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Dean Spade Launches New Book 'Normal Life' In Montreal

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Dean Spade Launches New Book 'Normal Life' In Montreal

MONTREAL - Dean Spade, Assistant Professor at Seattle University of Law, teaching Administrative Law, Poverty Law, Law and Social Movements and Critical Perspectives on Transgender Law, spoke to a packed Cafe Artère Friday, February 17. The crowd had gathered for the launch of Spade's new book, Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law.

The launch was the closing event of Social Justice Days, an annual event series organized by QPIRG McGill with the Student Society of McGill University (SSMU) that aims to "stimulate an alternative political culture in the McGill community.... The series featured a variety of workshops and film screenings taking up issues surrounding anti-racism, solidarity work, and incorporating art [into] activism," explained co-ordinator Zina Mustafa.

During this two-hour event, Spade spoke to the audience about his work as Staff Attorney at the Sylvia Riviera Law Project*, making crucial links between the prison-industrial complex, mainstream GLBT and queer responses to social injustice, and the need for radical community-based trans* organizing. During the introduction of his talk, Spade explained that the book is the result of about ten years' worth of work and community discussions.

According to Spade, many seeking the services at SRLP are people who are permanently shut out of social services because the entry points to those services themselves enforce gender norms and utilize gender segregation as a method of social control.

“What this work made me look at,” Spade explained, “is how these purportedly neutral systems really aimed at killing poor people, especially people of colour. They do that by using gender segregation as a form of social control, and through explicit gender norm enforcement.” Furthermore, many people seeking the help of SRLP are those who have been denied legal services elsewhere.

The result of the continued criminalization of poverty, the over-policing of public spaces under vague trespassing laws, and the increasing abilities of police to act as immigration enforcement officers, leads to chronic homelessness and vulnerability to violence, policing, and immigration enforcement.

The atmosphere in the cafe was serious. Spade took a deep breath. “OK,” he explained, “I just told you a lot of really bad news. Sorry about that - I just needed to paint you a picture of what this type of work looks like day-to-day for those of us working at [SRLP]. What we're seeing drives us to a set of questions that I think I explore in this book.”

In the United States, as well as in Canada, there is a strong narrative that groups facing discrimination must work to change the law in their/our favour in order to change and improve people's lives.

“I mean, that is basically the story of the United States, [and] that is a specifically anti-Black story. Its the story about how we used to have slavery, and we used to have Jim Crow laws, and racial apartheid, but that's all cleared up and now, [we're] all equal... and everyone has gotten what they deserve, [so] the story of racism is over.”

This story is also one of law. Specifically, it is the story of how legal change achieved the end of racism, introducing a “post civil rights era” where rights are achieved with the introduction of anti-discrimination and hate crimes laws that place the government in the position of the protector that keeps us safe from oppression and all forms of violence.

However, in this same period of supposed neutral equality, there are obvious worsening material conditions and inequalities: wage stagnation, over-working with less pay, the informalization of labour, less pensions and benefits, less employment, dismantling of labour and environmental protections, dismantling welfare and social systems, and of course the drastic increase in criminalization of immigration enforcement that targets people of colour, people with disabilities, indigenous people, immigrants and trans* people.

Spade points to the quadrupling or quintupling of rates of imprisonment as a clear indicator that we are most certainly not living in a post-racist era, reporting that while the US has merely 5% of the world's population, it contains 25% of the world's prisoners, making it the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. In the US, 1 of every 100 people are imprisoned, 1 of 30 are living under correctional control, and 70% of people in prisons are people of colour, while only 13% of America's population are people of colour.

“[Is this] declaration of equality and neutrality the end of oppression?” Dean asked the audience. “How do we understand these statistics?”

In the context of the emergent, more visible, trans* politics in the past few decades, one of the assumptions is that trans* communities should be fighting for hate crimes laws and anti-discrimination laws in order to find relief from the conditions we face today.

“Part of that assumption,” Dean told the audience, “is based on the idea that we should follow the path of Gay & Lesbian Rights – a model that, at it's most visible point, has been centred around legal equality – the idea that if we just change the laws, people's lives will change.”

