Spade Speaks on Limits of the Law

Robin Wasserman, News Editor

Dean Spade, founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and associate professor of law at Seattle University, spoke Wednesday on the limits of the law in combating discrimination. Speaking casually — and occasionally sarcastically — to a nearly full West Lecture Hall, Spade emphasized the importance in activism of recognizing how issues are connected to each other, to capitalism and to the law. Spade’s “Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of the Law” was the first talk in the Queering the Law Symposium and part of the Year of the Queer lecture series. 

Spade started the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in 2002 in response to high levels of incarceration among trans youth, especially those of color and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. At the SRLP, Spade works with trans youth who are usually excluded from or faced with violence by support networks, such as homeless shelters, foster homes or psychiatric centers. Such organizations are often set up on a gender binary and exclude those who do not fit within it.

While Spade and the SRLP provide legal services to these marginalized youth, he rejects the idea that working within this legal framework is the way to achieve equality.

“The story that we get is that if you are part of a population facing state violence or economic marginalization, you should change the law,” Dean said. “That’s a central, national story for us. That story is intensely anti-black. … The story is that [anti-black discrimination and violence] is washed away and we are in a post-civil rights period, and if you’re not doing well, you’re lazy.”

The current methods used to combat trans violence, such as hate crime and antidiscrimination law, Spade argued, only reinforce this narrative and deal with the symptoms but not the causes.

“The interesting thing about antidiscrimination laws is, of course, that they haven’t worked at all,” Spade said to the audience’s laughter. “[These laws are] obsessed with the idea of the perpetrator—the one bad apple who has this racist idea … that’s a really, really inaccurate idea of how racism operates.”

Spade instead described structural aspects of racism, such as the physical location of people of color in a city or how comfortable victims feel calling the police.

“One thing activists have pointed out is that the conditions are racist,” he said. “You can’t sue someone if … no one in your whole neighborhood has access to good schooling.”

Like antidiscrimination laws, Spade argued that hate crime laws do little to actually curb violence and instead expand the prison system in the U.S.

“I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been contacted by 23-year-old trans people who were experiencing rape everyday, coordinated by guards or perpetrated by guards,” he said. “The largest perpetrator of violence, including sexual violence, is that system.”

Spade warned that activists must constantly examine their goals in order to keep from supporting these institutions that reinforce discrimination.

“Everything we do is incremental. We have to evaluate it,” he said. “Am I being pulled into something I don’t mean to get involved in? … How is this going to turn out for the most vulnerable?”

According to Spade, the focus on marriage equality within the gay rights movement serves as an example of how searching for equality within an institution masks the discrimination that the institution itself perpetuates. For Spade, this emphasis reinforces the idea that marriage is about personal relationships, ignoring certain feminist theories that the institution serves a predominantly economic function.

“The whole point of marriage is inequality,” he said.

Spade warned students against expecting to get paid for their activism.

“My whole life is about trying to create the world that I want to be in,” he said. “And it feels great.”