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Disability and the Cisgender State


Jules Gill-Peterson (@gp_jls) is Associate Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University.

This post is part of a symposium on Marta Russell and the Political Economy of DisabilityRead the rest of the posts here.


In the escalating wave of anti-trans legislation and administrative violence sweeping the United States over the past several years, the credo on the left has often been that political violence against trans people is mere pretense: a right wing culture war meant to distract from issues more properly political-economic, or a cynical ploy to motivate a conservative voting base. This superficial reading, which smugly portrays state transphobia as without substantial motive in its irrationality, is as naïve as it is dismissive of trans people’s material circumstances.

Trans people today face a staggering prohibition on the basic possibility of participating in American public life from childhood: banned from participation in equal education, targeted by state departments for investigation and removal from their families, and unable to legally flee to less hostile states. As a result, they are often unable to enter the formal economy, let alone afford the huge expenses of medical transition and changing ID documents if they survive into adulthood. If the current wave of laws and administrative reforms are successful, trans people as a population—that is, as a class—will be criminalized and confined to the informal economy, materially deprived as much as symbolically excluded. What has long been a de facto underground life for many poor trans people and trans people of color will become official state policy for all: in declaring itself cisgender, the state’s official requirement that everyone align their genitals, public appearance, and ID documents by state-derived criteria would codify and obligate the total privatization and widespread criminalization of trans people’s lives.

A description of a culture war that most certainly is not.

The liberal faith in a legalistic, civil rights solution to anti-trans political violence misses the basic fact that the economic is written everywhere into transphobic politics. Gender affirming health care is not only moralized through a fantasy of experimental mutilation, but is also styled as prohibitively expensive, an inappropriate expenditure of taxpayer dollars in an era of permanent austerity. Rather than assuming transphobia as some transhistorical, free-floating animus that waits in the wings of history, there is every reason to see anti-trans political violence and the establishment of the cisgender state as integral to neoliberal American statecraft. In making this shift towards a materialist trans critique of the cisgender state, Marta Russell’s materialist analysis of disability is immensely helpful.

Russell’s money model of disability is not an analogy for an impolitic metaphorical “disabling” of trans people by the state. On the contrary, there is a manifestly material relationship between disabled people and trans people’s mutually implicated targeting for exclusion, policing, exploitation, and a confinement to unwaged spheres of social reproduction. To deprive trans people as a class from access to labor in the public sphere, the cisgender state increasingly employs a disability analogy, targeting the shared vulnerability of trans people and disabled people through legacies of medical pathologization. In March of 2022, the Attorney General of Texas issued a written opinion from his office that providing gender affirming care to young people is statutory child abuse under the Texas Family Code. Days later, the Governor’s office issued a letter instructing the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to begin preparations to require mandated reporters, as well as “the general public,” to report parents and guardians of trans children to the state for investigation as presumed child abusers. In a telling passage, the Attorney General’s opinion justified its interpretation of the law by styling trans childhood as an instance of “Munchausen by proxy,” in which “an individual seeks to procure—often by deceptive means, such as exaggeration—unnecessary medical procedures either for themselves or others, usually their children.” Parents, teachers, supportive adults, therapists, and medical providers are all cast as the conspiratorial agents of a “factitious disorder” imposed on trans youth (who the state considers per se unable to consent to their own gender’s affirmation).

By draping trans children in the stigma of Munchausen’s, the state weaponizes a dramatically stigmatized specter of mental illness or insanity to justify overriding the freedom and consent of everyone single person involved in their lives, from children themselves to their guardians and doctors. Yet the key detail in the selection of the now-discredited concept of Munchausen’s by proxy is not the stigma of mental illness alone—the ostensible falseness of the medical condition—but its monetary expense to the state. The cited problem in the Attorney General’s letter is explicitly the financial burden of “the seeking of excessive medical care” as much as the supposed immorality of that care. The policy pursues neoliberal statecraft through the alibi of a transphobic and ableist moral economy.

Marta Russell and Jean Stewart’s “Disablement, Prison, and Historical Segregation” clarifies that such manufactured disabilities are constructed by the state “to support the accumulation of capital and the social control of surplus population.” The social “disablement” of those excluded from the waged economy is a means of managing the implicit threat of the poor and proletarianized masses essential to the capitalist economy. This is why the police, prisons, and state institutions of psychiatry and detention—including child protective services and the foster care system—are all integral components in Russell’s materialist analysis of disability. And this is why the material immiseration of trans people is joined by such a vicious exercise of state power. State transphobia’s political economy is one dedicated to the broader neoliberal goal of dismantling public goods and modes of care in the name of cost reduction. The moral panic around trans youth serves this end even as it is inflamed by a moral panic figured through mental illness (trans people themselves are quite explicitly implied to be mentally ill, not just the adults who would be imposing gender transition in youth in the state’s eyes).

It is for the same reason that a materialist trans politics must struggle against this political violence not through the representational lens of symbolic inclusion—or the naïve reverse discourse of child protection—but rather in solidarity with a disability politics that demands that all people’s lives be affirmed whether or not they are labeled productive workers and social subjects. Only when affirming trans children’s gender is seen as part of a fundamental and benign access to the resources of human life and enjoyment that are due everyone will trans people be able to benefit from full participation in the public sphere. Even if policies like Texas’s blatantly unconstitutional child abuse interpretation are defeated, a return to the status quo is still one in which most trans children will lack access to healthcare, remain vulnerable to being harmed or kicked out by their guardians, and be generally overexposed to impoverishment and policing. Stopping the advent of a cisgender state is thus the first step in a far more substantial critique of state power as the enforcer of capital’s interests, a project in which materialist trans and disability politics go hand in hand.