Black Trans Feminist Thought Can Set Us Free

How can we move beyond a mindset dictated by the logic of prison, policing and anti-Blackness? What is “abolition feminism”? And how do the politics of gender, including the criminalization of trans and nonbinary people, dovetail with our understandings of race? How can deconstructing racialized gender binaries help us move toward justice and liberation?

To confront these questions, I spoke with Che Gossett, a Black nonbinary femme writer based in Brooklyn, New York. They are a 2019-2020 Helena Rubinstein Fellow in Critical Studies in the Whitney Independent Study Program, and a Ph.D. candidate in Women’s and Gender Studies, as well as a graduate fellow at the Center for Cultural Analysis at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. They are co-editor with Professor Eva Hayward of University of Arizona of a forthcoming Transgender Studies Quarterly Journal special issue: “Trans in a Time of HIV/AIDS.”

George Yancy: Within a context where Black people, Indigenous people and people of color (or BIPOC) continue to be victims of a form of racist and capitalist carceral punishment, can you speak to the importance of what is being called “abolition feminism”? Please define the meaning of this important term and speak to its relevance at this critical moment in U.S. history and global history.

Che Gossett: My knowledge of the term abolition feminism derives from Angela Davis and Gina Dent’s critical labor. I think of it as an open invitation to the unfinished liberatory struggle for abolition that is also a Black feminist struggle against anti-Blackness and heteropatriarchy and forms of carceral and white feminism that continue to perpetuate these forms of what Hortense Spillers calls “grammars of capture.” Abolition feminism would not only entail the abolition of the normative version of “feminism,” as opposed to its reform, and is not just a project of negative freedom but one that is immanent to and animate within already existing ensembles of struggle. Spillers’s definition of Black feminism as a “critical disposition” is that it is “a repertoire of concepts, practices, and alignments,” that “is progressive in outlook and dedicated to the view that sustainable life systems must be available to everyone; it also stands up for the survival of this planet.” This concept really resonates with me and I see this as critical to a formulation of “abolition feminism.”

Black trans women and femmes have historically and contemporaneously battled criminalization and policing, the precarious violence of lumpen proletarianization within the capitalist political economy — underground economies of drag and sex were and are criminalized — and also the violence of the anti-Black and anti-trans libidinal economy. My thinking here is informed by Lindon Barrett in terms of how race is conceived as a set of libidinal and corporeal protocols, that is, where “Race is conceived of as a set of libidinal prohibitions” — an economy wherein Black trans people face anti-Black and anti-trans patriarchal violence that is both legal and extralegal. In this moment, I am also thinking about Layleen Polanco, who died at Rikers, in the women’s facility, where the carceral liberals and carceral feminists would have imagined her to be safe. As CeCe McDonald reminds us, prisons are safe for no one.

The premature death of Black trans women continues now in the middle of the COVID-19 epidemic. I went to a powerful protest here in New York City over the summer for Black trans life, which was modeled after the 1917 Silent Parade. The march this summer was a powerful surge of rage and mourning where an estimated 15,000 people attended. This felt like a seismic shift. Black trans demands continue and there’s dedicated mutual aid and organizing happening that made that moment possible. The Brooklyn Liberation, The Okra Project, Marsha P. Johnson Institute, For the Gworls, GLITS and Black Trans Femmes in the Arts have all been doing incredible work at this historical juncture. GLITS just opened the first by and for trans housing complex, and all of these organizations and formations center formerly incarcerated trans people and sex workers.

Black trans women and femmes have not only been at the epicenter of the struggle against racial patriarchy — even while being exiled from and unthought of by feminism — but also there’s an analysis, a study of racial patriarchy that is made available to us through the 1970s political formations: an archive of zines and political grammar (fag, non-men, street queen, etc.) that continues and that is essential to and indispensable for the struggle against racial patriarchy and carceral violence in the present tense.

How do we creatively cultivate spaces that exist outside of carceral logics and anti-Black logics?

