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Dean Spade is an Associate Professor at Seattle University School of Law, a founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (a non-profit law collective that provides free legal services to transgender, intersex and gender non-conforming people who are low-income and/or people of color), and currently a fellow in the “Engaging Tradition” project at Columbia Law School. His book Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law was published by South End Press in 2011.

 


 

Natalie Oswin: Normal Life is a wonderfully rich and incredibly clear book that advances what you term a critical trans politics. To give our readers a bit of an introduction to the work, can you briefly rehearse your arguments about the shortcomings of equality approaches and the “limits of law” and talk about their genesis?

Dean Spade: My work is heavily influenced by critiques that many critical intellectual traditions, especially Critical Race Theory, have made of reform projects focused on legal equality. I came of age during a time when legal equality strategies were coming to dominate as the most visible, resourced approaches to transforming the harm and violence faced by queer people. These methods have become so dominant that queer resistance is now synonymous with legal equality frameworks, most commonly identified as marriage law reform, and anti-discrimination laws and hate crime laws that include sexual orientation. Normal Life looks at the current moment in trans politics, understanding that it is often assumed that trans resistance strategies should mimic the lesbian and gay legal rights frameworks that have become so visible in recent decades. I argue that legal equality has failed resistance movements aimed at transforming material conditions of violence, and that trans activists should take a decidedly different approach.

A key insight I use to do this is through the critique that Critical Race Theory offers of discrimination frameworks as ways of understanding and eradicating racism. The focus on “discrimination” as the way to understand racism in the US has meant that racism is considered a question of discriminatory intentions—whether or not somebody intentionally left someone out or did something harmful because of their biased feelings about a person’s race. This focus on individual racists with bad ideas hides the reality that racism exists wherever conditions of racialized maldistribution exist. Law reforms in the US, ostensibly enacted to prohibit racism, have proven ineffective because they focus on bad intentions of individuals and fail to comprehend population-level conditions. Legal doctrine requiring a showing of evidence of racist intent and a narrow chain of causation has made it very difficult to prove in court that a person or group is experiencing racism because the standards are too narrow and too focused on individual intentions. This is part of why civil rights law reforms have not eradicated racism, and why during the period when racism has apparently been prohibited in the US, we’ve seen a growing racial wealth divide and drastically growing apparatuses of state violence targeted at people of color.

These critiques of the discrimination principle, and the analysis of why we have seen material inequality and racist state violence expand in the US during the same period during which we got legal reforms prohibiting racism, are useful for understanding the relationships between certain social movement aims and law reform strategies. I am arguing that it is a mistake for trans activists to focus our resources and attention on winning inclusion in legal equality frameworks, such as anti-discrimination laws and hate crimes laws, that will not provide relief from the life-shortening conditions trans populations are facing. Winning legal equality—getting the law to cast us as victims of discrimination who the state will protect—will not support our survival.  Instead of focusing on what the law says about trans people, which is really what the law is saying about itself as a protector of trans people, we should be focused on what systems of law and administration do to trans people and our interventions should aim to dismantle harmful, violent systems such as criminal punishment and immigration enforcement. Critical Race Theory offers a critique of how law and certain law reform strategies misunderstand the actual operation of life-shortening state violence, and how that has produced a set of reforms that fail to actually transform material conditions of white supremacy. These critiques redirect our attention to the conditions we aim to transform.

Another important piece of this is the way that legal reform strategies tend to conservatize social movements. When social movements engage in legal reform, they often mobilize images of people from their constituent population who most match national norms about what “deserving citizens” are like, and use those people as spokespeople and as lead plaintiffs in legal cases. This strategy requires that people who are experiencing intersectional harm—who are vulnerable through multiple vectors of demonization and marginalization—be further marginalized and disappeared by the advocacy. In the US, this means that legal reform organizations are usually trying to portray their constituents as “hard workers,” as  “not criminals,” as citizens, as part of normative family arrangements, and as conforming to white norms as much as possible. When these strategies are used, the most dangerous conditions and the people who are most vulnerable cannot be discussed or addressed. In fact, demonization and marginalization are enhanced because the reformers take up conservative framings that cast poor people, people on welfare, prisoners, people of color, people with disabilities and immigrants as “undeserving.”

