Four Burning Questions for Dean Spade, professor, lawyer, civil rights activist

Posted on Monday, April 8, 2013

Dean Spade, lawyer, civil rights activist, and Associate Professor at Seattle University School of Law, will be one of three panelists at the event Radical Formations: Sex, Race, Trans on Friday, April 12. / Photo courtesy of Dean Spade.

By McGill Reporter Staff

Dean Spade is a lawyer, civil rights activist, and Associate Professor at Seattle University School of Law, where he teaches Administrative Law, Poverty Law, and Law and Social Movements. Before joining the faculty at Seattle, he taught classes related to sexual orientation, gender identity, and law and social movements at UCLA Law School and Harvard Law School as a Williams Institute Law Teaching Fellow. In 2002, Spade founded 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, people of color, or both. His book Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law was published in 2011.

Spade will be one of three panelists at the event Radical Formations: Sex, Race, Trans on Friday, April 12, 4-5:30 pm in the McIntyre Medical Building, Room 522 (reception to follow). The panel is presented by Professor Robert Leckey, William Dawson Scholar in the Faculty of Law, and the Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Gender Studies. For more information or to register, please go here.

This year it’s ten years since same-sex marriage was first possible in Canada and the US Supreme Court will soon rule on the question. What is so troublesome about the push for same-sex marriage?

The same-sex marriage agenda in the U.S. has been heavily critiqued by a wide variety of queer and trans activists because it fails to meaningfully address the key material problems facing queer and trans people, such as criminalization, immigration enforcement, poverty, health care access and homelessness, while it consumes enormous resources. It also has been a conservative shift in queer and trans politics, which has moved away from feminist and anti-racist critiques of marriage as a terrible and unfair way to distribute life chances and toward a conservative celebration of marriage as key to healthy families. This has happened alongside a right wing push in the U.S. to blame poverty on people’s failure to marry and to further cut poverty alleviation programs. In the U.S., after same-sex marriage is legal, queer and trans people will still face the same problems of a racist and violent growing immigration enforcement system, a growing wealth divide, and racist mass imprisonment. Some people who have immigration status or wealth to share with a partner will benefit, but the queer and trans people in the worst situations will still be facing the same dangers.


You’ve expressed serious concerns about trans people’s push for formal legal equality, such as their inclusion in protection from hate crime. What’s wrong with that goal?

Hate crime laws that provide more resources to law enforcement and/or enhance criminal penalties have been critiqued by many trans organizations and activists because they do nothing to prevent attacks against trans people but they expand the criminal punishment system which is the most significant source of violence against trans people in the U.S. They build that system in our names, and that system has been growing rapidly for several decades, such that now the US is the most imprisoning country in the world, with five per cent of the world’s population and 25 per cent of the world’s prisoners. A trans movement that is really about reducing harm and violence to trans people has to be an anti-criminalization movement, and a movement that doesn’t just try to get the law to say something our lives are meaningful, but instead seeks to dismantle legal systems that are killing us.

In your organizing and activism, you follow a different approach. Tell us about that. 

I’m part of trans activism and organizing that centers poverty and racism. This work aims to analyze what is actually shortening trans people’s lives and work on changing those material conditions, so it centers trans people experiencing imprisonment, poverty, immigration enforcement and other life and death issues. It seeks to provide immediate support to people in those conditions, to dismantle systems that create those dangers, and to build systems and ways of being together that actually give people what they need.

What would be a major victory or advance for you on the path towards greater justice for trans people?

I’ll name a few of the things people in the US are working on that would be a significant benefit to trans people’s well-being: decriminalizing prostitution, stopping federal programs where local police forces turn immigrants they arrest over to the immigration authorities, ending exclusion of trans health care from health insurance programs, getting rid of surgery requirements for changing gender on ID, decriminalizing drugs, ending “3 strikes” laws, getting rid of sex offender registries. These are all vitally important efforts to address the violence trans people are facing, and they are part of broader trans political visions of a world without prisons, border, or poverty.

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Category: Four Burning Questions

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