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.

 

What’s the wedge issue?

Last month I was talking with the amazing Amaya Perez-Brumer and other graduate students at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. Someone asked me, “If same-sex marriage is the wedge issue for the gay rights movement, what’s the most divisive issue in transgender politics?”  A good question, and certainly there are real divisions about what should be prioritized, just as there has been in the LGB rights movement.

There are a number of  priorities, but what should top the list? If we want to make trans lives better, where should our resources be directed? In fact, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality  asked that question on page 178 of their enormous 2011 survey project, “Injustice at Every Turn.” The policy areas most frequently by the survey’s 6450 respondents were:

Protecting transgender/gender non-conforming people from discrimination in hiring and at work: 70%

Getting transgender-related health care covered by insurance: 64%

Passing laws that address hate crimes against transgender/gender non-conforming people: 47%

Access to transgender-sensitive health care: 43%

Better policies on gender and identity documents and other records: 40%

Protecting transgender/gender non-conforming people from discrimination in housing: 26%

The right to equal recognition of marriages involving transgender partners: 25%

Passing anti-bullying laws that make schools safer: 21%

Transgender/gender non-conforming prisoners’ rights: 15%

The right of transgender/gender non-conforming people to parent, including adoption: 14%

HIV prevention, education and treatment:11%

Allowing transgender/gender non-conforming people to serve in the military: 7%

Immigration policy reform (such as asylum or partner recognition): 5%

This list gives some sense of the popularity of particular policy areas.  But the numbers fail to reveal a wedge issue, just significantly less interest in immigration, military service, parenting rights, incarceration. bullying. Even these least popular issues represent very different political positions–for example, prisoners’ rights versus the right to serve in the military.

I’m still thinking this through, but my first stab at an answer to this question was that there really isn’t a wedge issue. It’s not trans employment discrimination versus the plight of trans HIV positive people, prisoners, parents or immigrants.   The wedge is transgender itself. In that sense, it’s sort of an inverse wedge, if there can be such a thing.  So really not a wedge, but a wrong cramming together of people whose only commonality is that one way or another their gender didn’t turn out as expected, based on the sex they were assigned at birth. That “trans” or “transgender” purports to describe people who are so very  differently situated in relation to their vulnerability to violence, to incarceration, to illness, to homelessness seems like one of the more miraculous feats of identity politics.

More on this to come as I work these ideas out in the chapter I’m writing on incarceration, trans economicus and the freeze frame policy in the book.

Obama, homonationalism, sex classification

So, a short piece I wrote has just been published in a special symposium section on the 2012 elections in Theory & Event.The essay, “Homonationalism, State Rationalities, and Sex Contradictions,” is in no way a paen to Obama or his neoliberal agenda, but neither is it a typical rehash of the homonormative critique. (It does, though, explain what’s meant by homonormative, heteronormative, and homonational and go over each term’s provenance.) I try to move the discussion sideways, suggesting we displace the mainstream LGBT rights crowd and the queer left’s tendency to fetishize  “the state.”

Spending most of my (unfortunately rare) research time poking through agency rules on sex classification, state court decisions on “transgender marriages,” and the “freeze-frame” policy governing incarcerated trans people, I can’t help but see a much more jumbled, complex picture.

Here are a couple of paragraphs from the piece:

“While the queer critiques of homonormative and homonationalist agendas are more complex than the GLB mainstream’s celebration of recent victories, the emphasis on the interpellation of queer subjects through national biopolitical projects tends to frame the discussion around activities regulated by the federal government (commerce, war, immigration, national security, etc.) and national discourses of American identity (marriage and family). In doing so, this scholarship tends to overemphasize a unity of intention on the part of state actors and to imagine the “the state” as far more monolithic than it is. Similarly, while gay rights advocates have been forced to battle official homophobia at the state and local levels, they seek a singular, all powerful, champion to resolve the problem once and for all at the federal level. One act of Congress could end employment discrimination everywhere; one Supreme Court ruling could rid us of the patchwork quilt of laws and constitutional amendments on marriage, civil unions, and domestic partnership.”

“However, construing the election as presenting a choice between Obama the good and Romney the bad [the mainstreams LGBT position], or as a battle between Obama the not-so-great and Romney the bad [the queer left], elevates grand narratives and concepts—marriage, the state—over the thousands of ongoing and quotidian decisions that regulate life. That simplification is understandable. It’s certainly much easier to talk about same-sex marriage than to do archival excavations of applications of SSA policy, to delve into the cracks and crevices of the regulatory state apparatuses….Becoming swept up in the romance, or tragedy, of the electoral narrative, gets in the way of understanding the minute technologies of governance that regulate our lives.”

I simply can’t reduce all that I’ve found (apologies for the empiricism here) into a singular narrative–be it one of progress or not (the other being, what, something like neoliberalism in the age of declining empire).  What I can say, though, is that different decisions on sex classification represent different state projects. Sometimes those projects are contradictory.

Hats off to  Steven Johnston, of the University of Utah, for organizing the symposium and the convivial post-election conference in Utah.  You can see my piece and the other symposium contributions–including Paulina Ochoa Espejo on Obama and the Dream Act, Robyn Marasco  on “Romnesia,” and Michaele Ferguson on women as an interest group (not!)–in Theory & Event, Vol. 16, no. 1. Email me if you’d like to read it but don’t have access to Project Muse.

Next up…something on the Court, same-sex marriage, federalism, and–to add something new to this discussion–sex classification.

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