In addition to encouraging us to participate in narratives of “deservingness” that cast large parts of our constituencies as “undeserving,” legal reform strategies encourage us to valorize harmful systems that our movements should be seeking to dismantle. In the US, we have watched a stunning shift from a 1960s and 1970s gay liberation movement that mobilized against police violence to a contemporary highly visible gay and lesbian rights framework that seeks expansion of resources for police and prosecutions through inclusion in hate crime laws (Conrad, 2012). Similarly, we have seen the most well-funded gay and lesbian rights organizations valorize the US military in their work seeking inclusion in military service (Conrad, 2012). The fight to be included in legal marriage, similarly, has meant departing from a rich history of anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-colonial and feminist queer critique of the racialized gender violence of the institution of marriage and a deep investment in valorizing and celebrating marriage as an appropriate institution for distributing immigration status, health care and other essential benefits (Conrad, 2012; Spade and Willse, 2013). When advocates seek inclusion in institutions, they tend to lift up and valorize those institutions, which means ignoring and erasing the violent realities of those institutions. Legal reform advocacy focused on “equality” within these institutions tends to marginalize the perspectives and experiences of those who are targets of these institutions’ violence. When we work to put vulnerable people at the center, we see these institutions very differently and make different strategic choices about how our movements should intervene on them. From the perspective of populations for whom the police are a force of racialized terror, passing legislation to enhance resources to local police does not make sense as a method of increasing safety. When we put criminalized people, undocumented migrants, poor people, people with disabilities, and indigenous people at the center of our analysis, the institutions of the US government look very different, and celebrating them and asking for entrance into them becomes questionable. It is essential to do this because when we do not, we end up producing advocacy that actually participates in and colludes with the perpetuation and expansion of harm for the most vulnerable people.

Legal reform has significant dangers: changing only the window-dressing of harmful systems but leaving the violence of the systems in tact, failing to provide actual relief for those facing the worst conditions, and legitimizing or expanding systems of harm. However, I am not arguing that we should never use legal reform as a tactic.  Instead, I argue that it should not be a goal. We should understand that in the context of the US, where our legal system is based in settler colonialism, capitalism and white supremacy, changing laws will never sufficiently change the conditions of harm and violence our movements seek to transform. Instead, we should interact with legal reform tactically, knowing that it will not meet our ultimate goals but asking whether there are ways that engaging with particular reforms might benefit our work and help reduce certain harms or dangers. When we approach legal reform work, we can ask questions like: Will this provide actual relief to people facing violence or harm or will it primarily be a symbolic change?  Will this divide our constituency by offering relief only to people with certain privileged statuses (such as people with lawful immigration status, people with jobs, married people, etc.)? Will this legitimize or expand systems we are seeking to dismantle? These questions often require complex analysis and do not always have predictable answers, but if our decisionmaking spaces are participatory, horizontally structured and center the leadership of people most impacted by the systems we are discussing, we are likely to produce useful analysis about these questions. Still, we must experiment, fail, and try again, but beginning with a critique of legal reform and a commitment to center the most vulnerable moves us away from some of the most common, obvious pitfalls of neoliberal social movement strategies.

NO: In the book’s introduction, you state that you’ve drawn from critical race theory, women of color feminism, queer theory, and critical disability studies. Indeed, these influences are apparent throughout the text. But your argument also hangs on a deployment of Foucauldian notions of disciplinary power and population management, as laid out in most detail in the third chapter. What was your impetus for putting these diverse framings together? And what tensions and/ or complementarities did you encounter in doing so?

DS: Over the past decade I have watched many friends go through graduate school and write dissertations. Through that process, I have seen how they are guided by mentors to understand particular norms within their disciplines and to learn about what they can and cannot, should and should not say, and which ideas can go together and which cannot. I never went through this process. I went to law school which is a 3-year program in the US that is focused primarily on memorizing certain doctrines and taking exams that test whether you can apply those doctrines to help prepare for the bar exam. If you are lucky, you get a few classes where you are encouraged to think more critically and read critical texts rather than just casebooks, and perhaps write a paper that is not a legal memo or brief. I was lucky enough to be at UCLA in the late 1990’s and get to take a few classes with Critical Race Theory scholars, but for the most part I had very little formal academic training in critical theory compared to my friends who wrote dissertations. Because my graduate academic training at law school was not one that included most of the intellectual traditions I find useful for understanding the conditions and problems that most concern me—anti-colonial theories, Foucault, critical disability studies, prison studies and the like are rarely seen in standard US Law School curricula, where students are still fighting on many campuses to get a single class on race or poverty offered—I developed most of my thinking about these topics through activist reading groups and collaborative writing projects with other activist scholars. For this reason, I think my engagement with these various intellectual traditions is somewhat undisciplined in ways that I imagine may irk some academic readers, and might also be refreshing or useful to some activist or undergraduate readers who want to understand how these various tools and methods emerge from and are engaged by social movements.

