CUNY Chancellor to CUNY students, staff, and faculty on NYPD spying: Not my problem

On October 29, 2015, the Gothamist broke the story of an undercover officer from the NYPD spying on Muslim students at Brooklyn College for the last several years. (The officer had gone to far as to pretend to have converted to Islam, according to the Gothamist.)  As a follow up story  in the Huffington Post pointed out, “It’s also unclear why Ser [the faux Muslim undercover agent] would need to spy on law-abiding CUNY students for two years in order to arrest the two Queens women, neither of whom matriculated at a CUNY school.”

In response to this latest spying incident–it is, unfortunately not the first time Muslim students at CUNY were targeted by the police–hundreds of students, staff, and faculty signed a letter to CUNY Chancellor Milliken asking him to make a clear statement opposing these undercover operations and requesting that he take steps to end them. As the letter points out, “such surveillance chills the atmosphere of free speech and open dialogue that educational institutions require, and it violates constitutional protections that require specific search warrants.”

Whatever one might think about Chancellor Milliken or the CUNY administration in general, one would assume that acceding to this simple request would be a no-brainer.  Of course undercover police should not be on campus spying on and infiltrating Muslim student groups. Of course the university administration should work to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

But that’s not what happened.  Milliken didn’t even bother to respond to the letter himself–he handed it off to his chief lawyer.  And counsel’s response: “CUNY recognizes that the use of undercover officers in the context of political or religious groups can inhibit the free exercise of constitutionally protected rights. It is for that reason that limitations were imposed on that practice in Handshu. [He possibly is referring to  Handschu]. The Mayor and Police Commission [sic]  have publicly stated that the NYPD’s activities are conducted in compliance with those guidelines. If you know of evidence that the NYPD has violated them, you should bring it to the attention of the attorneys for the plaintiffs in that case.”

This last sentence is especially reprehensible.  CUNY can be, admittedly, a DIY sort of place for faculty, staff, and students. (And apparently for administrators as well, given the lack of proofing in the response.)  But this brings the DIY mandate at CUNY to a whole new level:  do your own investigation.  And if you do find evidence of a violation of the Constitution, don’t bother the CUNY Chancellor or the Office of Legal Counsel with that.  Bring it to the plaintiffs’ attorneys in a  case originally filed in the 1970s.

Are Trans Politics Feminist?

Are Transgender Politics Feminist? Can a movement organized to contest the legal, medical and social constructions of gender also advance a feminist politics centered on improving women’s lives? As trans studies dismantles the imperatives of the gender binary, how can we ensure its practitioners not lose sight of the long history of gender oppression and the continued existence of gender inequality? And why don’t transgender politics seem feminist to some people? As they say on Facebook, it’s complicated.

To hear the longer answer, come to my talk TONIGHT at the CUNY Graduate Center: Thursday, November 12, 2015 6:30-8:00 Skylight Room, 9100.  In addition to laying out the current tensions between trans politics and feminism, I’ll talk about oppositions  internal to each of these umbrella-like political formations and how they add to the confusion. I’ll be covering a lot of ground (quickly though), including: presumably settled debates between difference vs. equality feminism, women’s colleges, the language of abortion advocacy, misogyny, the difference between political projects based on recognition and those focused on (re)distribution, trans exceptionalism, the transgender umbrella, gender pluralism, and yes, of course, Caitlin Jenner.

Sponsored by the Center for the Study of Women in Society and co-sponsored by CLAGS, The Center for LGBTQ Studies.

The conversation, distilled

Feminist leftist: I dislike what Clinton has done in the past and her politics now. Let me be clear, I do not support her campaign and I will not vote for her, I will vote for Sanders. But I would like to point out that there is still a lot of sexism circulating around her.

Regular leftist: You’re wrong to support Hillary because she is a woman. That’s identity politics of the worst kind.

Feminist leftist: I didn’t say anyone should support her just because she is a woman. I just said misogyny still matters.

Regular leftist: You’re trying to silence me by calling me sexist. I will not be silenced. Let me tell you why you shouldn’t support Hillary.

Meanwhile, on the right: “…ruthless hag…”

Regular leftist: [Silence].

Some support Clinton precisely because she is a woman. When this conversation appears in their newsfeed, when they hear the regular left argue against her candidacy by saying misogyny doesn’t matter, it just doesn’t ring true to them. When they hear that no one should vote for a woman simply because she would be the first woman president, that we should vote for the best person, they are reminded of how sex-blindness has worked out for them in their workplace. These supporters have probably paid little attention to how her actual politics might affect women, people living in poverty, working people, potential victims of US militarism during a Clinton presidency, Africans (“We’ve got to get over what happened 50, 100, 200 years ago and let’s make money for everybody,” said Clinton about the continent). But any potential to change some of these supporters’ minds by talking about how Clinton’s positions would not be good for most women has evaporated. For them, the regular leftist has no credibility. Clinton’s campaign benefits from discussions of sexism and by its denial.

