Dean Spade is My Soul Mate: Intersectional Impacts of Normative Appeals

            White, cis-normative, economically privileged, and professionally educated gay and lesbian communities stigmatize those who cannot fit into one or any of those normative categories via appeals to normativity in their politics.  My previous post discussed (yes, I’ll admit, ranted) how this appeal to normativity from trans-normative spaces alienates genderqueer expression from both trans and cis-gay circles, but I failed to mention any other intersectional identities, a crucial aspect to the ways in which neoliberalism operates within these normative gay communities. 

            Dean Spade opened my eyes to the ways in which intersectional identities fit within the dichotomous framework of “normative versus deviant” ways of being.  When mainstream society dictates what constitutes “normal” and “deviant,” every person who does not fit within categories of white, cis-male, heterosexual, upper middle class, able-bodied, English-speaking, middle-aged, American born, Christian-identified (and other categories I’m probably missing) within the United States gets thrown into this category of deviance with its own complicated and mainstream-dictated hierarchy. 

            Every deviant person, then, becomes placed in this category (and ultimately hierarchy) among all of those other deviantly-labeled people with whom they cannot all possibly identify or have similar experiences.  For instance, white and cis-normative upper middle class gay men are labeled “deviant” along with trans feminine economically disadvantaged identities of color.  The former group is only slightly deviant compared to the latter, and that shows through appeals to normativity that manifest themselves through “equality” legislation (Spade 59-66).  In these ways, this former group does not take into account the intersectional identities like those in the latter group despite the fact that both groups are labeled “deviant.”  So when slightly deviant groups get thrown into an umbrella of “deviance” with which to dichotomously compare to the normative category, the more deviant groups become even more oppressed as the slightly deviant groups push for inclusion into normative spaces (Spade 68). 

          This oppression of the more and more deviant groups manifests itself not only inadvertently in “equality” legislation, but also purposefully through blatant discrimination.  The former group of privileged gay men may not only overlook the ways in which to include intersectional oppression in their politics, but there may also exist racist, classist, misogynistic, transphobic, and/or even transmisogynistic undertones within their politics and everyday lives.  These privileged-but-deviantly-labeled individuals may become leaders of LGBT spaces on college campuses or faces of entire movements just to spew racist, sexist, and classist sentiment in their supposed call for “social justice.”

          These calls to normativity by slightly deviant categories lead to an even more unjust world.  For instance, cis-normative white upper middle class gays and lesbians have shifted their agenda to promote “the class and race privilege of a small number of elite gay and lesbian professionals while marginalizing or overtly excluding the needs and experiences of people of color, immigrants, people with disabilities, indigenous people, trans people, and poor people” (Spade 65).  This kind of shift is evident when comparing the unjust deaths of Matthew Shepard, a cis white gay male, and Tyra Hunter, an African American trans woman. 

          Nowhere else is there an outcry against mainstream practices than when a slightly deviant cis, white, and economically privileged male dies unjustly.  The brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, an out gay man in Laramie, Wyoming in October of 1998, gained so much publicity that not only were countless books written on his life and death, but hate crime legislation was written as a response to his murder, and it was signed into law eleven years later by Barack Obama.  The Matthew Shepard Foundation even claims that Matthew’s murder was “one of the most notorious anti-gay hate crimes in American history” (Matthew Shepard Foundation’s “Our Story” Page: see bottom for link). 

          Now take a look at the death of Tyra Hunter, an African-American trans woman in D.C. who died in August of 1995 of medical neglect from what could have been a non-fatal car crash.  Medical doctors and emergency personnel refused to treat her and let her die because of deep-seated anti-trans and racist sentiment, where emergency personnel laughed and pointed in disgust at her genitals, and medical doctors refused to treat her on the basis of a racial stereotype. 

          What books were written about Tyra?  If you count the Transgender Studies Reader, then there are two whole pages that discuss the discrimination involved in her death.  Wikipedia gives her about a paragraph (see bottom for link).  What legislation passed because of Tyra?  None.  The medical establishment was so intimately involved in her death that any legislation passed would point fingers at the system.  Unless you count a trans organization in Illinois named in her memory, nothing tangible came from this injustice except money during the trial to compensate for her death.  (Money… a fair exchange for life… thanks capitalism!)  Is Tyra’s murder (yes, I’m calling neglect to act on non-fatal injuries to the point of death murder) named one of the “most notorious” hate crimes in the US?  No.  It happened two years before Matthew Shepard died, and no one raised any outcry that gained media attention against the injustice of her death because she did not belong to the slightly deviant category that still demands inclusion in normative structures. 

          Tyra’s death was ignored, and the fact that Matthew’s death gained more media attention because he was the perfect slightly deviant representation of normativity the media could hold onto makes Tyra’s death and the countless other deaths of gender-deviant economically disadvantaged people of color invisible.  That’s right, invisible.  Appeals to normativity by slightly deviant gays and lesbians are appeals to the system that work to oppress those in the “more deviant” category of the deviance hierarchy.  Catering to a system that oppresses based on a “you versus us” dichotomy and ignoring the intersections of race, class, and sexual and gender identity disavow the lives of those deviantly-labeled individuals who fought representatives of the system (ie, police) to survive.  Seeking legislation to end “hate crimes” only appeals to those policemen who systematically ignore and perpetuate the violence against those who are furthest from inclusion in normative spaces.

          There is no real end to this kind of violence against racial, ability, economic, and gender minorities with the neoliberalist solutions of a normative gay and lesbian politic.  Mandy Carter, writer for a news site Color Lines, stresses the necessity of bridging the politics of the sexuality and gender movements with African-American movements.  The fact that intersecting identities challenge the implicitly degrading assumptions of each of these movements (LG movements as cis-white inclusive, African-American movements as cis-het inclusive, neither as trans-inclusive) indicate that a larger force of oppression is at work here. 

          When cis-white gays and lesbians are racist and transphobic, and when cis-African Americans are homophobic and transphobic, non-normative people of color in terms of gender and sexuality are left with no community with which to share stories and are left to their own devices to deal with violence from not only mainstream culture, but also from both less deviant communities to which they cannot belong.  This experience of being torn between two or more “less deviant” communities as a “more deviant” person applies to intersectional identities across the entire mainstream-dictated deviant spectrum.  On the simplest level of explanation via example, I experience dissonance between my lesbian and trans identities, Tyra between her trans and African American identities, and Dean Spade between his trans, queer (used in terms of sexuality because “gay” or “lesbian” cannot fit here), and working class identities. 

           In order to fight this “you versus us,” “deviant versus ‘normal’” dichotomy that mainstream culture sets up at the heart of its systematic and oppressive operations, we need to look at the differences dictating our deviance by mainstream culture instead of overlooking them.  We need to incorporate these differences into an intersectional politics that demands a complete restructuring of mainstream systems like law enforcement and wealth distribution to the point of self-determined governance that values collectivity (Spade 69).  Equality will never be achieved if we keep fighting for these slight equalities that continue to perpetuate injustice.

 

-Ash Kulak 

 

 Mandy Carter’s article about Tyra’s death and the intersections between white LGBT movements and Black movements:

http://colorlines.com/archives/2011/02/transgender_discrimination_study.html

Tyra Hunter’s sole paragraph from Wikipedia:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tyra_Hunter

More details on Tyra’s murder:

http://transgriot.blogspot.com/2007/08/trya-hunter-anniversary.html

Matthew Shepard Foundation’s “Our Story” page:

http://www.matthewshepard.org/our-story

More information on the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act: http://www.hslda.org/Legislation/National/2009/S.909/default.asp 

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