In the book, I aim to introduce key concepts from Foucault that I have found particularly useful for understanding the limitations of legal equality reforms and the need for attending to the administration of state violence.  Foucault’s analysis of power as productive rather than repressive, and his description of how populations are produced and sorted, made to live and made to die, has been immensely useful to me. Rather than asking for state declarations forbidding discrimination or violence against trans people, I argue that we should examine how systems that administer life and death—social welfare systems, education systems, health systems, criminal punishment and immigration systems—mobilize racialized gender norms as a central tool of their operations. When we turn our attention there, we move from demanding reforms that reframe these systems as including us while they continue to enact racialized-gendered violence, to developing nuanced strategies that help support people trying to survive these systems and move toward transforming the root conditions that perpetuate their capacity to exert control.

In Normal Life, I tried to translate some of these concepts from Foucault into language that would ideally be readable to audiences both within and outside universities. To me, the critiques that Critical Race Theory offers of the failures of the discrimination principle and the ways that outlawing racial discrimination could happen contemporaneously with expansion of apparatuses of racialized violence (criminalization and immigration enforcement)–the ways that state declarations of racial equality could be coterminous with operations of white supremacy—align with Foucault’s theorizations of power. Reading Foucault has helped me critically engage regimes of practices congealed in state forms that articulate themselves as delivering freedom, are legitimized as consensual or contracted by the governed.  For social movements operating in the context of a strong national narrative that demands that freedom be sought and won through legal recognition, and suggests that legal recognition/regulation and freedom are coterminous (i.e. the “freedom to marry” campaign), Foucault is very useful for making sense of the limits of this approach. At the same time, intellectual traditions emerging from populations that have always been the constitutive other in the development of the properly free citizen—indigenous people, populations labeled physically or mentally unfit, black people, migrants, women, prisoners—have always produced robust critiques of the what Dylan Rodriguez calls “white bourgeois freedom” (Rodríguez, 2007). Those who have never been able to avail themselves of the supposedly universal rights of liberal states—privacy, speech, assembly, bodily autonomy, political participation, property and the like–tend to produce the insightful accounts of the fictive nature of such universalisms.  Similarly, such accounts frequently include sophisticated anti-institutional critiques that examine the root violences that produce key institutions of governance and control and suggest that reforms often merely tinker with such institutions in ways that perpetuate rather than dismantle their capacity for violence.

I wrote Normal Life using concepts that have been helpful to me, and hoping to offer those as accessible tools for thinking differently about the pitfalls trans resistance faces, in particular the temptation to focus on legal equality and the limitations of that approach, and the alternative approaches being taken by racial and economic justice focused trans activists. Perhaps the arguments in the book could have been made without using Foucault, because many of the key critical moves I pick up from Foucault—a critique of rights, a critique of institutionalization, an understanding of violence at the level of population–have counterparts in other intellectual traditions I use. I used the tools that helped me get to these ideas, but I think there are many paths to them. When I teach classes like Poverty Law and Law and Social Movements year after year, as I change the syllabi and experiment with new materials or case studies I often notice how students can gain the capacity to use certain critical methodologies through engaging with very different texts—how a graphic novel about gentrification and an anthology about Hurricane Katrina and a journalistic account of war profiteering might all lead to very similar classroom conversations and critical engagement. I’m particularly interested in this when teaching law students who often resist reading interdisciplinary materials or materials they interpret as too theoretical. I strive to find materials that will engage them, expand their capacities as critical readers and thinkers, and feel immediately relevant to their daily lives and future work in court and social service systems.

NO: Your frequent use of spatial metaphors in Normal Life is striking. For instance, you describe trans lives as particularly precarious because they “do not fit” into gendered administrative systems, you problematize the “narrowing” of the US LGBT movement in recent years, and you argue for a critical trans politics that “de-centers” law reform work. More broadly, the book can be read as sort of space-opening gesture, both for activists and scholars. Is this implicitly geographical thread in the writing an intentional one?

