The following questions were emailed to Susan Stryker, an American professor, author, filmmaker, and theorist whose work focuses on gender and human sexuality, on the day of George Floyd’s murder. Her responses reflect the subsequent international protest movement against police violence and systemic racism.
The interview has been edited for length.
In Transgender History you write about how being LGBTQ has been criminalized in the past. Could you write about how that history of criminalization effects queer people today?
It’s important to recognize a few things here: first, that the law only gets you so far. Some of the most important anti-trans actions are extra-judicial; they take place outside the scope of law, and are not remedied by law. Second, the very logic of legal, bureaucratic, administrative, or institutional forms of power can be hostile to trans people, and are not going to save us. Policing and incarceration are not solutions for injustices, but problems that cause injustice for trans people. Finally, what laws do exist that offer limited legal protections for trans people are unevenly distributed, both by jurisdiction and demographics. There are very few federal level protections, and they are actively being eroded. It’s far easier for white trans people to be able to claim the protection of the law, than for people of color, particularly black and indigenous people, to do so. The history of criminalization still affects trans and queer people today because it’s not history—it’s still our present.
How does the continued criminalization of prostitution uniquely effect transgender people, and particularly those of color?
Trans women, especially trans women of color, face so many barriers to “normal life”—familial rejection, housing and employment discrimination, loss or lack of educational opportunity, heightened vulnerability to policing and incarceration, that they disproportionately wind up in sex work. One of the most important societal changes that could immeasurably improve the quality of life for trans women of color would be to decriminalize prostitution, and to provide support for either doing that work safely or creating pathways towards other kinds of work.
We often take for granted that transgender people will be sent to the wrong gender of prison. Why is the practice so commonplace, and what kinds of violence does it engender?
I think there are two or three different levels of explanation here. Prisons as social institutions replicate socially dominant ways of understanding sex/gender. We live in a society that believes our personhood in this regard is fundamentally determined by our genitals. Second, it’s important to remember that prisons are designed for punishment. How trans people’s gender expression and identity are undermined in prison is part of this overarching punitive intention. Third, I think it can express an unconscious (or sometimes conscious) sadism that imagines incarcerated trans people as targets for acting out one’s fantasies of domination and control. Sickness plus misguided intent plus uninterrogated social norms all add up to a hegemonic form of oppression and violence that lands very heavily on trans people in prison. It is truly a form of “cruel and unusual punishment” that should be abolished.
Do you think being transgender inherently challenges hetero-/cis-normative legal structures?
Yes. Even for trans people who have binary identities and are cis-passing, I think being trans fundamentally challenges the cultural assumption that there is anything fixed, natural, or inevitable about our sex/gender classifications. We represent a difficult problem for the routine administrative practices of the state.
You have extensively covered historical uprisings, like the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot. What, in your opinion, is the best modern example of transgender people organizing to oppose legal discrimination in policing and the justice system?
I can think of no better example than the moment in which we live right now: the participation of trans people in social movements for racial justice, particularly black liberation, and calls to abolish the police and the prison-industrial complex. I’m very inspired by what’s happening in Minneapolis, with elected officials promising to defund the police, and in Seattle, where protestors have set up an “autonomous zone” to begin imagining together what a free and just society can look like. It’s highly likely that later this month the Supreme Court is going to rule that trans people are not protected from discrimination by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. It will be interesting to see if that formal denial of rights will open up a new front in the justice-struggles we see unfolding all around us right now. It could provide an opportunity for an even more deeply intersectional politics aimed at the transformation of the “bio-centric” modern world order, which imagines our flesh as an unalterable anchor for our social positionality and arguably emerged from the transatlantic slave trade. Transness is ultimately the promise that flesh can come to signify otherwise, and that the meanings attached to our bodies can change.