this kind of discrimination by educating yourself and your community about racism, ableism, transphobia, and sexism. Learn more here about non-discrimination laws that include gender identity and expression.

About womenslawproject

The Women's Law Project creates a more just and equitable society by advancing the rights and status of all women throughout their lives. To this end, we engage in high-impact litigation, advocacy, and education.
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