I’m not sure that we can ever fully in this “world” create spaces that exist entirely outside of anti-Blackness and its carceral technologies, since we are always under duress. I think one of the incredible lessons of the abolitionist movement, which is a form of critique and praxis, is that abolition is both an interior and external practice. I think of Jared Sexton’s brilliant synopsis: “Slavery is the threshold of the political world, abolition the interminable radicalization of every radical movement.” The radicalization is perennial. And rather than falling for the ruse of political immunity to carceral logics and anti-Blackness, perhaps knowing that this protracted struggle is one that preceded us, and will continue after, can sustain us.

There’s a powerful line in Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth that speaks to contamination and the illusion of purity and the need for an entangled effort: “everyone must be involved in the struggle for the sake of the common salvation. There are no clean hands, no innocent bystanders. We are all in the process of dirtying our hands in the quagmire of our soil and the terrifying void of our minds.”

Black thought has always been “thought of the outside” (to repurpose Maurice Blanchot). Part of this thinking of the outside is the project of moving against and beyond the coordinates of what Sylvia Wynter termed “our narratively condemned status” in her incredible essay “No Human Involved,” which she wrote following the brutal assault and viral circulation (the digital afterlife of slavery) on Rodney King.

Wynter’s “Towards the Sociogenic Principle” holds out a theoretical and political horizon for life beyond/against the racial and colonial figure of the Human, which she so brilliantly terms a genre. In this pathbreaking essay, Wynter parts ways with functionalism — the theory that the mind is what it does — and argues for sociogenesis: “if the mind is what the brain does, what the brain does, is itself culturally determined through the mediation of the socialized sense of self, as well as of the ‘social’ situation in which this self is placed.” For Wynter, not only is Man a genre but so too is (the theory of) Mind. Within a context where the mind-body problem is maintained, with its positing of an a priori universalized consciousness, the phylogenetic/ontogenetic dyad is a symptom of whiteness in that it ignores sociogeny and it can take that position of epistemic pseudo- or quasi-ignorance as a result of not experiencing racialization. In this sense, mind is seen as universal and given, as opposed to constructed.

To modify and repurpose theories of mind that posit underlying laws that determine the necessity for consciousness in the face of the question as to why living creatures, humans in particular, require conscious experience at all, Wynter extends Fanon’s theorization of sociogeny. She brilliantly shows how thinking with Fanon opens up “insights into the laws which govern the realm of lived subjective experience, human and nonhuman, which govern therefore, the interrelated phenomena of identity, mind and/or consciousness.”

Wynter makes a lateral move and offers, via her theorization of the Human as a genre, a de-hierarchization of life/subjectivities. This to me, especially in this moment of what anti-Black capitalist planetary destruction might look like, speaks to other formations and orchestrations of life that work toward new iterations of livability and inhabitability of this planet.

I have written about how cisgender Black men have suffered under the gaze of whiteness, how they have been rendered both invisible and hyper-visible. Within the context of the U.S.’s anti-Black imaginary, Black men are deemed criminals, thugs and brutal animals. My work here presupposes a gender binary that I leave untroubled. Could you speak to how violence operates precisely at the site of the gender binary?

The violent figuration of Black people as criminals, thugs and brutal animals — “beasts,” since they are imagined creatures, not actual animals — is also sexualized and gendered against Black trans, queer and gender nonconforming people. This can be seen with the anti-Black and anti-trans viral lithograph of Black trans sex worker Mary Jones in 1836. She was demonized as “monstrous” as she testified that she had “always dressed this way amongst people of my own colour.” Or, think about the news media referring to the Black, gender-nonconforming queer young people known as the NJ4 — whose struggle was the center of the documentary Out in the Night — who defended themselves against patriarchal and homophobic attacks and were prosecuted as a result, and referred to as a “wolf pack.” It is this aestheticization of anti-Blackness that we face in trying either to force us to be “normal” or in figuring us as disposable. Again, this is the discursive violence of what Wynter calls “our narratively condemned status.”

Blackness is gender trouble. The etymology of cisgender itself presumes a correspondence between assigned sex and gender, which fails to account for Blackness. Thinking here of Black feminist and Black trans studies’ deconstruction of sex and gender, of Spillers’s “ungendering” and also the work of Riley Snorton and also Zakiyyah Imani Jackson on the anti-Black logic of binary sexuation. As Snorton argues, “captive flesh figures a critical genealogy for modern transness, as chattel persons gave rise to an understanding of gender as mutable and as an amenable form of being” — this happens through fungibility. The slave is the ground for “modern” gender and sexuality.

