Recently, I was able to watch the first part of the Frontline special, United States of Secrets. For those who have followed the news the last few years, the release of information regarding the government's warrantless wiretapping of Americans is nothing new. The special traces the now-not-so-secret policies of the US government, many of which have been made public by the NSA documents Edward Snowden leaked. Although much of this story has been told, often from various perspectives (e.g., Snowden-as-whistle-blower, Snowden-as-traitor), one of the things I kept thinking about was that trans* people should all have a vested interest in this case, as the issues of state surveillance, the culture of fear in which the vast apparatus of surveillance has been constructed, and (gender) non-normativity are heavily linked. Thus, regardless of one's political orientation, all trans* people have, as the saying goes, some skin in the game.
Toby Beauchamp has done a brilliant job writing about the threat posed to trans* people by the increased US state surveillance in an essay included in The Transgender Studies Reader 2. Essentially, the argument is that there is a pervasive culture of fear that has increased exponentially in the US since the events of 9/11. This fear is based, at least in part, on not knowing/being able to see 'the enemy.' This manifests in heightened surveillance by the state in an attempt to seek out and prevent threats, which are oftentimes discussed in terms of hiding in plain sight. The result of this means everyone is told to be on alert for those people, events, or interactions that seem 'out of the ordinary.' Think about announcements that you hear when you are waiting for a flight in an airport. You are asked to report 'suspicious behavior' to TSA officials. However, there is no real discussion about what should be considered 'suspicious' or why that is suspicious in the first place. Thus, suspicious individuals are linked to those who are non-normative in some way. Enter the reason why trans* people should care about the rise in surveillance, the linking of suspicious individuals with non-normative identities, expressions, and embodiments, and, thus, the heightened risk for trans* people, many of whom are labeled as deceptive to begin with (for a great primer on the labeling of trans* people, especially trans* women, as deceptive, I would recommend checking out Julia Serano's (2007) book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity).
The effects of living a non-normative life in a culture that demands normalcy are very real. Not only do things like travel become unsafe, but everyday necessities (e.g., using a restroom, finding housing, accessing healthcare and shelters) become dangerous, tenuous, and, in some cases, downright impossible for many trans* people. Moreover, trans* women of color are invariably under greater risk and threat, as shown by the recent national study, Injustice at Every Turn. Furthermore, because college and university campuses are microcosms of the broader cultures in which they are embedded, these deleterious effects impact trans* college students. For example, studies have shown that trans* spectrum students feel less safe and have a lesser sense of belonging on campus than their cisgender peers. This is not due to any lack of behalf of trans* students themselves. Instead, it is due to an environment that was not constructed, nor has it been perpetuated, with trans* people in mind.
Because trans* people identify with, express, and/or embody non-normative genders, and because normalcy has increasingly been required as a prerequisite for maintaining a livable life, trans* people face numerous barriers throughout a variety of social institutions, such as (higher) education. Granted, not all is lost; trans* students thrive, despite these barriers. However, the culture of fear and cultural push for normalcy impose a series of high-risk consequences for those of us with diverse genders, including within educational institutions.
And this is why increased US surveillance, both abroad and at home, should matter to trans* people. As I said above, not only do we have some 'skin in the game,' but based on the multiple identities we may have (e.g., trans* people of color, non-binary trans* people, homeless trans* youth, undocumented trans* people) and the other communities with whom we have natural alliances who are also deemed 'abnormal' or 'non-normative,' we have a lot to gain from facing these threats to our shared humanity together in a pro-active fashion. What these confrontations may look like could take several forms, but the important first step is to recognize that these issues, which may otherwise seem isolated and/or mutually exclusive are very much linked.
This blog is a space where I engage with ideas, concepts, and research that seeks to increase life chances for trans* people.