On January 31st, Dean Spade gave a lecture to a standing-room only crowd of over 200 people in Bodek Lounge, Houston Hall on “Critical Trans Politics, Violence, and Law”. Dean Spade is Associate Professor of Law at Seattle University School of Law. Spade has taught classes on sexual orientation, gender identity, poverty and law at the City University of New York (CUNY), Seattle University, Columbia University, and Harvard University. In 2002 he founded the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a collective that provides free legal services and works to build trans resistance rooted in racial and economic justice. Spade is the author of Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law (South End Press, 2011).
During his presentation at Penn, Spade brought to light issues of using the legal system as a catalyst for social change. While many people who have not been involved in grassroots activism believe legal action is the best way to remedy social injustice, Spade argues that we must be critical of formal state bodies and the legal system since they in fact hinder social progress and equality. The very institutions that claim to serve or liberate those who face the most injustice in reality only perpetuate those injustices. As Spade claims, legal “reforms” are only “new window dressings” for the same broken and ineffective systems. People who are rendered the most vulnerable through systematic and institutionalized discrimination have been forced to become skeptical of those state bodies that beat, kill, surveil, sexually assault, and incarcerate them in order to "protect" and "serve" their communities. Instead of legal action, Mr. Spade argues that we must engage in grassroots activism to help the trans, gender-queer, intersex, and gender non-conforming communities gain equality. While it may be “easy” to compare the trans political movement to the women’s movement, black civil rights movement, or even the marriage equality movement, each are in fact unique and face their own challenges. However, all movements share the commonality that judicial action alone will not bring about the change we need. We must take action to dismantle the current ineffective system and build an alternative, horizontal (rather than hierarchical) system in order to truly achieve justice and equality for those who face discrimination. At the end of his presentation, Dean Spade shared an uplifting video he is in the process of finalizing and this video showcases the alternative action that people involved in critical trans politics are engaging in to combat oppression and discrimination.
Written by: Sheila Shankar, GSWS Media Outreach Coordinator