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Trans Emancipation Through Challenging the State


Scott Skinner-Thompson (@juriscott) is an Associate Professor at the University of Colorado Law School.

Atmospheres of Violence: Structuring Antagonism and the Trans/Queer Ungovernable
Eric. A Stanley
Duke University Press, 2021, 184 pp.

Sex Is as Sex Does: Governing Transgender Identity
Paisley Currah
New York University Press, 2022, 231 pp.

With unrelenting devastation, the lives of transgender people are being targeted in prisons, streets, schools, and state capitals. This all-encompassing violence toward trans/queer people (and people of color most acutely) is often framed as a product of individual hate and transphobia, a cynical political ploy, or both. And the solution to such violence is often framed as recognition of trans identities by the state. Two new books by leading scholars of gender and political science—Eric A. Stanley and Paisley Currah—broaden our understanding of the source of this violence, underscoring the degree to which it represents a defining feature of government and governing more broadly. 

By so doing, the authors challenge us to consider that queer liberation will not, in fact, come from the state. They shift the field of struggle for queer liberation from narrow discussions of identity politics and legal recognition (and, indeed, narrow discussions of queer liberation). Instead, to different degrees and in distinct registers, Stanley and Currah urge those who care about trans/queer people and anti-subordination to focus on imagining redistributive ways of being together that do not rely on rigid state classifications, the visible identities they produce, and the tendencies they quash. Rather, it is the beautiful nonconforming tendencies of transness that model ways of becoming ungovernable and living together through critical praxis.

To both illustrate the scale of violence surrounding trans/queer folk and to critique the purported value of state recognition, Stanley forces us to confront the stories of people whose lives were rendered impossible by such recognition. More meaningful than any underinclusive and emotionally flat statistics regarding hate crimes, the brutal deaths of Gwen Araujo, Lauryn Paige Fuller, Seth Walsh, and the forty-nine people killed during the Pulse massacre are reproduced not to “circulate as objects of pleasure” but to educate on the specific but myriad ways trans lives are eclipsed by totalizing violence. Their stories also underscore, in different ways, why a neoliberal focus on individual identity and justice is hollow because too often the state justifies its own violent existence through the guise of protecting minoritized queer identities, underscoring why trans liberation will not be delivered by the state. 

For instance, recounting the brutal dismembering and beheading of Rashawn Brazell, a nineteen-year-old Black gay man, Stanley argues that Black queer death is used to reify the continued operation of state agencies that surveil and harm trans people – in this case, the FBI Criminal Justice Information Services, a surveillance unit that also collates hate crime statistics. As Stanley explains, the “grinding task of transforming memories and skin into calculated data offers us little” other than legitimizing government systems of control and surveillance. According to Stanley, “[w]hat we need, then is not new data or a more complete set of numbers; our task, it seems, is to radically resituate the ways we conceptualize the meaning of violence as fundamental and not antagonistic to our current condition.” 

Similarly, while the mainstream LGBT movement (myself at times included) has often been myopically focused on having its members recognized and seen by the state (for example, through the fight for same-sex marriage), Stanley highlights how being clocked as trans is not only the precondition for legal legibility, it is also often the precondition for state violence. Case in point is the brutal beating of Duanna Johnson at the hands of a Memphis Police Officer while detained in a jail intake area. After Johnson refused the officer’s demeaning efforts to beckon Johnson by calling her a “he-she” and “faggot,” the officer attacked. Recognition preceded and, indeed, precipitated violence. 

Bringing into relief how individual justice and the state offer little long-term solution, Stanley notes that neither the presence of CCTV cameras nor other officers and nurses did anything to prevent this violence. Pursuant to Stanley’s retelling, the other state employees seemed remarkably unperturbed by Johnson’s beating. And though a guilty verdict would have only allowed the state to justify itself on the back of violence toward trans people, the officer’s trial resulted in a mistrial (he ultimately pled guilty to a two-year sentence for both the beating AND unrelated tax evasion charges). 

