The connection between transgender politics and US surveillance practices might seem obvious. In the opening chapter to Toby Beauchamp‘s study Going Stealth, they are starkly – and literally – illustrated on the cover of a training manual for True the Vote (a right-wing offshoot of the Texas Tea Party, self-appointed to monitor polls for purported instances of voter fraud). It illustrates a figure with masculine features (a bulky body, facial and body hair) wearing a dress and carrying a purse.
What the right-wing Tea Party off-shoot thinks it’s expressing in a humorous way is the presence of a deceitful voter – someone pretending to be other than what they are, at least in the limited imaginary of a Tea Party reactionary, their brain calcified into regressive, outdated and offensive gender norms. It’s one example of a much wider problem, and not just for those who are perceived to be trans or gender non-conforming.
“Surveillance practices working through identification documents, air travel, and public bathrooms help construct an understanding of gender noncompliance that then directly and indirectly rationalizes surveillance targeting many different groups, including but not limited to the transgender-identified,” explains Beauchamp.
What Beauchamp’s book reveals is that the connections between transgender politics and surveillance practices run much deeper than the obvious. Couched in the densely academic tome is a series of provocative considerations about the ways in which surveillance practices come to define state norms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ citizenship – in the practice of gender as well as other identity-based norms — and in which seemingly critical activist responses to those practices often wind up retrenching both the norms as well as the broader surveillance state itself.
“Criticizing what they read as instances of transphobia or anti-transgender discrimination, some prominent organizations offered both transgender individuals and government agencies strategies for reducing that discrimination,” says Beauchamp. “While attending to the very real harm that government policies for identification documents cause for many transgender-identified people, these organizations’ approaches tend to leave intact the broader regulation of gender, particularly as it is mediated and enforced by state agencies. Moreover, they tend to address concerns about anti-transgender discrimination in ways that are disconnected from the central questions of citizenship and race that have long structured government surveillance through identification documents…many of these strategies reconsolidate U.S. nationalism and facilitate the increased policing of deviant bodies and identities.”
The problem, Beauchamp observes, is that far too many trans advocates and lobbyists propose ‘solutions’ which serve to shore up an inherently unjust system. Instead of challenging the steady erosion of privacy rights, or fighting on behalf of those who never truly enjoyed them in the first place, many mainstream lobbyists seek legal recognition for their constituency within the prevailing system. They try to educate airport security agencies as to the inherent harmlessness or medical necessity of prosthetics or other devices used by trans passengers, for instance, focusing on how not to embarrass or inconvenience those passengers instead of engaging in a broader critique, in solidarity with other groups, against the surveillance regime itself.
The entire regime of airport security, and of white nationalist securitization more broadly in the US, is based on defining a particular group as ‘other’ or ‘abnormal’, which also necessitates defining who is ‘normal’. Since 9/11 (and before then as well, if not as intensively) abnormality in white nationalist America has been designated by dark-skinned, racialized, and Muslim bodies. Yet perceived gender nonconformity – people who don’t match other people’s expectations along lines of gender presentation – are also positioned as abnormal.
Mainstream trans advocacy groups often premise their advocacy around seeking acceptance for trans bodies as normal (or, in a patriotic nationalist security environment, loyal and patriotic) bodies; ones that pose no risk to the state and are not trying to hide anything. This is a strategy which works better for some bodies than others. It privileges those bodies which are already positioned closer to the border of normative ‘respectability’: white bodies, affluent bodies. It also privileges trans bodies that adhere closely to any of the existing gendered norms. Bodies that appear visibly gender non-conforming, or clearly genderqueer, tend to remain outside the pale and under suspicion, along with racialized and dark-skinned bodies.
This problem – the partial and fragmentary nature of mainstream trans advocacy, grounded in approaches that privilege whiteness, retrench gender norms and ignore a growing class divide – pervades other areas of modern life as well. Increasing state crackdowns on identity documents, and the growing demand for residents and citizens to possess and use authorized identity documents (an ongoing erosion of privacy on its own) affect trans persons in distinct ways. They struggle within a chaotic patchwork of differing local, state and federal rules around how aspects of one’s identity – official name and gender, for instance – can be changed.
Some jurisdictions have stricter rules than others; some require more intrusive processes or create bigger or smaller paper-trails that risk outing people against their will. There is an irony, Beauchamp notes, in that trans people are often forced to surrender their privacy. Wittingly or not, they submit themselves to the enhanced scrutiny of bureaucrats, filling in applications and submitting documents that leave lengthy paper-trails in bureaucratic archives. In so doing, the hope to achieve the privacy they seek in the form of an official state-sanctioned and documented gender identity that reflects who they are.
The intrusiveness and scrutiny of the state when it comes to identity documents has intensified in recent years, and as with airport security measures, many mainstream trans advocacy groups have focused on achieving state recognition and respectability for those they represent. This has the effect of enhancing the perceived legitimacy and pervasiveness of state surveillance overall, warns Beauchamp, in addition to constituting an erosion of privacy rights. (Beauchamp emphasizes that ‘privacy rights’ have only ever been enjoyed and accessed by certain people – mostly white, affluent and gender-normative – to begin with.)
