Trans Activist Dean Spade Speaks about Visibility
Issue   |   Wed, 10/19/2016 - 00:00

Professor, lawyer and activist Dean Spade gave a talk titled “Can We Survive Mainstreaming? On the New Visibilities and Invisibilities of Trans Politics” in the Powerhouse on Thursday, Oct. 13. The talk was open to the public and the Powerhouse was near capacity..

During the hour-long talk, Spade evaluated different reform movements for increasing justice in a time of changing attitudes about queer and trans people and answered questions from the audience.

Spade opened by acknowledging “that we are on stolen land.”

“From my research, [the land] we are on is the Pocomtuc, Wampanoag, Nipmuc land,” Spade said. “The U.S. is a settler and colonial country that put the indigenous people away to make a new world only for European Americans. I think it is really helpful to think about trans people in those institutions.”

When Spade was an associate professor of law at Seattle University School of Law, he founded the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which provides free legal services to low-income people who identify as transgender, intersex or gender non-conforming. Spade also wrote the book “Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law” and directed the documentary “Pinkwashing Exposed: Seattle Fights Back” about a queer community controversy.

Pinkwashing, according to Spade, is “wrapping the police force in a rainbow flag to say it is progressive but hide what it really does.” He discussed a sticker campaign in Seattle that indicates a certain business will call the police if someone is attacked as an example of pinkwashing.

“The sticker campaign is really about ‘the police department is good,’” Spade said. “It doesn’t change what will always happen when you call the cops. All the same dangers that persistently exist about the violent police are still there, but now they have a sticker with a rainbow flag on it.”

Spade also spoke about how mainstream trans people have lead to greater trans visibility but only conditional acceptance.

“Many people have the mindset that only if you look like Caitlyn Jenner, you can be a trans person and be tolerated,” Spade said. “For example, the homeless and people of color are not included in this mode of thinking. Harm and violence might worsen for the vulnerable. Sometimes recuperative reform proposals only offer crumbs to the elite.”

Some of the pitfalls of reform, Spade said, are useless discrimination laws which provide little to deter violence, relief only to the least marginalized, failure to resolve root causes of discrimination and division of groups into the deserving and undeserving.

“Institutions say, ‘Don’t worry, we got this,’ and then provide us with inadequate systems,” he said. “People say we are equal and then think we become equal. They think they’re less homophobic and racist than before, but they don’t change the conditions.”

Climate matters, Spade said, calling the audience to address the issues discussed to create a safe environment that is rooted in solidarity where no one is disposable.

“If we create a social environment, we can address the problem and dismantle some existing systems,” Spade said.
Marvin Bell ’19, a program coordinator for the Queer Resource Center, attended the talk and said that he believes it is important to raise awareness about trans issues and politics, especially at Amherst.

“We’re a really diverse campus with a lot of personal identities and some need to be seen more because they haven’t had that privilege,” Bell said. “Trans people aren’t as visible. I don’t see that many people moving towards that community like other marginalized groups.”

Romona Celis ’19, also a program coordinator at the Queer Resource Center, introduced Spade and help coordinate the event.

“Everyone around me, myself included, was very energized and charged up coming out of the talk,” Celis said. “It’s always nice to hear people talking about these huge systems of oppression and how they specifically relate to trans people. As a trans person, it’s always good to be reminded people are putting up a good fight.”