It’s really not so hard or labor intensive to acknowledge the continued presence of misogyny in politics. So why not do it? Given that effect of these regular leftists’ arguments might be to increase or consolidate support for Clinton’s campaign, those of a more conspiracy minded bent might wonder if some of them were on the her payroll. A less paranoid explanation: misogyny.

Blind grading

This week, I was reminded of probably the most important pedagogical lesson I learned in grad school.  During my first year, I hadn’t been given much funding–only a “gradership,” a term new to me.  So unlike the rest of my peers, my first semester I was evaluating student work in a political theory course, with maybe 60 students. The professor–a hugely venerated figure in the field who I was excited to have the opportunity to work with–asked me to grade just six papers and he’d review them to see if my grades were on target before I graded all of them. Made sense. When I met with him to go over the papers, he decided that my evaluation was off for five of the six grades: he lowered two, raised three, and left one the same. Humbled, I walked back to the TA office to enter the new grades.

Here’s the thing I realized in the TA hovel: he had lowered the two grades I had assigned to students with traditionally female names and raised the grades of the three students with traditionally male names. And the sixth paper?  During our meeting, he had puzzled over the name for quite some time, wondering if it was man’s or a woman’s name. I had no opinion myself on that.  That grade he left alone.



Trans Political Economy — CFP


TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly Issue 4 Volume 1, 2017

Special issue on Trans- Political Economy

Co-editors Dan Irving ( and Vek Lewis (

Trans* embodiment, subjectivities, networks, advocacy and resistance are mediated by global capitalism and neoliberal regimes of accumulation on national, state and local levels. This issue invites trans scholarship that engages with political economy as an assemblage of dynamic processes that frame but do not completely determine the material lives of non-normatively sexed and/or gendered individuals and communities.

This issue aims to problematize the multidimensional circuits and flows of capital, labour and bodies across various types of borders. How do the material experiences of trans* subjects advance understandings of the political economy of intra- and transnational mobilities? What do the politics of trans migration reveal about the gender/labour/violence nexus and racialized hierarchies that facilitate the advancement of passable bodies while hindering others? How is the legibility of gendered, racialized, sexualized bodies contingent on being properly located in relation to social, economic and cultural capital? How do trans/feminist and other social justice scholars and activists hold particular trans subjectivities (especially trans women) personally responsible for their participation in geopolitical and biocapitalist relations in ways that other gender non-conforming individuals are not?

Debates concerning post-Fordist productive/consumer relations, gender and immaterial labour represent another point of entry for scholarly-activist inquiry into the political economic relations governing these new times. While the expansion of the service economy within post-industrial societies is characteristic of Post-Fordism (e.g. food and hospitality services, childcare, retail), this regime of accumulation emphasizes the centrality of service relations between workers and consumers in all sectors. Capitalist relations exceed narrowly defined economic processes (i.e. commodity production/consumption) and pivot around affective labour, moral or emotional economies.  In other words, individual bodies and personalities are put to work to create positive consumer experiences (i.e. workers’ appearances must be attractive, voices soothing, and behavior must signal enthusiasm, dedication, and/or deference to authority).  How do the un/der/employment experiences of trans men and women, demonstrate the failure of particular bodies to produce feelings of security, safety, belonging, and satisfaction? How does trans labour contribute to economies of desire? What logics and interests underline the criminalization and/or precarity of such labour and the lives and status of those implicated?

We are producing trans- political economic analysis in times of war, economic and ecological crises. Such precarious times demand inter/disciplinary inquiry into the ways that gender non-conforming bodies and/or Trans Studies as a body of literature, artistic and activist production serve as sites of contestation. How are the logics of capital being embodied and resisted on micropolitical levels, through non-profit organizations, via social service agencies and through other efforts to achieve substantive equality and transformative justice?

Possible topics may include:

  • trans* affective economies
  • trans entrepreneurialism and economic empowerment
  • the structural realities of race and gender in locales of trans* mobilities
  • Trans and allied critical work and activism that seeks to interrupt ruling relations of contemporary capital and Empire to forge a transformative and decolonial project of social and economic justice.
  • trans* intranational and international migration
  • Trans Studies as marketable brand
  • trans theories of value
  • criminalized economies
  • neoliberal biopolitics and/or administering life chances
  • economies of trans representation within neoliberal market society
  • accumulation processes and bodies that matter
  • trans/gender and immaterial labour
  • biomedicine and global capitalism
  • Trans sexualities, commodification and re-appropriation in contemporary junctures.
  • Trans lives in the context of parallel powers, para-state formations and economic contention.
  • Capital and the uses/misuses of stigma
  • substantive equality in contradistinction to formal equality
  • trans necro political economies
  • The profitability of “diversity” in neoliberal contexts and discourses
  • Trans lives, states of exception, disposable labour and market value in the shadow of law and state
  • trans* specific and inclusive social service provision in austere times
  • trans subjectivities and class
  • theorizing economic and ecological crisis
  • Politics of public/private in trans lives
  • Trans sexualities, commodification and re-appropriation in contemporary junctures.
  • trans un/der/employment
  • trans networks and circuits of human, cultural and social capital

