trans activist, Seattle professor, lawyer, snappy dresser
Lawyer/educator/activist Dean Spade is an Assistant Professor at Seattle University School of Law who teaches administrative law, poverty law, law and social movements, and critical perspectives on transgender law. He also founded Sylvia Rivera Law Project in 2002, a non-profit law collective that provides free legal services to transgender, intersex, and gender non-conforming people who are low-income and/or people of color.
Spade published his essay “Dressed to Kill, Fight to Win” for an ANTI-FASHION SHOW zine in 2002. (see an excerpt below, after the interview!). The essay critiqued the effects of hetero-normative beauty ideals and consumerism promoted by mainstream fashion as an industry. At the same time, his essay called out the hierarchies of ‘the cool’ via dress within anarchist and activist circuits and practices. I found the essay refreshing and right to the point and asked Spade to revisit the essay with me, ten years later. Did the words still ring true? In the face of today’s global climate, would he spin the message of resistance any differently?
Queerture: Dean, what’s it like to reread this essay ten years later?
Dean Spade: I had completely forgotten about this essay and it was fun to see it again. It was made in conjunction with an anti-capitalist fashion show put on by a group of queer activists and artists. It still makes a lot of sense to me, thought it also feels like it is from another time. I think something that is missing that I might add if I were writing it now is a statement about how there is no politically neutral or politically “right” way to dress or style ourselves. All of our ways of fashioning ourselves are produced by the conditions under which we live, and they all speak to those conditions. I’m reminded of stories I’ve heard about lesbian feminists in certain circles in the 1970’s who believed that butch-femme culture was sexist, and strove to dress and groom in “gender neutral” ways that they thought resisted the traps of heterosexist femininity. I’ve heard stories from that time of butches and femmes being shamed and excluded for wearing gender “wrong” for these feminists. It seems like movements often importantly analyze and experiment with clothing and styling the body, but also often create new rigid norms through which people police each other. I’m interested now in thinking about how we can both identify how particular fashion and styling trends are complicit with harmful ideas and systems (like recognizing that white people having Mohawks or dreadlocks is racist cultural appropriation), and how we can simultaneously critically approach our tendency to create and enforce countercultural norms.
QT: This reminds me how some think of aesthetics (art, fashion, performance and visual media) as disposable parts of life: as extraneous to the business of survival as a political project. This mode of thinking discards aesthetics from the conversation …
DS: Right. What we are wearing is political and has really high stakes! The conditions of production of the actual materials we wear are life and death, and the consequences we all face for how we use clothing, grooming and style to craft our appearances are life and death. I’m thinking about racist laws that have attempted to ban sagging pants in some jurisdictions or use certain colors of clothing as methods to identify and criminalize youth of color for purported gang membership. I’m also thinking of the long history of sumptuary laws, and the horrific regulation of gender-related clothing and grooming items that trans prisoners are constantly fighting. Fashion is definitely a political question.
It’s interesting because fashion and style is a site of liberatory feelings at times—moments of pleasure, mutual recognition, belonging, escape, and rebellion. But there is also the broader context of extreme violence and coercion in which we dress ourselves. There is the constant danger of feeling wrong, being punished, and being stared at. These two elements are often happening simultaneously. I think about this when I engage with people who I know are making choices about their appearances that are both highly endangering and also feel urgently important or wonderfully expressive. It is amazing how much so many people risk to wear their look. Certainly, many trans people exemplify this, risking extreme violence walking around offending gender norms and being beautiful.
QT: Totally beautiful. Do you feel your essay still has relevance to today’s world and how you’re living in it?
DS: A big influence on my day-to-day fashion experiences is my job as a law professor. When I worked at SRLP, I had to go to court and deal with government agencies and officials, and I wore a suit for those things, but my working space at SRLP was an office full of trans and gender non-conforming people. Even though we all looked different from each other, I still felt affirmed while in the office, like I was among people sharing an oppositional approach to many appearance norms and thinking politically about how we look. It was a big shift to start working in such a straight, upper-class, gender normative environment. It’s a drag to manage my perceptions of other people’s perceptions of me. It’s exhausting. I think that is why reading the tone of this old essay feels good—its affirming and relieving.
Because I spend so much time now in a very professional, gender normative work environment, I have to remind myself that I love weird people, I am weird, I want to be weird, and being normal is truly horrifying. I’m thinking of that experience of seeing someone on the street or on the bus who is working some kind of weird, non-normative look and feeling some delight and relief, like the person’s existence is making space for you. I have often felt that way when I see other visibly queer or visibly trans people, or other kinds of rule-breakers. It’s beautiful to see people taking those risks and its wonderful to have those moments of mutual recognition with a stranger in the midst of a hostile world. I think I appreciate those moments now more than ever, as I wander the hallways confronted with the gray business suits of professors and the university sweatshirts and Uggs of students. Sometimes I’m just blown away when I look around a classroom of 80 students and almost all the women have long hair and almost all the men have short hair. The level of norm abiding and of standardization should shock us. It suggests the significance of the processes people go through to decide to make major departures from those norms.
