Dean Spade, “Towards a Critical Trans Politics

Dean Spade is a leading trans legal scholar and the founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP), which provides legal assistance to trans and low-income people. The SRLP is named after trans activist Sylvia Rivera who led the police resistance at the 1969 Stonewall Riots.  Associate Professor at the Seattle University School of Law, Spade is at the forefront of trans and social justice politics in the United States, but his work has been influential for trans and anti-racist scholars in Canada too — particularly those concerned with incarceration and policing.  In this interview, Spade describes what he calls “critical trans politics” — the “Big Idea” for this module.  Spade’s vision of queer and trans social justice is focused on rejecting the focus on inclusion in state institutions like marriage and the military. Instead of using the law as a tool to criminalize people, Spade focuses on combatting marginalization through ending poverty, homelessness, and racism, and by advocating for health care for all. These are all approaches to social justice that he argues will benefit queer and trans folks who are marginalized. Spade argues for a “trickle-up” approach to social justice, instead of a “trickle-down” approach.

As you read:

  • Reflect on Spade’s discussion of becoming politicized, which he connects to his “outsider identity”. Is there a moment in your life that has caused you to want to learn about social justice?
  • Pay attention to the difference between a trickle-up and trickle-down approach to social justice.
  • Reflect on how Spade’s concept of “critical trans politics” is distinct from Feinberg’s concept of trans liberation.
  • Think about rights. Are human rights a necessary precondition for social justice? Do rights necessarily lead to justice?  
  • Consider Spade’s argument in the context of contemporary calls to abolish, defund, or reform policing — each of which are distinct demands. Where do you think Spade would stand? 
  • Notice how Spade describes the relationship between critical trans politics and different types of feminist thought — what is the relationship between feminist theory and trans politics, according to Spade?

Find the Dean Spade reading here.