It‚Äôs not hate crimes that are threatening trans survival. It‚Äôs governmental bureaucracies. So argues attorney Dean Spade, who founded the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP) in 2002 to provide free legal services to low-income and minority individuals facing gender discrimination. He also authors numerous papers and essays for anthologies like Transgender Rights; he co-edits makezine.org and has teaches at such prestigious institutions as Harvard, Columbia and UCLA.
While hate crimes grab headlines, Spade argues, ‚Äúwe‚Äôre experiencing more violence at the hands of state than ‚Ä¶individuals.‚ÄĚ He worries that focusing on hate crime laws puts ‚Äúmore power in the hand of the police state.‚ÄĚ Administrative laws, Spade says‚ÄĒlike those that impact sex segregation policies in prisons, foster care and shelters‚ÄĒpresent the greatest threat to trans individuals; so it‚Äôs critical to ‚Äúfocus our energies on state and local reforms of policies in our own communities that are killing trans people.‚ÄĚ
In order to further make SRLP () an organization governed by a collective with leadership in the hands of trans people of color, Space resigned from his paid leadership position last year. While he remains part of the SRLP collective, he‚Äôs currently working a two-year collaborative fellowship, teaching at UCLA and Harvard law schools.
As a child Spade says his family struggled with poverty and he spent time in the foster care system, experiences that impacted his anti-poverty activism. In the mid-90s, Spade says he was disappointed that gay organizations expressed little interest in welfare reform. ‚ÄúThey just didn‚Äôt see it as their issue,‚ÄĚ Spade recollects. ‚ÄúThat was really a period of disillusionment for me, with mainstream gay politics. A lot of us [LGBT people] end up poor or start out poor. So it‚Äôs really inappropriate that we would forget those people.‚ÄĚ
When a staff member at a gay bar recently harassed Spade for using the men‚Äôs restroom, it was an unpleasant reminder of his 2002 arrest for using a men‚Äôs room at Grand Central Station. After his arrest, Spade was held for 23 hours‚ÄĒand slammed on trans listservs.¬† ‚ÄúPeople were pissed that I was representing myself in public as trans and wasn‚Äôt passing. I remember trying to ‚Äėbutch it up‚Äô in community spaces where I might come under fire.‚ÄĚ
Once an attorney at Social Security disability hearings, Spade argues, ‚ÄúThat whole culture is completely focused on the idea that nobody should need benefits unless there‚Äôs something wrong with them, unless they are morally blameworthy.‚ÄĚ Convinced that Social Security is not administered with concern for the disabled, Spade says, ‚ÄúIt is literally about killing people. That‚Äôs what I truly believe. There‚Äôs no other understanding of it once you‚Äôve been in it.‚ÄĚ
These days the trans lawyer is also concerned about the medical institutions influence over trans rights.¬† ‚ÄúThe medical establishment interacts with us in a way that‚Äôs a very regulated. [It] limits what kinds of trans people they want to recognize, [and] it‚Äôs focused on gender normativity and‚Ä¶typical tropes of trans identity.‚ÄĚ
That, he says, is totally inappropriate. ‚ÄúWe don‚Äôt ask non-trans people to show their penis or vaginas before they can get a drivers license. We don‚Äôt ask them to explain how they felt about their gender when they were five. We confirm non-transgender people‚Äôs genders all the time without any hyper-binaryistic standards.‚ÄĚ
Eager to build political coalitions, Spade is currently building bridges between trans rights and reproductive rights organizations. He sees parallels in ‚Äúuse access‚ÄĚ issues of youth accessing healthcare, where the question is, ‚ÄúCan young people understand their own gender stigmatized healthcare?‚ÄĚ
To those who argue, ‚ÄúTrans people are the ultimate gender defenders. They‚Äôre being so un-radical‚Ä¶changing into men and women [instead of] articulating something else;‚ÄĚ Spade replies, ‚ÄúWhy [should] trans people have any more responsibility for tearing down the gender system than non-trans people? Nobody should be punished for not fulfilling sexist expectations of gender.‚ÄĚ
Blind Curves, the first Blind Eye mystery co-authored by trans writer Jacob Anderson-Minshall, is available through www.bellabooks.com.