DS: It not intentional—I think it’s just how I think. I see the concepts spatially in my mind. I see the boxes and corrals and grids into which administrative systems require people, things and information to be fit in order to be legible, made to live, or in order to facilitate death and abandonment. I love the Four Pillars of Social Justice Infrastructure framework developed by the Miami Workers Center that I use in the book because its so visual and I find that students and activists who I share it with remember it because they can picture the four pillars. I am often talking about the ideas collected in Normal Life in contexts that are not academic, or that are full of people who are not primarily engaging as theorists or theory-readers. Being able to make ideas visual, especially critical ideas about movements that can be difficult to hear because of attachments we have to certain national narratives, or because of ways that we see ourselves, is especially useful. In recent years I have become more interested in making the critical ideas that I love teaching and talking about available in more forms, because many people prefer to engage with ideas in films, infographics, comics and other forms that are not traditional books or articles. I am working on several projects with collaborators who are visual artists and filmmakers that aim to capture critical ideas in visual forms. One project emerged over a year ago when I was asked to present a manifesto in a show called Gender Talents at the Tate Modern. I knew I would not be able to travel to London at the time of the show so I made a short video manifesto instead, called “Impossibility Now”.  In the video, I narrate some basic themes from my book, and use about 150 still images to illustrate some of the main points. When I was putting it together and trying to find the images, I found some interesting gaps in trying to visualize certain concepts. With two in particular I worked with visual artists to create the images.

One of the concepts I was having trouble illustrating was the concept that administrative systems create narrow categories of gender and force people into them in order to get their basic needs met—what I call “administrative violence.” I had images of forms with gender boxes and ID cards with gender markers, but I also wanted an image that would capture how basic services like shelters are gender segregated. Gender segregated shelters are inaccessible to many trans people, and trans women in particular are often forced to choose between going into a men’s shelter where they face enormous danger, or remaining street homeless and facing the violence, harassment, arrest, and exposure risks of that. It did not make sense to use a photo of a particular women’s or men’s shelter—that would not capture administrative violence I hoped to illustrate by showing how gender norms and categories are enforced in ways that shorten lives. I worked with comic artist Mickey Dehn to create the image below which very simply and effectively illustrates a significant issue that has been a centerpoint of trans advocacy.

 

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In the video I also talk about the dangers of becoming “included” by violent systems—how our critiques of transphobia can be co-opted in ways that lead to the expansion of harmful systems in our names. A classic example of this, which I was having trouble making visual in the film, is the idea that the brutal violence that trans people face in prisons should be addressed by building special jails and prisons for trans people. Of course, people working on the criminalization of trans people and the violence trans people face in prisons are aiming to get trans people out of prisons and to stop prison expansion. In the US, where prison expansion has skyrocketed in recent decades, targeting poor people, people of color, people with disabilities, immigrants and queer and trans people, the last thing we want is for trans movement resistance to be co-opted into a prison-building project. I worked with Talcott Broadhead to create the image below to capture this dilemma for the video.

Making my work more visual is something I am increasingly excited about. I am hopeful that it will broaden access to some of the ideas being engaged in activist and scholarly communities of which I am part.

NO: Though you set up the landscape in which trans politics in the neoliberal US takes place as one that readers might easily recognize as homonormative, you do not explicitly engage with the by now well established literatures on homonormativity or homonationalism. I’m curious, what is your take on these concepts?

 