Like Stanley, Paisley Currah is skeptical of the mainstream LGBT movement’s focus on legal recognition—including through development of the “transgender identity umbrella.” While Currah acknowledges that the category “transgender” has helped garner some modest political achievements for people who identify with the moniker, he likewise argues that those achievements do not justify using the category as its own self-explanatory tool. Relatedly, Currah critiques efforts (of which he has partaken) to identify—definitively—the source of gender. He highlights the degree to which such efforts augment the state’s power over gender truth while making rights contingent on society arriving at one, singular truth. Currah notes that even within the transgender community, such as it is, the differing views on gender are manifold—beautifully so. 

For Currah, the investment in both enshrining the category transgender (broad as it is) and establishing the truth of gender have at times created more heat than light. That is, like Stanley, Currah observes the ways in which the ascendance of the category of transgender and trans visibility has fomented additional violence against trans people. But at the same time, “transgender” is often deployed so as to obscure the ways in which race, class, and immigration status dictate the trajectory of people’s lives. In the process, the journey for recognition has become disconnected from the quest for distributive justice. 

For solutions, Stanley looks to the lived reality of specific trans/queer people of color. Their exemplars here are Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Miss Major, whose lives serve as an anti-recognition strategy. Learning from Johnson’s and Rivera’s refusal to succumb to the politics of assimilation and respectability as well their efforts to create mutual aid survival projects independent of the state, Stanley suggests that collective efforts at becoming ungovernable offer an emancipatory path. By ungovernable Stanley means, at least in part, either refusing to look to the state for recognition or confounding the state’s efforts to recognize. For Stanley, refusing to ascribe to specific state-based gender identities not only creates the most space for trans/queer as tendencies but also destabilizes and casts the practice of state surveillance as both unnecessary and suspect. Put differently, if society distributed benefits and ensured well-being regardless of demographics, the need to surveil for that information is diminished. 

Bringing this point home, Stanley looks to the example of Miss Major who after successfully changing many of her identification documents to denote her as “female” changed them back to “male” because “she did not want the state to understand her as a cis woman.” While Major emphasizes that such acts of resistance are not available to or safe for all people, for Stanley, Major’s resistance is the kind of minor act that if built on not only refuses the state, but also eases the ability to live here and now. 

Instead of emphasizing individual and collective resistance, Currah suggests that to overcome the limitations of identity politics and the allure of state recognition we need, perhaps counterintuitively, look to the state. Currah observes that different agencies within jurisdictions took different, at times contradictory, approaches to permitting (or denying) efforts to reclassify sex based on the governmental purpose of the document. So, a person could be classified as male by one agency and female by another, depending on the governmental purpose of the classification. For instance, he explains how in a string of decisions courts refused to allow gender reclassification in the context of marriage because, from the institutions’ perspective, marriage was about the action of heterosexual, reproductive sex. Without evidence trans people could engage in such sex, their sex was what they were assigned at birth. Conversely, as to identification documents, reclassification was more readily granted by institutions because the purpose of such documents is to facilitate state surveillance of the individual which was furthered by “accuracy.” 

Currah uses this analysis of the role of classification in facilitating government goals/interests to suggest, like Stanley, that while obtaining documents that reflect people’s identities is important, it isn’t everything. The liberating potential of “accurate” sex classifications is circumscribed by the degree to which such reclassification advances state governmental objectives. For Currah, such recognition legitimates statist control of identity at the same time it circumscribes gender identity along binary lines and occludes retributive concerns. 

To be clear, neither author totally discounts the role of animus in contributing to the policies and practices that deny the existence of trans people. And both recognize that efforts to reduce barriers to gender affirming identification documents are a necessary form of harm reduction, partially mitigating the degree of violence visited upon gender nonconforming people. But both are equally adamant that such efforts also reify the state, its legitimacy, its power of recognition, and its power to destroy.

These are moving, much needed books that weave together an astonishing breadth of literature on trans/queer theory, yes, but settler colonialism, semiotics, and more. But more important than their depth and nuance is the urgency and clarity of purpose with which they are written: while the stakes for the lives of trans/queer people have never been higher, the possibilities offered by trans/queer tendencies for decreased governance and increased community are just as capacious—and beautiful—as the possibilities they offer for gender.