Who is Dean Spade? (a.k.a. Why I’m So Excited About His Book)

So, I realized that I just freaked out about the fact that Dean Spade has a book coming out, and most of you have probably never heard of him (unless you were near me around the 26th of March this past spring, as I had just attended a lecture he gave and wouldn’t shut up about him).

He’s a trans activist, attorney, professor, author, etc — I’ve posted tons of links to his website (see?). He founded the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in New York City, which is really cool. He’s written a lot of stuff I really respect. One of my favorite essays in Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (which I read for “Social Dynamics of Oppression,” my Chris MacDonald-Dennis class) was written by Dean Spade. It’s called “Mutilating Gender,” and it was possibly my favorite essay in the anthology. It’s definitely the one I remember most vividly. That might be the reason why I initially decided to go see him, actually, when he spoke at Swarthmore College’s 2010 Queer Issues Symposium (“Critical Queer and Trans Political Practice: Movement Infrastructure and Accountability). Well, that essay, and the fact that lecture title sounded super interesting.

And then one of the people I most admire and respect called Dean Spade “brilliant” and “absolutely my favorite thinker in the entire world,” so I was like, “Okay, now I really, absolutely, positively have to go see him.” And I did!

Me with Dean Spade

There I am with Dean Spade at the lecture.

I actually hadn’t realized just how much of Dean Spade’s writings I’d read until after I’d met him. It felt like things just keep popping up. I realized that I had written a blog post that referenced a statement by Dean Spade about gay marriage for my intro Gen/Sex class (Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Gender and Sexuality) last fall. One of the essays that most stood out to me in Transgender Rights — a book I bought in 2009 — is his “Compliance is Gendered: Struggling for Gender Self-Determination in a Hostile Economy.” My favorite essay from Morty Diamond’s From the Inside Out: Radical Gender Transformation, FTM and Beyond is Dean’s “Once More… With Feeling,” which says, in four short pages, basically everything I want to tell people about pronouns.

As I was writing this post, when I retrieved a link on Dean’s website, I noticed that he had written an essay in Matt Bernstein Sycamore’s anthology Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity. I bought and read Nobody Passes last summer, and while I really enjoyed it, I don’t specifically remember any of the individual essays off the top of my head (perhaps partly because it’s one of the few trans-related books I own that didn’t make its way into my thesis). So, I flipped through the book until I found Dean’s essay “Undermining Gender Regulation,” and it all came rushing back to me. It’s less academic that some of his other essays, more personal, and it just feels so very real. Dean writes about how, even in the trans community, trans folk are often held to rigid notions of the gender binary, and he shows how harmful that can be:

Yes, all communities that come together around shared identity traits regulate each other through ideas of realness. Yes, every time someone walks into the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and says, “You’re Dean Spade?” with a disappointed and aghast tone and then tells me ze thought I’d be older, taller, more confident looking, looking like a lawyer, and, most importantly, look like a man, it’s a little bit of a bummer. On some days it’s funny, and the part about not looking like a lawyer I take as a compliment, but I can’t say this that this obvious disappointment in my inadequate masculinity doesn’t sting just a touch.

My emergence into public trans politics was hastened by my arrest for trying to use a men’s bathroom in Grand Central Station in 2002. Immediately following that, I was slammed on several trans listservs by people writing about how I must not pass if I’d been arrested and I probably didn’t even take T and I was an asshole and not a real trans guy for getting myself and my friends arrested. It felt horrible. I remember being afraid the first time I went to a big trans conference after that, of having people see me and know my name and judge me for how I looked. As much as I didn’t believe in a vision of trans politics that required me to be traditionally masculine and passing in order not to be blameworthy for my illegal arrest and twenty-three hours in jail, I still felt insecure, and I remember trying to “butch it up” in community spaces where I might come under fire. People were pissed that I was representing myself in public as trans and was not passing as a non-trans man. Folks were concerned that the legitimacy of trans identity in the eyes of a transphobic culture is frequently tied to how normal and traditionally masculine or feminine trans people appear. I was ruining it for everyone (65).


Spade, Dean. “Undermining Gender Regulation.” Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity. Ed. Matt Bernstein Sycamore. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2006. 64-70.

4 responses to “Who is Dean Spade? (a.k.a. Why I’m So Excited About His Book)

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