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DS: I find these concepts very useful.  For years I have used Lisa Duggan’s book Twilight of Equality (2003), Jasbir Puar’s book Terrorist Assemblages (2007), and an article by Morgan Bassichis, Anna Agathangelou and Tamara Spira called “Intimate Investments” (2008) to teach about these concepts in my classes.[5] For many of us thinking about queer and trans politics, these concepts are immensely useful for capturing how gay and lesbian rights strategy has become a site for articulating and shoring up privatization, militarism, nationalism and expanding criminalization regimes. I like these terms, but do not use them in Normal Life, nor in my regular public talks to activists and students about the themes from the book. In general, because my aim is to reach a wide range of activists and scholars and make critical ideas about rights struggles, legal reform, and queer and trans movements available to them to grasp and use, I am thoughtful about introducing terms that tend to be in circulation primarily in academic circles. “Homonormativity” and “homonationalism” are by no means solely academic terms, and in fact circulate in important ways in many activist circles, but in general I find them to be terms that most people I meet are not familiar with. In developing the book and the talks that I use to share it with people, I have deliberated carefully about which of the terms that are unfamiliar to many of my readers I wanted to take time to introduce and explain, and which terms I would not introduce, despite the fact that I find them useful in my other work, in teaching, or in other activist contexts. The concepts indicated by “homonationalism” and “homonormativity” are certainly central to my book, talks and work, but I decided not to introduce those terms. Some other terms that I decided to intentionally introduce that I knew would be new to many readers were “neoliberalism,” “subjection,” and “settler colonialism.” Chapter 1 is almost entirely about describing what “neoliberalism” means to me, which is essential to the book because it lays out how I see contemporary conditions and how that impacts questions of movement strategy. I felt it was essential to use this term because of how central it is to my own thinking and because, from what I have noticed, while this term is unfamiliar to many US activists and often seems “academic” to many, in much of the rest of the world it is an essential activist term. Bridging that divide is important for helping US activists become more engaged with activists facing connected and related conditions around the world, particularly because many social movements elsewhere are more developed in resisting neoliberalism and could provide enormous practical inspiration and models for US activists. I felt the term was essential to the conversation I am trying to have, and to the movements I am interested in discussing and being part of developing. I was aware that many readers would want the term explained, and that increased familiarity with this particular term could be beneficial for other reading and exploration.

I chose to use “subjection” in the book rather than the more common activist term “oppression” for talking about how systems of meaning and control operate to support the life of some populations and extinguish that of others.  “Oppression” or “systems of oppression” operate as a shorthand terms in much writing and speaking so that we do not have to list all these systems of meaning and control each time (i.e. racism, ableism, xenophobia, etc.). I needed a term like that, but “oppression” implies a kind of top-down understanding of power that is at odds with the Foucaultian model I rely on in my work. “Subjection” suggests a more complex set of relationships, where we are constituted as subjects by these systems, engage in resistance within these systems, manage and are managed within these systems, and can have moments of seeing and exploiting the cracks and edges of these systems. I chose to introduce this term, despite its unfamiliarity in most activist realms I am part of, because I felt its intervention was a necessary part of my argument about how power works, the role of law reform, and the strategies of contemporary movements.

“Settler colonialism” is a term I believe I inadequately explained in the text of the book, and I have subsequently taken more time to define and contextualize it in recent public talks about the book. I have found that people attending my talks are less familiar with the term than I expected, and more generally that many people who are drawn to work about racism and transphobia may be new to thinking deeply about colonialism and indigenous resistance in their North America. Seeing this increasingly in my travels with the book, I have been working to center an anti-colonial analysis in my talks and to use Patrick Wolfe’s description of settler colonialism as a tool for helping initiate discussion about how colonialism is a foundational condition that all US resistance movements must contend with, the consequences of failing to do so, and the ways that non-indigenous social movement actors are encouraged and pushed to frame struggles in ways that shore up and support land theft and genocide in North America rather than contesting it and working in solidarity with indigenous people.

These decisions about what terms to introduce in the text are, of course, very subjective and based on my own experiences of and projections about the people engaging with my work. It is not possible to make a truly accessible text—every choice we make in the writing process opens the text to some and closes it to others, often without our awareness. My best guesses and speculations about what terms to use, which terms to take time to explain and which to assume were legible to my intended readership are no doubt misses for many.

NO: Your argument for the need to resist cooptation and incorporation is clearly a deeply held personal conviction, as demonstrated through your activist efforts with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and other organizations and your commitment to disseminating critical thought through zines and other alternative formats. Yet, as a result of the efforts of you and others, trans issues are gaining much more attention within scholarly and activist communities. Indeed the new journal Transgender Studies Quarterly will publish its first issue in 2014. Can you reflect on the pleasures and pitfalls of institutionalization?

