Q&A with Dean Spade

Dean Spade, CUNY Law's 2009–2010 Haywood Burns Chair in Civil Rights, is a leading voice on the intersections of gender identity, poverty, and discrimination. Recognized for his activism and academic contributions, Spade was a Williams Institute Law Teaching Fellow at UCLA Law School and Harvard Law School, teaching classes related to sexual orientation and gender identity law and law and social movements. Currently on the faculty of Seattle University School of Law, Spade recently received a Dukeminier Award for his article "Documenting Gender," and was selected to give the 2009–2010 James A. Thomas Lecture at Yale.

What inspires you to work in civil rights?

Like many people, I think I first got politicized by my own experiences, especially my experiences of growing up on welfare and then becoming aware of welfare politics broadly during the mid- 1990s attacks on welfare. My politics expanded from there, especially as I developed an analysis of how the legal reforms pushed by social movements often fail to address the needs of people facing the worst harms. When I got involved in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender politics in the 1990s, I became aware of how the mainstream "gay rights" frame marginalizes poor people, people of color, trans people, immigrants, people with disabilities, and other highly vulnerable queer and trans people. I wanted to get involved in building resistance that addressed the needs, including legal needs, of those facing multiple vectors of vulnerability.

What led you to establish the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP)?

I founded SRLP in 2002 to respond to the enormous unmet legal needs of low-income people and people of color facing gender identity and expression discrimination. I knew from my own experiences and from those I was close to that trans and gender nonconforming people face high levels of police harassment and arrest, homelessness and barriers to social services, imprisonment, employment discrimination, eviction, deportation, harm in juvenile justice and foster care systems, and sexual violence.

The fact that most of the institutions of social control where poor people and people of color are overrepresented (shelters, jails, prisons, group homes, detention centers, hospitals, etc.) are sex-segregated and refuse to recognize nontraditional gender identities means that trans and gender nonconforming people face both heightened vulnerability to violence and exclusion from services. Further, the increasing trend of excluding trans-related health care from Medicaid and other public insurance programs and the increasing difficulties faced by trans people whose identity documents do not accurately represent them in the context of increased identity surveillance after 9/11 result in significant obstacles to basic survival needs. SRLP's mission is to work on these issues by providing legal services to people in need, changing major laws and policies, and building racial and economic justice–focused trans resistance that demands not just formal legal rights, but also redistribution of wealth and life chances.

What distinguishes CUNY Law from other law schools at which you've taught?

CUNY is an exceptionally exciting place to teach because of the mission and because the students come to the classroom with a much broader range of life experiences and work experiences, as well as a deep commitment to social justice. I find the classroom conversation to be very sophisticated and dynamic because the students are so passionate about examining injustice and strategizing resistance, and they bring so much of themselves to the dialogue.


Spring 2010 Poverty Law class

What do you hope students will learn from your class?

I hope that students in my Poverty Law class will learn to analyze problems of disparity from an intersectional perspective, considering questions of wealth distribution and redistribution through the lenses of feminist critique, critical race studies, queer theory, critical disabilities studies, and women of color feminism. Through this process, I aim to give them a chance to think about the limits of legal reform for addressing wealth disparity, as well as the opportunities for lawyers to be part of resistance efforts whose demands exceed what law can offer.

Q&A originally printed in CUNY Law Spring 2010 Magazine


2009–2010 Haywood Burns Chair in Civil Rights Dean Spade