“What Are We Defending?” : Reina’s talk at the INCITE! COV4 Conference

On March 26th through 29th, more than 1,600 people gathered in Chicago for the INCITE! Color of Violence 4 Conference. Reina took part in a plenary called “Ending Gender Violence Beyond Carceral Feminisms,” alongside amazing activists and thinkers like Nada Elia, Shira Hassan, Mariame Kaba, Soniya Munshi, Rasmeah Odeh, Beth Richie, Andrea Ritchie, Andy Smith, and Ashley Yates. Reina talked about the violence of visibility, radical sociability, and what it is that we’re defending when we work beyond the state. Reina co-wrote this with her friend and collaborator, Grace. Below, the text of the talk!

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We are coming together, here and now, at a moment of increased visibility for trans* people, in pop culture and in the gaze of the state. But at the same time, as we so intimately know, we are witnessing some of the highest rates of violence against our communities ever documented.

So, in this moment of violence and visibility, I feel it’s urgent to think about what we risk losing when the state, and pop culture, seem to be inviting us in. What do we open ourselves, and our communities, up to when we seek out visibility?

So often, visibility uses the lens of respectability to determine who, even in the most vulnerable communities, should be seen and heard. I believe that, through the filter of visibility, those of us most at risk to state violence, become even more vulnerable to that violence.

When we’re trying to be normal, when we’re trying to be included in a culture that never wanted us to be in the first place, we don’t get to talk about our lives. We don’t get to talk about sex work, we don’t get to talk about being disabled, we don’t get to talk about prison, or homelessness, or living with HIV.

And if we can’t talk about those parts of our lives, we can’t come up with the strategies we need to survive, the strategies that give us the power to defend all parts of ourselves and our communities.

And I’m saying that those least respectable ways of being, those most undesirable ways of being, are some of our communities’ most profound ways of living against the state.

A moment that I think about a lot, is the 1960’s in New York, when STAR—Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries—was engaging in irrespectability to support a deeply radical community.

I think about the types of sociability, and study, and love that they supported by never being what the state, or the mainstream white gay rights movement, saw as normal.

They did sex work so that they could pay for a home where friends and loved ones could go to feel safe and be in community with on another. Not only was this a home where they were safe off the streets, safe away from the surveillance of the state, but also a place where they could laugh and love together, study and learn together.

When I say study I don’t mean something formal, I don’t mean text books and classrooms, I mean what we are doing right here, sitting around together, hashing out our ideas about this world we’ve got to deal with. I mean making meaning of the world, together.

I think a lot about how the irrespectable labor, those ways of being, that Marsha and Sylvia and Bambi and Andorra and the rest of STAR took part in, also allowed them to do the work of caring for their friends and loved ones who couldn’t be out in the streets, who couldn’t work. Their friends with disabilities, for whom labor and productivity, as we’re told to understand them by the state—and sometimes even by each other–were never a possibility.

I think about the profound relationships and structures for care that were created by people being deeply and utterly disrespectful to and disloyal to the state and its morals.

What I’m saying is that we don’t need be in a formal organization to do this profound anti-state work.

Just by hanging out and being social, just by taking care of each other, we are already doing the work that state doesn’t want us to do. So when the state invites us in, we have to ask what ways of being the state will demand that we stop doing, as a condition for inclusion? What ways of being, that help us survive and thrive, do normalcy, respectability, and visibility never allow for?

So, I’ll close by saying that I believe this moment invites all of us not just to think about what we want to dismantle and organize against, but also what we want to defend: the ways we laugh, and love, and study together. The ways we come together to make meaning. Our radical, irrespectable, undesirable, irresistible sociability.

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