DS: The last fifteen years have seen very significant change in this regard—increasing media representation of trans people, the consolidation of the term “transgender” in new ways, a growing set of local and state hate crime and anti-discrimination laws and policies that include “gender identity/expression,” the founding of several trans advocacy organizations with non-profit status (including SRLP), and the beginning of the institutionalization of trans studies. In many ways, being part of these changes has been about battling what this institutionalization will mean, and those battles are still in full swing. There are sharply different, competing models of what trans advocacy looks like—those that seek to follow the path laid out by the most visible and well-funded lesbian and gay rights organizations in the US and those that seek to use grassroots strategies, center issues of race and poverty, and aim to dismantle harmful institutions and conditions to redistribute life chances. Clearly, choosing an agenda that supports the apparatuses of racial violence always pays better. Last year, the largest grant ever given to do trans advocacy work of any kind was given to the Palm Center to pursue work about trans inclusion in US military service.  Military inclusion has never been a central demand from trans populations, who consistently name criminalization, immigration enforcement, poverty and joblessness as top priorities. However, an individual wealthy person with a foundation dedicated to celebrating the US military made this donation that will significantly impact discourse about trans issues in the US for years to come. As trans advocacy has institutionalized and developed, the context of the undemocratic nature of US non-profits and the ways that white, wealthy individuals can intensely influence the directions of advocacy have increasingly come to the surface for trans activists. Trans activism in the US has most frequently been grassroots, centered on poverty and criminalization, and often oppositional to the exclusionary “mainstreaming” threads in gay and lesbian politics and feminist politics. However, a trans rights formation that mimics the models and strategies of the lesbian and gay rights framework is growing, and there are many significant strategy disagreements between those building that work and those doing racial and economic justice centered trans work.  These disagreements have been visible in the debate over whether hate crime laws should be sought or are a harmful expansion of criminalization regimes, over whether trans military service should be sought or whether such a campaign valorizes and legitimizes the US military, and over whether the goal of trans interventions on criminal punishment systems should be getting trans people included (as cops, corrections officers, prosecutors, etc.) or whether the goal is to dismantle systems that target trans people for criminalization.

These dilemmas are also happening in the realm of media representation. More conservative advocacy work often encourages portrayals of trans people as people who deserve rights. Deservingness, of course, corresponds to national racial, gender and ability norms. One particular debate that I have seen play out again and again is whether trans people who have more traditional gender expressions or who “pass” more should be the ones who are represented. A recent advocacy guide focused on advocating around trans health care access produced by the largest trans advocacy organization in the US instructs readers that advocacy will be more successful if the message is delivered by people who pass as non-trans men and women.

These questions about institutionalization are, of course, very familiar from other movements and moments. Right now we are witnessing very fundamental debates about what terms and concepts about trans people and politics will circulate and where, who will determine what trans politics and trans studies are, what projects and demands will come to be understood as the center of trans advocacy or inquiry, and what relationships trans knowledges and subjects will be understood to have with other populations resisting state violence. I have been very interested in the discussions and debates about the role of non-profitization in feminist anti-violence movements over the last decade that help us think about the day-to-day development of institutionalization and the specific forms and norms that come to shape resistance work as it is institutionalized (see INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (ed) 2007). I am also interested in recent scholarly work examining the emergence of women’s studies and ethnic studies departments and the development of the neoliberal university (see Ferguson, 2012). I find myself hungry for these conversations to help think through the particular debates and controversies I have been involved in about the institutionalization of trans advocacy and trans studies.

NO: To close, can you tell us a bit about where your work – both scholarly and activist – is heading now?

DS: These days I am still active with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. SRLP is involved in representing hundreds of trans people facing severe state violence and is also doing very exciting organizing work and policy work to address conditions in welfare, Medicaid and foster care programs and in immigration enforcement and criminal punishment systems. I am continually inspired by SRLP’s work and especially by the way that the collective operates. There is a combination of big transformative vision and daily practical problem-solving and mutual support in SRLP that astounds me. It feels like every person is using their whole brain and heart to figure out these nearly impossible dilemmas about how we do our work, with our principles, in the current conditions. And it feels like the thing we know to be true about working collectively—that we have better ideas together than we do individually—is manifested in SRLP in a way that is unlike any other group I have been part of. Conditions are worsening for the work, with major allied organizations like Queers for Economic Justice and Young Women’s Empowerment Project closing their doors in the last year and SRLP clients and collective members facing increasing precarity on many levels. There is a constant waiting list for services at SRLP, and we can only afford to employ three attorneys to meet the enormous need. At the same time, the work presses on, sometimes with moments of celebration (like CeCe McDonald’s recent release from prison!), and with big imagination.