QT: You described that your current work place is less trans-friendly than where you once worked. Tell me about that…
DS: Law is a conservative field, and its graduate school is to send people into a profession, so the aesthetics are even more constrained than many other academic departments. I stress out about what to wear to work. Some of it is about managing gender—I feel weird pressures to look masculine enough for other people’s expectations about what at trans person who they are supposed to call “he” should look like. It’s absurd because people are going to fuck up my pronouns anyway and think God only knows what about my bizarre identity, but nonetheless I find myself performing self-protective, speculative calculus about button-down collars and sock colors.
QT: What do you chose in clothing/style to give you a sense of empowerment?
DS: Color is a big outlet for me … and cut. For work, I usually wear grey, brown, dark denim pants, button down shirts with sweaters or cardigans over them. I can’t bring myself to wear a suit except on rare occasions, so I like to pretend that dark cardigans and dark jeans stand in. When I come home I absolutely have to change my clothes, and I usually want to put on Kelly green or pink pants, clashing patterns, items I’ve deemed insufficiently masculine or professional for my workplace. It’s such a relief. I’m so grateful that I have a world of queer and trans freaks to hang out with who give me inspiration to look weird and experiment. My sister is a particular inspiration. She constantly changes her look, people often don’t recognize her, and she makes me wear things I’m feeling cautious about. She has given me some very bizarre haircuts that were hard to get used to but that I never regretted. Her approach to fashion is a big influence on me—I often think of her when I realize I’m pressuring myself to try to be more normal. Who wants to get to the end of their life and realize they mainly tried to look normal?
QT: Some of the people who may read this story may be interested in what trans people are looking to wear. When I teach, I like working with fashion illustrators because of the challenge their genre offers – fashion illustration still relies on binary gender as its main structure. To blur these boundaries through the graphic arts is exciting to me.
For what fashion designs might trans and other queer bodies be asking — what materials, colors, etc.?
DS: A huge issue for trans people and lots of other people like taller/shorter/fatter/skinnier and other non-conforming people is sizing. My friend Darius told me he has this idea for a store that would sell small men’s clothing and shoes, and tall and big women’s clothing and shoes and be called “Jumbo Shrimp.” I hope someone will back him on this. I’ve heard lots of trans people talk about the struggles we have with so many items being made with particular size-gender norms in mind that we can’t find what we need. I have this problem with shoes a lot, but also with things like sleeping bags. I wanted a sleeping bag for a short person—why carry the extra weight of a longer bag when I only use a short person’s length? But the shorter bags I found on the sale rack were women’s bags that were all pink and purple. Same with running shoes. I don’t care enough about shopping to search high and low for things that fit me that aren’t pink and flowery, but its frustrating that there aren’t more of the things people wear and use made in ways that aren’t totally gender norm-enforcing.
QT: The Japanese fashion designers Comme les Garcons in their 80’s and 90’s collections explored the interface where body touched the fabric. Their work suggested that fashion privilege the experience of the wearer. It was described as producing moments where East definitely went head-on with the West.
DS: This makes me think about how some men’s jackets are really beautiful on the inside with colorful linings in less traditionally masculine hues than what the outside of the jacket suggests. I like the idea of secret pleasures inside clothes, especially for when we’re going under cover at our jobs or in other hostile environments. It also makes me think about people wearing undergarments that are differently gendered than what their external clothing indicates they might be wearing. I like to think about people cultivating their own secret expressive pleasures in those ways. It seems like a healing response to coercion.
QT: You have a purview to shelters and to the prison system from your activist and work with Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP). Even though there are uniforms in these systems of violence, we know that plenty of queers, trans folks, queens, butches and all gender variants find ways to feel themselves. How does that work?
DS: It is amazing to watch how people living under the most direct and intensive forms of violent control resist racialized gender norms and fight for what they need against enormous obstacles. Many of SRLP’s imprisoned clients wage huge battles to access undergarments or to fight to not have their hair cut by the prison or to be allowed to grow their nails. My fellow SRLP collective member, Gabriel Arkles, is finishing writing this massive article examining prison grooming and dress rules all around the country. His research shows how rigidly and violently prisons enforce racialized gender norms on prisoners, how absurdly they try to justify doing so as a “security” issue, and how valiantly imprisoned people struggle against this enforcement. It is breathtaking to see people trying to survive and fight for any tiny bit of space to be themselves and keep themselves alive in a system designed to kill them. The work that SRLP does to support trans people in prisons, work that Gabriel developed when he was a staff attorney at SRLP, is so inspiring to me and so important.
QT: Thank you, Dean!
EXCERPT from “Dress to Kill, Fight to Win” in
ANTI –FASHION SHOW zine
The anti-capitalist fashioning we are talking about is not about what color your vinegar-soaked bandana should be this season, or how to keep your hair looking just dirty enough. We despise hierarchies of cool that create judgements based on ownership of goods and shapes of bodies just as much in activist circles as anywhere else. Instead, we are talking about celebrating the disruptive practices we engage in as we fight to win the new world we are envisioning. These are practices of the body—practices of taking pride and taking action in our scorned shapes, our resident fat skinny misgendered mis-raced illegal diseased scarred old resistance to the forces of consumerism, ablism,racism, classism, heteronormativity and binary gender are taking beautiful forms that we wear with a glimmer in our eye and weapon in our pocket. – Dean Spade, 2002.
Read Dean Spade, “Dress to Kill, Fight to Win” in LTTR I, September 2002