The question is: does legal equality truly help to alleviate the conditions trans* people face on a daily basis? Not really.

“The obsession with finding The Evil Perpetrator who says or does the wrong thing is impossible because of the conditions people face – entire communities who don't have access to groceries or clean water, who are subjected to higher levels of pollutions and the health consequences of that, or the worst schools. Its a really problematic framework for trying to actually think about how [oppression] like racism operates more broadly.”

Spade describes anti-discrimination law as, “incredibly light window dressing that has no actual relief for people's actual conditions of harm,” as it acknowledges a flawed and failing economic system which falsely contends that once we protect trans* people under employment equity, everything will be fine. Anti-discrimination laws are not a deterrent, as no one researches how much time they may spend behind bars before they kill someone. Again, it is obvious that laws designed to blame individuals for systematic cycles of violence fail to recognize how trans*phobia functions.

Further, Dean argues that, “[hate crime laws] don't do anything to prevent our death; they don't do anything to save our lives, but they do enhance and expand and build more resources for the criminal punishment system in our names. What's interesting about that is, the number one perpetrator of hate violence against queer and trans* people are police and guards, in environments [such as immigration prisons and criminal punishment prisons and juvenile punishment prisons] where we spend so much time suffering and in deprivation, and [where people face constant sexual assault... as part of these gendering systems].”

Normal Life discusses a trans* politic centred in racial and economic justice. It is a politic where we avoid falling into a legal trap that has arguably been really harmful to Gay & Lesbian Rights. Rather than taking a legal route of action, Spade contends that we need to figure out what we can do to provide relief for those experiencing the sharpest edges of trans*phobia.

So, then, what does Grassroots Trans-organizing look like? How should we think about law and movements seeking social change? Rather than seeking inclusion in systems that continue to kill us, how can we dismantle these systems and build alternatives?

Some points that came up throughout the launch, both from Spade within his lecture, and from community members within the Q&A period are:

  • centering the people who are most vulnerable rather than the most charismatic (as is characteristic of mainstream LGBT movements) and thus;

  • centering those who face the sharpest edges of trans*phobia: directly supporting people in prison, with HIV, experiencing xenophobia;

  • seeking solutions that have trickle-up effects rather than eventual possibilities of trickle-down effects

  • politicized content: structural, communal relationships over individualized cases;

  • sharing experiential knowledge and being involved in creating networks;

  • engaging a diversity of tactics

    • “refusing legal channels that divert and divide”

    • “[throwing] wrenches in pathways of harm”

      • such as immigrant detainers and policy that can be dismantled and changed but aren't about policy changes as it is often taken up.

  • we can learn from Black Feminist & process-oriented movements

    • assess our steps:

      • who is left out?

      • is there relief in the work we do, or is it light window dressing?

      • does our work build or expand harmful systems? Does it divide our constituents?

  • Moving away from NGOs; building community-driven – not $ driven – initiatives involving those experiencing the sharpest edges of trans*phobia

During the Q&A session, Spade laughed as he explained that he didn't get to choose the title of the book. "I didn't choose it because I like it," he said, relaying the other titles that were originally put forward for the publication. However, he explained, the title Normal Life is quite loaded, as it evokes two specific things: The first being the perpetual and normalized state and systemic violence faced by trans* people daily. Secondly, it expresses that, as a frame, "normal" systems, states, and policies articulate what or who is/can be defined as normal and, thus, worthy of life.

An excellent concluding point that arguably sums up the lecture and discussion was when Dean said that, “we need a strategy, not a reaction to what we're supposed to want. Everything that is impossible is what we are fighting for... We are for getting people out; decarcerating people.”

Full recordings of the lecture as well as the Q&A are available via CKUT on the MMC website.

*SRLP is a collective organization "founded on the understanding that gender self-determination is inextricably intertwined with racial, social and economic justice. [Through their work, they] seek to increase the political voice and visibility of low-income people and people of colour who are transgender, intersex, or gender non-conforming. SRLP works to improve access to respectful and affirming social, health, and legal services for our communities."


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