I am also closely involved with two local activist groups in Seattle (my long-term job is in Seattle and I am splitting time between Seattle and New York these days while I have a fellowship at Columbia).  Washington Incarceration Stops Here is a group that emerged in 2012. It is an unstaffed, grassroots organization focused on prison abolition, and its current campaign focuses on stopping King County’s plans to build a $210 million new youth jail and court buildings. It is a challenging campaign because the local juvenile justice reformers, especially a set of judges who are seen as progressive reformers, have promoted a strong message that the new jail is good for youth and families. It is branded a “Youth and Family Justice Center” and will be funded by a tax levy that passed in August 2012 after it was misleadingly framed as supporting social services for youth and families. This framing has been so successful that local organizations that have stood up against jail-building projects in the past (and in fact formed a coalition to defeat a new adult jail in 2008) are keeping silent about this project. WISH is working hard to build awareness about the project, and counter the message that jails and courts are good for youth. We are working on a postcard campaign, a points of unity sign-on for organizations, a neighborhood flyering project, some short films and we do a regular noise demo outside the current youth jail to support the youth inside and communicate with them through the walls.

 

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The other organization I am closely involved with in Seattle is Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA). This group started in Seattle in January 2013, although other QuAIA chapters exist in Vancouver, Toronto and NYC that have been active for longer. QuAIA Seattle emerged after a controversy in March 2012 that happened when an Israeli Consulate-sponsored pinkwashing tour came through the Northwest. The organizations coordinating the tour, A Wider Bridge and Stand With Us, organized many events in the region, including an event with the Seattle LGBT Commission, a volunteer commission that is part of the City government. Palestine solidarity activists opposed these events, drew attention to the fact that they were Consulate sponsored propaganda events and to the harmful pinkwashing framing that the sponsoring organizations engage in, and many events in the region were canceled. The LGBT Commission was one of the groups that canceled its event, which led to a major Zionist backlash. There was a storm of media coverage in the US and in Israel. Ultimately, a committee of the City Council held a hearing, the Commission apologized, and seven organizations that serve queer and trans people in Seattle co-wrote a very disturbing letter calling for the Commission to be audited. In the aftermath, local activists have continued trying to build awareness about these events and address some of the harms that came from the backlash. In December 2012, I attended the World Social Forum: Free Palestine! as part of a Queer Visions delegation alongside another activist from Seattle who was closely involved in the March 2012 controversy. Our time at the WSF with other anti-pinkwashing activists from Canada, Holland, Palestine, Germany, Lebanon, the UK, and New York helped clarify the value of having a QuAIA chapter in Seattle. When we returned to Seattle we worked with other anti-pinkwashing activists to start the chapter. The organization’s work has been focused on public education, relationship building with other progressive and queer organizations, and responding to the organizations that signed on to the letter calling for an audit of the Commission.

I am working on a few film projects right now. I am making a short documentary about the March 2012 pinkwashing controversy in Seattle. Hopefully, the film will be a useful tool for local activists organizing against similar tours in other places, and for people building awareness and understanding about what pinkwashing is and how it works. I am also making a series of short films with Hope Dector from the Barnard Center for Research on Women about various themes related to the nonprofitization of queer, trans and HIV-focused resistance work. In October 2013 I co-hosted a conference at Columbia called Queer Dreams and Non-Profit Blues on these themes, and Hope and I interviewed about 30 of the presenters in order to create a bunch of short films on key themes. I am excited that these films might be useful to activist groups and in classrooms, perhaps alongside the excellent writing on this topic in the INCITE! anthologies and elsewhere.

In terms of my writing, I am excited to have an article coming out next year in the Scholar and the Feminist Online co-written with Dr. Rori Rolfs, a genomic scientist. The article looks at the eugenics origins of statistical methods, and examines the recent proliferation of empirical studies about LGBT populations, primarily created as advocacy tools for legal equality projects. In the article, we look at the ways that legal equality advocacy mobilizes norms and discourses central to racialized ideas about the nation, and how the project of producing statistical data aligns with and supports that advocacy. I am also involved with a group of scholars and advocates working on a federal policy document about the criminalization of LGBT people and people with HIV. It is a rather complex process stemming from a convening of about 50 organizations that we hosted at Columbia in May 2013. We are hoping to publish that document in May 2014.

 

References:

Agathangelou A, M Bassichis, and T Spira 2008 Intimate investments: Homonormativity, global lockdown and seductions of empire. Radical History Review 100: 120-143.

Conrad R (ed) (2012) Against Equality: Prisons Will Not Protect You. Lewiston, ME: Against Equality.

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Natalie Oswin is Associate Professor of Geography at McGill University. She is Managing Editor of Society and Space.