In her writing on fungibility in Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartman expands the conceptualization of the commodity form by showing how the figure of the slave as commodity is situated not only in the political but also within a libidinal economy of what Frank Wilderson calls “gratuitous violence.” Hartman and Fred Moten think of the commodity that speaks (which Marx only imagines) and, moreover, the commodity that screams. Black thought begins with the un-apprehension of being. Marx beyond Marx (to sabotage Antonio Negri). Hartman writes about the relationship between libidinal economy and political economy that is consecrated in the commodity form and its fungibility and trans-positionality. In a paragraph worth quoting at length, she argues:

The relation between pleasure and the possession of slave property, in both the figurative and literal senses, can be explained in part by the fungibility of the slave — that is, the joy made possible by virtue of the replaceability and interchangeability endemic to the commodity — and by the extensive capacities of property — that is, the augmentation of the master subject through his embodiment in external objects and persons. Put differently, the fungibility of the commodity makes the captive body an abstract and empty vessel vulnerable to the projection of others’ feelings, ideas, desires, and values.

Black queer and trans and feminist thought provide an arsenal of critique and praxis that allows us to think rigorously both about violence, and to think again alongside Frank Wilderson’s brilliant grammar, the demand for “gratuitous freedom.” The violence that you are describing is part of a broader matrix of the gender binary that constantly seeks to imperil and outlaw Blackness, despite the failed optimism of appeals to what Jared Sexton calls “borrowed institutionality.”

How might the discourse and praxis of Trans Studies help us to move forward, to a world where justice and radical love prevails?

One of the problems of the heralded moment of “trans visibility” is the assumption that trans is perceptible and knowable, that you can visually isolate trans or that there are more authentic versions of trans than others, which implies a kind of hierarchical and vertical visual economy. Trans visibility so often means surveillance, especially by non-trans people and also by the security state — from TSA at airports to the welfare line. This is rigorously studied and dismantled by Toby Beauchamp in Going Stealth: Transgender Politics and U.S. Surveillance Practices and in Eric Stanley’s brilliant essay on visibility as an anti-trans optic (and operation). I’m interested in how trans artists through their visual theorizing are subverting that order through iterations of trans “opacity” and troubling aesthetics as a racial and patriarchal regime. For example, Ser Serpas, who in a show in 2017 at the gallery Current Projects exhibited as “self- portrait,” undercuts the autobiographical notion of the self and its portrait, titled penultimate warrior. The “self-portrait” was an incinerated armchair that she had lit on fire after throwing estradiol on it. The armchair isn’t an armchair anymore; rather than perfected, it is undone. Trans as gender in ruins.

Thinking about another intervention and troubling of trans linearity and visibility within the frame of trans studies is Eva Hayward’s “More Lessons from a Starfish: Prefixial Flesh and Transspeciated Selves.” Hayward presents an alternative to the medical linear narrative of trans women and femme embodiment as ontological insufficiency and corporeal lack — the idea that to transition requires a supplement to an originary lack that is then solved by reassignment surgery that would make one into a “real” woman. Instead, Hayward shows how every cut is a fold, how there’s no lack but instead a transition of body from itself to itself.

Finally, in thinking about Black trans art and the afterlife of slavery, it’s important to bring attention to the incredible aesthetic, cinematic and archival labor of the filmmaker and artist Tourmaline. Hartman argues that the afterlife of slavery is an aesthetic problem and I see the work of Tourmaline as both an inhabitation of that problem, through speculative cinematography and what Hartman terms “critical fabulation.” Tourmaline’s film Salacia, which is now in the permanent collection of both the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate in London, as well as her films Happy Birthday Marsha and Atlantic is a Sea of Bones helps us imagine the Black trans aesthetics of abolition, as well as think of the historical temporality of Blackness and transness beyond the limits to and effacements of the archive of slavery.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.