Transformative Change

Dean Spade

Guernica interviews Dean Spade, the first openly trans law professor, about his activism and work with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. It’s a must-read, but the lead particularly caught my eye: The average life span of a transgendered person is twenty-three years.

The whole interview is amazing, and do read it. A sample:

A lot of my writing is about trying to understand what role legal work has in strategies for transformative social change. Part of the reason that question is so important right now is that there has been widescale attacks on social movements over the last thirty or forty years in response to the very meaningful social movements in the sixties and seventies that had very transformative demands, that were seeking a redistribution of wealth and of life chances in really significant ways. What’s emerged in their place is a very thin national narrative about social change that often centers on the law and often says that groups that are marginalized or experiencing subjugation of various kinds should just win lawsuits and pass laws to change their lives.

But the hard thing is that few lawsuits actually have those effects. On one hand, a lot of laws are not enforced or never implemented. For example, in a lot of places it’s illegal to fire or not hire someone for being trans, but that happens every single day. Very little can be done about that in the current framework. The systemic homelessness and poverty many trans people face doesn’t seem to be sufficiently addressed by passing a law that says we shouldn’t discriminate against trans people. 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. Often people who the law says should have equal chances at jobs still don’t have equal chances at jobs, and they’re still on the losing side of the severe wealth divide in the U.S. So how can we start to strategize for social movements that don’t believe the myth that changing the law is the key way to change people’s lives?

Another thing is that at times what law reform does do is put a window dressing of fairness on systems that are deeply unfair. Maybe some of the people, the most enfranchised in a particular group, will be somewhat better off through law reforms, because they have a lot of other kinds of wealth or privilege in terms of the overall system. Oftentimes, in that way law reform stabilizes a status quo; it stabilizes the existing field of maldistribution. Those people who are worst off really don’t see a lot of change, or may be further marginalized.

A lot of us are trying to look at what has really been powerful in the history of the U.S. in terms of changing people’s lives, and that’s been broad social movements led by people directly impacted by the issues. They often have demands that far exceed what the law could ever give, demands that are not going to be passed by Congress or won in courts. Those demands actually confront the things that America is based on, like white supremacy or settler colonialism. The law can be a useful tool to address certain needs for certain communities, but it’s nowhere near a silver bullet that will make people equal. That mythology is the part of the mythology of our nation, a mythology that people are often not willing to question if they are benefiting from existing conditions of maldistribution.

15 comments for “Transformative Change

  1. March 16, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    The veracity of that 23 years statistic has been challenged by trans activists (in the case of that link, by Helen at Questioning Transphobia).

    My guess is that the original “stat” is almost certainly related to sampling bias – the people most likely to be counted in institutional registers such as crime reports and medical reports are people who are at heightened risk of violence and death. Yes, this includes trans people, but it’s confounded with race and poverty as well, among other things. Not to minimize the issues faced by trans people, and especially not by trans people experiencing multiple facets of oppression, but bad stats are bad stats.

  2. March 16, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    This “lifespan” statement is absurd. No one even knows how many trans people there are much less what the average lifespan is. What we do know is that trans people who were assigned female at birth have extremely few incidents of fatal transphobic violence against them (I know of only one in the past 5 years, and that was by his long-time partner and was more a crime of passion than a transphobic attack). There is relatively little fatal violence against white trans people (although it certainly does happen a few times a year). Overwhelmingly, most of the fatal violence against trans people is against young trans women of color. A very important group in our community but hardly a majority which would skew the lifespan so low. Moreover, a large portion of the transgender community are heterosexual crossdressers… there are relatively few incidents of violence against them.

    This reminds me of when the SF Bay Guardian Newspaper printed an article about trans people and pull-quoted the dubious stat that “2/3rds of all trans people had been in jail.” Even though they very clearly misquoted the study this stat was taken from (which was talking about a very narrow population of trans sex workers living in a rough area) they refused to retract or clarify it and I’ve seen it repeatedly quoted and linked to. Misstatements of fact, whatever their intention, do nothing positive for our community. And when they’re published on the Internet, they’re repeated ad infinitum with little thought or comment.

