Gender Classification Systems and Lockup:Raw

Dean Spade in the chapter on “Administering Gender” tackles the social institutions that use gender as a means of classifying certain groups of people. Spade argues that these classifications are so natural to us that they even seem like common facts when they are asked on many types of forms. “The terms and categories used in the classification of data gathered by the state do not merely collect information about pre-existing types of things, but rather shape the world into these categories that, ultimately, are taken for granted by most and thus appear to be ahistorical and apolitical” (141). Spade explains that these spaces of classification are of great concern for trans subjects and a transpolitics. These forms of gender classification govern many aspects of lives including bathrooms, drug treatment programs, homeless shelters, juvenile and adult prisons. Spade goes on to say that the consequences of an inability to fit neatly into these categories are high and these people are especially vulnerable when their identities are not made legitimate.

This argument reminded me of an old episode of “Lockup” the TV show on MSNBC that is supposed to capture the reality of the life of people behind bars. This particular re-run was of “Lockup: Raw” where the producers reveal clips and behind the scenes info. In one particular scene the producer who was a cis-woman, was speaking to a “gender bending man” as they deemed it, or a transwoman as we would see it. The trans prisoner was asking the producer to call her by feminine pronouns. The producer apparently had a problem with this even though she claimed that she referred to the prisoner as a she because she asked her to, but said that “in reality she is a man.” Then she went as far as to tell the transwoman, “in fact you have a penis, which makes you a man and that is why you are in a male facility.” The producer saw gender classification in prison housing to be apolitical, a simple as genitalia=gender and because of this, even the narrator referred to the prisoner as “he”. After reading Spade and then watching the episode that scene stood out to me. I couldn’t believe that a professional TV producer who had been to many prisons across the country and has filmed many trans people in these prisons would say that to someone who has experienced the violence and vulnerability that comes with not fitting into rigid gender categories in sex-segregated facilities. 

Start watching at 30:39-39:05

–Casey Born

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