To be considered, please send a full length submission by January 31, 2016 to With your article, please include a brief bio including name, postal address, and any institutional affiliation as well as a 150 word abstract with 3-5 keywords. The expected range for scholarly articles is 5000 to 7000 words, and 1000 to 2000 words for shorter critical essays and descriptive accounts. Illustrations should be included with both completed submissions and abstracts. Any questions should be addressed by e-mail sent to the guest editors for the issue: Dan Irving ( and Vek Lewis (

TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly is a new journal, edited by Paisley Currah and Susan Stryker published by Duke University Press. TSQ aims to be the journal of record for the interdisciplinary field of transgender studies and to promote the widest possible range of perspectives on transgender phenomena broadly defined. Every issue of TSQ will be a specially themed issue that also contains regularly recurring features such as reviews, interviews, and opinion pieces. To learn more about the journal and see calls for papers for other special issues, visit   For information about subscriptions, visit


Comparing tenure to marriage

On the day the US same sex marriage decision came down in June, I posted a short comment on Facebook comparing the privileges of marriage to the privileges of tenure.  Given that many of those who see the quest for same-sex marriage as a project oriented around status and property that reproduces inequality are tenured academics, I thought it be pertinent to suggest out that the same could be said of the tenure system.

Here is the original post:

(Warning–polemic alert, and only half tongue in cheek at that.) I agree with the critique of marriage. It certainly reproduces privilege. It’s a status the state uses to distribute resources inequitably. It’s enmeshed with property rights. It replaces the radical political imagination of the outsider with the comfortable and limited horizon of respectable society. But here’s the thing–in all these ways, marriage is lot like tenure for academics. So why are we not also calling for the abolition of tenure? ‪#‎tenureismoredomesticatingthanmarriage‬.

The point I was trying to make is that those of us in privileged positions in the university who rightly critique the distributive injustice of marriage are probably working down the hall from adjuncts who make 20% of what we do, often teach more, often lack benefits, and don’t have a guarantee of lifetime employment.  A few people got what I was saying and really liked the point, but what was most fascinating was that many of the tenured academics who commented were just not able to fathom the analogy at all.  They tended to focus on the importance of academic freedom–which I hadn’t mentioned–but not the material things that really make tenure so much better than adjunct teaching: much better pay, less teaching, benefits, an office, a better teaching schedule.  In this case, it’s much easier to unpack–or even see–others privilege than your own.


How not to stop the transrace/transgender comparison

Meredith Talusan in the Guardian explains why Rachel Dolezal’s identification as black should not be compared to Caitlin Jenner’s gender identity: “the fundamental difference between Dolezal’s actions and trans people’s is that her decision to identify as black was an active choice, whereas transgender people’s decision to transition is almost always involuntary.” Dolezal is getting trashed for her assertion of blackness, while, with the exception of Elinor Burkett in the Times, Jenner is only getting trashed for what some take to be her excessive femininity–most seem accepting of her decision to live openly as a woman. Talusan, like some other activists, are trying very hard to ensure that all the opinion about Dolezal doesn’t contaminate Jenner’s media moment.  But facile explanations like Talusan’s are doing more much harm than good. Case in point–Adolph Reed rightly makes mincemeat of her argument and then concludes: “the transrace/transgender comparison makes clear the conceptual emptiness of the essentializing discourses, and the opportunist politics, that undergird identitarian ideologies.” It’s too bad that Reed, such a brilliant thinker, assumes trans politics and claims to identity are always/only based the most simple minded versions of trans essentialism. But he’s getting that not just from Burkett, but from representatives of the trans community like Talusan. Newsflash–social theory in general and trans theory in particular didn’t end in 1980. We can do better than serve up these sad little cliches from the 1970s like the one that says that natural characteristics are involuntary, cultural ones a matter of choice.  But this tendency has (at least) two progenitors–the medical model of transsexuality and second wave feminism.

Paisley Currah

Author of the forthcoming United States of Sex

a paper bird

Un pajaro de papel en el pecho / Dice que el tiempo de los besos no ha llegado

Gender Strangers

Theory and Practice for Queer Life.


Author of the forthcoming United States of Sex

Corey Robin

Author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin


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