isolated incidents

Since April 15th, reports have circulated about an attack against a transgender student in a bathroom on CSU Long Beach’s campus. The attacker appears to have known this student. The attacker said the student’s name and asked if he was that person. When the student said he was, the attacker grabbed the student’s T-shirt, pulled it over his chest, and carved the word “It” into his chest.

Reports began circulating by word of mouth, and Liz, Abbie, Toby and I were reluctant to forward the information without the student’s express consent. We were concerned about the student’s physical and emotional safety as such a story spread, whether or not the student’s name was attached to reports. However, because police reports and blog posts have made this information widely available, it seems necessary to address the assumptions on which reports are based since they impact all trans and gender non-conforming people, as well as those who might be perceived to be trans and gender non-conforming, and those who count themselves as allies.

Most stories about this attack coming from the news media include some version of the following statement: “University Police strongly believe this was an isolated incident and that there is no additional threat to the campus community.” Queers for Public Ed has already addressed the danger of asserting that any crime motivated by racism, sexism, homophobia and/or transphobia (and more) is an isolated event, detached from the power structures in which it exists. But this bears repeating in this case, especially since many such attacks continue to take place on and around California campuses.

To assert that this is an isolated incident is only possible if one divorces it from the racist and homophobic attacks that took place at CSU Chico, CSU Long Beach, and UC Davis within days, not to mention the string of incidents that have occurred over the last several months. But as we have argued before, these events must be read as inherently connected, and as responses to the challenges to white, straight power and privilege expressed in the protests against the deprioritization of education and other public services in California. Though our analysis need not and should not stop at California borders. This last week Arizona has reminded us just how much oppression in education connects to structural oppression pervasive in the US and beyond.

Calling this attack an “isolated incident” also implies that this was limited to an attack by one individual against another individual. It ignores an additional target of the attack, the very existence and agency of trans-identified and gender non-conforming people. The word “it” has a significant history in enforcing systems of oppression based on race, gender and ability. Using the word “it” to label people who do not conform to racialized, gendered and abelist norms dehumanizes the people whose bodies challenge, or appear to challenge, these structures. And dehumanization questions the very value of lives, which in turn exposes those lives to violence and possible eradication. In the specific case of the CSULB attack, this mark of dehumanization targets a trans man’s chest, a place on the body that is subject to intense amounts of scrutiny and surveillance that serve to enforce the gender binary. To call this highly symbolic act an isolated incident is to erase the ways that this violence targets all trans and gender non-conforming people. This act of violence references historically and culturally significant words and acts that are not isolated, but circulate constantly and dangerously.

The statement from the CSULB police department asserts that “there is no additional threat to the campus community.” However, such an assertion can only be accurate if one believes that the campus community is otherwise absent of trans and gender non-conforming people, and even allies to these communities, and the various forms of violence that impact the community on a daily basis.* In Precarious Life, Judith Butler asks “What makes for a grievable life?” in order to ask ultimately “Who counts as human?” (20). Presumably the police statement was meant to assert that people on campus need not fear future physical attacks (a claim that is specious at best). However, separating this attack from the rest of the campus community, and those who might be affected either directly or by the lingering violence and threat that such an attack no doubt leaves, denies the possibility of trauma in the form of grief, rage, or fear. The repetition of this sentiment across multiple media reports expands the possibility of its meaning and reasserts that anyone who feels threatened by the possibility of attack or the emotional fallout of knowing a person attacked is not included in the “community” that is instructed – or even assumed – to feel unthreatened. In this way, the police statement actually reproduces the effects of the attack for a wider audience. It becomes, in effect, a different way of saying the word “it,” discursively granting humanity to some while denying it to others.

* It should hardly escape our notice that this attack took place in a bathroom, a gendered space in which the very architecture and structure of buildings implicates the University in oppressive and violent expressions of transphobia. (for more information about bathrooms, see the fabulous film by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project: Toilet Training.)

-Cynthia (with much thanks to Toby and Abbie)

2 Responses to “isolated incidents”

  1. 1 queers4publiced
    May 1, 2010 at 1:37 am

    Relatedly, the director of the UCI LGBT Center recently released a statement about the escalation of violence against [the] LGBTQ community. At the risk of repeating a critique we’ve posted on this blog before, this statement aims to link a series of anti-queer, anti-trans attacks but ultimately continues to frame them as exceptional, isolated events. Here LGBTQ appears disconnected from structures of racism, classism, or ableism — in part by failing to situate them in the broader context of a variety of violences enacted across multiple campuses and thus implicitly casting the “LGBTQ community” as racially unmarked (read: white). And again the cause of this violence is understood here as “fringe individuals that are hateful,” effacing everyday and systemic violences bolstered by the very structure of the university and by the broader process of privatization.

    Perhaps most concerning, though, is the way this “isolated incidents” approach leads to proposed solutions that lie fundamentally with individuals, and put the primary burden on marginalized people to further constrain their lives and behaviors as preventative measures. (And in fact, I’d suggest these actions might even make marginalized people more vulnerable: for whom does “sticking with friends” create safety in numbers, and for whom does it mean forming a larger, more visible target? What guarantees do we have that the “safety escort service” is actually safe? At my undergraduate institution, late-night rides from such services typically entailed being the sole student in a car with a man I did not know.)

    Notably though, the statement itself reveals violence as systemic even as it frames each act as isolated: that “a straight man was gay-bashed” reveals the ways that the violent effects of heterosexism & homophobia pervade far beyond the narrowly-defined “LGBTQ community.” This moment could (and should?) serve as a point of entry for seeking broader connections and richer context for any specific event.


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