It also ignores the differing ability of some individuals to adhere to the standards for which advocates are lobbying. Where policies exist stipulating how individuals may legally change their gender on state documents, individuals who follow those often arbitrary rules are more likely to find their lives easier. But this might require pursuing surgery or hormones, submitting to the interrogation of multiple doctors and psychiatrists, or undergoing other processes which they might or might not choose to pursue if not pressured into it by the surveillance mechanisms of the state which make life difficult for gender nonconforming people. By seeking to carve out a ‘safe space’ for trans people within the overall rubric of state surveillance, advocacy groups are both legitimizing the phenomenon of growing state surveillance, as well as ignoring the plight of the many people who don’t fit into the neat niches they are trying to carve.
Sometimes this reflects a historical blindness as well. For example, Beauchamp notes, X-ray machines were used in the US prison system long before they began to be used in airports. Yet widespread concern about the social and medical effects of their use on people without their consent only began to spark public debate when certain bodies (white, affluent travellers) began to find themselves also exposed to these risks when the use of x-ray scanners was expanded to airports. Why wasn’t there widespread concern about their use on incarcerated populations, especially given the disproportionate prevalence of trans persons within the prison system?
Deception and Non-Conformity
Many of the laws that today target – or permit exceptions for – trans persons are premised on a broader panic around the idea of deception. In the airport security line, this manifests as fear of passengers smuggling weapons or explosives on their body or in their luggage. In identification forms, it manifests as people who are perceived to be (or who present as) other than what their official documents state. In bathrooms, it manifests around a fear of what genitals lurk behind bathroom stalls or within people’s clothes.
What Beauchamp endeavours to show is that the suspicions, fears, and laws that target trans people are part of a broader constellation of policies – and ideas – based around a fear of deceptive bodies. This broader fear does not only target trans people. In the US, it has long targeted Black Americans, who are perceived as deceptive and criminal by racist police and therefore targeted for search, arrest, or brutal or fatal police aggression. It also targets Muslims, who are assumed to be deceptive terrorists by security agents. It now also targets immigrants and non-white bodies more broadly, who are assumed by white officials to be in the country illegally, or to be scamming state welfare schemes.
Nationalism, racism, fascism – they all operate and thrive by the manipulation and deliberate stoking of fears that situate particular people or groups as deceitful, untrustworthy and therefore disloyal to the state.
Juxtaposed against this is a conception of the good, loyal citizen, as one who does not object to or fear state scrutiny and the surrender of their privacy; or even one who welcomes it. This manifests in the embrace (or passive acceptance) of more restrictive legislation and the over-eager, even performative participation in security rituals like those which occur in airports. (An example is business travelers who register for the various frequent flyer programs that allow expedited passage through security in exchange for payment of fees and the surrender of additional layers of biomedical data in order to facilitate state monitoring.) And it is particular bodies – white, affluent, normatively gendered – that are most able to align with this conception of ‘loyal’ citizenship.
Bathroom Bills and Citizenship Norms
‘Bathroom bills’ are another prime example of this process that Beauchamp explores. In response to efforts by various US states and municipalities since the 1970s to expand their definitions of gender identity (and thus relax gender norms, whether intentionally or not) regressive and right-wing legislators have responded with an array of legislation designed to stoke fear and retrench gendered norms. These ‘bathroom bills’, which assume a range of forms but generally criminalize use of gender-segregated bathrooms that do not align with the gender listed on one’s birth certificate, are accompanied by bogus fears involving sexual molestation of children or women in bathrooms.
Yet beyond these bills that are used to target trans rights and reify gender norms, bathrooms have long been a site of contestation around the construction of citizenship norms, Beauchamp observes. The introduction of public bathrooms in the 19th century – initially only for white men — was a response to the growing participation of women in the public sphere (working in factories and elsewhere) and was designed to underscore white men’s privileged access to that sphere. Later, bathrooms were also targeted by racist Jim Crow laws, with racially segregated bathrooms for ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’ appearing in many US cities and workplaces.
Beauchamp argues that bathroom segregation in the latter case was in fact less about separating ‘white’ and ‘black’ bathroom-users, and more about underscoring in the public imaginary an association between African-Americans and dirt or filth. It was not, in other words, just that it was considered inappropriate by white legislators for white Americans and African-Americans to use the same bathroom, but that such segregation implied that ‘black’ bathrooms would be inherently dirtier, and thus must be segregated. A related argument has emerged in the irrational fear fostered by transphobic conservatives that allowing trans women to use women’s washrooms would bring violence into that space.