  3. RD
    March 16, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    Hm. I agree law reforms are not a magic bullet. But there are certain law reforms that would make a huge difference in the lives of sex workers (and others): repealing laws against prostitution, laws against loitering “with intent,” changing our laws around migration/immigration, ending drug prohibition, repealing “quality of life” laws that criminalize poverty, equal access to services, and yes even antidiscrimination laws (especially around housing, etc.). But there are other things needed that working on legislation wouldn’t fix: stigma, the attitude that sex workers can’t be raped (actual quote from an actual police officer- “if its ok Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, what makes it not ok Thursday?”), more and better (non-shaming, voluntary) services, etc.

  4. RD
    March 16, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    This is kinda covered under “equal access to services” but definitely better access to care for trans people. And not just getting rid of sex worker stigma (which is so important) but also transphobia, stigma against poverty, racism, sexism, ALL the “isms,” etc.

  5. March 16, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    It’s fine to say that legal change cannot be the whole solution, but legal improvements are still improvements, and worth fighting for. First, the law *feels* like a marker of cultural attitudes (even if it doesn’t always *actually* represent them) which means that people subtly shift their own attitudes to comply with it. Ending transphobic laws actually helps reduce transphobia, in the complicated and gradual way that all social attitude change happens. Second, the direct benefits of legal changes may not be distributed equally amongst disadvantaged populations, but that is true of *all* benefits of *all* social change. It’s a reason to try to increase access to legal protections, not to abandon the law as a source of change entirely.

  6. March 17, 2011 at 10:27 am


    And your point for including that link is…?

  7. March 17, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    The argument that Dean Spade and others working in trans formative law circles I think has more implications for social movement perceptions then it does for legal reform. It is not such much that the argument that the law is not a magic bullet (which is certainly the case), but that the law is quite constrained when it comes to, not only enforcing the laws, but when it comes to shifting attitudes of people which translate to discrimination felt in the everyday lives of people. These criticisms do not preclude the law, but may shift the focus of social movements away from just a legal strategy. For example, I’m thinking that the HRC and others focus on “same-sex” marriage leaves out so many people who don’t feel the desire to be part of that institution and may find it deeply problematic and question the institution as a whole and resist assimilation into it or who because of their economic standing would not benefit from marriage in the same way those arguing for it would (which are mostly white middle class people).

    The example of HRC is particularly apt, as they often make claims to representing the LGBTQI community as a monolithic whole. This in effect silences other marginalized voices, a double marginalization of sorts. The criticism Spade puts forth recognizes those divisions and exclusions that have come from the sharp focus on legal reform, which in any case is often unenforced and the power the courts have to guide sweeping social reform is questionable and ignores forms of direct action which aim to be transformative rather then reformative.

    For me, this is not a one or the other, but it is also not necessarily a one needs the other (but they can). It is more that there is not one path to change (and only one “positive” change) and they may have different goals and speak for different people (and intersections of people) which need to be recognized when discussing “a” social movement. By working in queer and transformative justice, circles I’ve been confronted with these tensions with mainstream groups like HRC firsthand. Often it feels like we don’t even speak the same language. The law can be transformative to be sure, but that is not the same thing as saying that it always is and that in fact it can be oppressive to many by propagating a narrative that when these agreed on laws are changed and the “American dream” attained, we’ll have nothing to complain about, so we need to sit down and shut up (an attitude I and others have felt).

  8. Jennifer
    March 19, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    Really interesting read–thanks!

  9. March 20, 2011 at 7:53 am

    I don’t think he’s saying that law reforms are pointless; clearly they’re not. But law reforms in and of themselves do not change the horrible amounts of discrimination and death (by murder, by lack of health care, by poverty…) that trans people — especially trans WoC — face on a daily basis. It’s not enough to push for law reform, you have to actively fight discrimination.

  10. Tawny
    March 21, 2011 at 9:40 am

    This was one of my favorite things posted to Feministe in awhile. I love Spade.

    This also really got me thinking about my plans for law school in the fall, and what I could be doing to seriously create change in my community.

    I had never considered the idea that law might not always be the answer, as silly as that makes me sound.

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