What’s Wrong With Rights?

Dean Spade in Normal Life: “Administrative Violence Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law” critiques the use of trans-inclusive laws such as anti-discrimination laws and hate crime laws by questioning whether these political devices actually work to dismantle the very institutions that strengthen and perpetuate transphobic ideas. Spade begins by describing the history of LGBT rights movements from one of a backlash against and a call for radical transformation of social institutions, to helping fund these very institutions by means of non-profit organizations typically led by highly educated privileged queer folks. These organizations sought recognition and assimilation into society, the “I’m just like you” approach instead of calling for a critical examination of the inequalities endorse by the very institutions they sought recognition from. “The thrust of the work of these organizations became the quest for inclusion in and recognition by dominant US institutions rather than questioning and challenging the fundamental inequalities promoted by those institutions” (80). Spade is critical of these inclusive laws because they often cater to those privileged queer folks who have access to good lawyers in cases of discrimination or hate crimes, or who have good employment that offers health care that they deserve access to. Similar to gay and lesbian rights, anti-discrimination and hate crime laws have become to define the idea of trans-rights in America according to Spade.

While I was reading, I kept thinking well what is wrong with using an equal rights mode of oppositional consciousness. It seemed like a logical first step, but when I read the “What’s Wrong with Rights?” chapter, reasons why equal rights and visibility politics are not the way to get trans-rights became clear. I think the most interesting point about Dean Spade’s argument is the discussion of the criminal punishment system in which many trans activists want equal rights within.  Spade argues that hate crime laws not only don’t deter people from committing these crimes but they also strengthen the very system that oppresses and commits violence against trans people. “Hate crime laws strengthen and legitimize the criminal punishment system, a system that targets the very people these laws are supposedly passed to protect” (87).  Also, anti-discrimination and hate crime laws rely on a belief that racism happens on an individual basis; a perpetrator of discrimination has a problem against a certain group of people. These laws also assume that everyone is on the same level of playing field, once marginalized groups are now equal under the law and have all the same rights and opportunities. It’s clear that not everyone has a fair chance and discrimination doesn’t just happen individually but happens systematically to trans people causing high levels of poverty, homelessness, crime, and sex work in order to survive. Trans people are disproportionately affected by police brutality, harassment, medical neglect and violence within the prison system mostly at the hands of the correctional staff themselves. Spade makes a great point about earlier LGBT reformers and how disappointed they would be to see that many LGBT organizations fight to pass laws to increase police and prosecutorial resources and they consider police to be protectors of marginalized groups all while the imprisonment and brutality of trans people continues to increase. These early resisters were trying to fight against the criminal punishment system and called for a larger scale reevaluation of these institutions and how they handled queer and gender nonconforming groups. Spade wants a trans politics that  re-conceptualizes how power and law work on a large scale and instead of focusing on individual acts of discrimination, focuses on the unequal conditions of entire populations which cant be blamed on individual intentions.

On Advocate.com there is an article about a trangender rapper, Evon Young, who had been murdered by five men and his body was dumped in a landfill. The police claim the murder had nothing to do with Evon’s trans status but his family claims otherwise. The police have called off any search of Evon’s body but claim to have enough evidence to prosecute the men who committed the murder. However, Evon’s murder was hardly discussed because he went missing around the same time as a white college student, when Evon’s case was finally publicized when the media learned of his trans status. Evon was repeatedly mis-gendered in articles. Family members and friends believe that the only reason this story got media attention was because Evon was trans and that made it more “entertaing.” This article reminded me of Spade’s argument, it doesn’t matter if there are hate crime laws, these don’t protect trans or queer people from the violence they experience on a daily basis.

Evon Young’s Story 



–Casey Born


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