Beauchamp notes that these are neither purely similar nor completely distinct examples; it’s more complicated than that. To suggest that the plight of trans persons denied the right to use the bathroom that most closely corresponds to their gender identity echoes an earlier plight faced by African-Americans denied the right to use bathrooms segregated along the lines of perceived race. This racial segregation still exists in the form of Black Americans’ exclusion from (or heightened scrutiny and harassment within) many public spaces overall, which includes bathrooms located in public spaces (office buildings, parks, etc). Both, however, are manifestations of a broader attempt to construct a state-enforced notion of ‘good’ citizenship, in which the ‘good citizen’, who is granted full and inclusive participation in the state, is distinguished by particular markers (white, affluent, normatively-gendered, etc.).
In the case of ‘bathroom bills’, like other manifestations of the increasingly repressive nature of American life under state surveillance, there is a risk that trans advocacy groups do a broader disservice by lobbying for exceptions for trans persons in ways that foster cooperation with — and thereby legitimize — state security and surveillance regimes. Not only does this leave the broader repressive framework of heightened state surveillance intact, and does nothing to challenge it, but it also implicitly excludes many trans people as well. Those unable to conform to the norms of whiteness, class, and clear gender norms become the basis for limited degrees of legislative exceptionalism.
The counter-argument to all this, of course, is that legal and advocacy strategies employed by mainstream trans advocacy groups stand a very good chance of making life better for some people at least. This framing presents the problem as a trade-off: is it more practical to improve life in a small way for a few people, even by cooperating with a repressive regime; or to adopt a broader strategy that will be much more difficult to achieve but embraces a far broader scale of emancipation and benefits far more people?
Framing it simply as a practical choice ignores the profound ethical shortfalls of an advocacy strategy that only benefits some (white, affluent, norm-adhering). It also ignores the fact that by accepting a limited exceptionalism for some, the broader repressive framework is strengthened. A strategy in which willing participation in an increasingly repressive system is seen as a viable response to oppression is a poor strategy indeed. One need look no further than the sorry plight of Jews who thought they could curry Nazi favour in the 1920s and ’30s by enthusiastically cooperating with them. They would soon realize how limited and short-sighted such a strategy is, and how easily and unexpectedly it can backfire. (There are countless other examples of this process one could cite, as well).
There are contemporary examples of the danger in cooperating with state security and surveillance regimes. Beauchamp cites the example of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in the US. Under the Obama administration DACA was used to guarantee safety and access to public services for undocumented children and youth, provided they adhered to the rules of the program which required extensive documentation, scrutiny and surveillance. The very surveillance which was used as a precondition to protect these children under the Obama administration, however, was then accessed and used for a very different purpose by the Trump administration that followed – it was used to persecute and deport many of those children. This is the danger of any security and surveillance regime – even if one agrees with, or is not troubled by, its application in one context, the data it produces can very quickly and easily be applied to other, more clearly nefarious ends.
TERFs and State Surveillance
Beauchamp quips that his book “is a transgender studies book that is not terribly interested in transgender people.” His interest lies in exploring how “a transgender critique…offers a way to read various anxieties about gender conformity with a particular focus on their relationship to racism, xenophobia, ableism and securitization.”
It’s an accurate enough description, and one of the book’s strengths is its powerful demonstration of the importance and value of a transgender critique applied as a broad lens to public policy and political theory.
One discussion Beauchamp omits, and which would have been interesting to consider, is how the activity of so-called Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs – transphobic activists who purport to be feminist yet seek to undermine trans rights) fits within his broader critique. While mainstream trans advocacy groups come under criticism for their collaborationist strategies with the US state security regime, TERFs also play a profound role in legitimizing and expanding state violence toward women and other groups.
By lobbying for ‘bathroom bills’ and other measures that target trans and gender non-conforming people, TERFs lend an added veneer of perceived respectability to state surveillance regimes. This aligns neatly with the fact most TERFs are affluent white women who implicitly benefit from the privileges that accompany the expansion of white supremacy and nationalism, even as they pretend to ground their arguments in feminist rhetoric. Beauchamp’s broader arguments hold a great deal of potential for deconstructing TERF violence, and it would useful to see his arguments extended in that direction.
Beauchamp doesn’t so much offer solutions as reveal contradictions; as he notes in his conclusion, an uncritical embrace of illegibility (i.e., gender nonconformity) brings dangers as well. It is both used to justify the development and expansion of surveillance systems and also has been known to heighten the violence and repression some groups face.
Going Stealth is not a book about solutions; it situates itself in that genre of academic literature which aims to reveal the contradictions and shortcomings that lurk on all sides of a discussion. Frustrating though this may be from an advocacy perspective, it’s also a useful reminder of the imperfection of any approach or argument, and a reminder to readers (and activists) to remain open to the critiques of those who are harmed by — or fall through the cracks of — any strategy. Although couched in densely academic and theoretical language that renders it inaccessible for a broad readership, for academics and those with the wherewithal to struggle through it there’s a great deal of intellectual value to be found in a book such as this.