“Living in and as Refusal”: Eric Stanley on Anti-Trans/Queer Violence

“While ungovernability takes many paths, here it approximates living in and as refusal.”

Times of LGBT inclusion, progress, and recognition are also times of gratuitous anti-trans/queer violence and death. In their new book Atmospheres of Violence: Structuring Antagonism and the Trans/Queer Ungovernable, Eric A. Stanley explores this life-denying development, arguing that modernity cannot be imagined without anti-trans/queer violence because it constitutes modernity’s very foundation—dangerously aiding state expansion on the one hand and neoliberalization of identity on the other.

Stanley is deeply invested in minoritized trans and/or queer life—in all its breathing, dreaming, resisting, and organizing splendor amid racialized violence and death. They write for, not just about, historically oppressed trans and/or queer lives, which is why they think against, not with, the imperialist and carceral state. Throughout the book, as they envision the end of the world as we know it, their palpable conviction that becoming ungovernable would awaken us to ethical and liveable worlds gestures toward many revolutions currently under way, while also signaling those on the horizon.

Stanley’s book is by necessity irreverent. They remain unconvinced by the “fictive justice” that the law delivers and demand the dismantling of liberal manifestations and machinations of power. They invite a veritable transformation that only “disruptive worldings” can offer. Atmospheres of Violence in itself is a contribution to many disruptive worldings Stanley witnesses and anticipates.

They write, “What I hope Atmospheres of Violence preserves is the spirit of Sylvia [Rivera] and Marsha’s [P. Johnson] commitment, conscious or not, to being against the intelligibility culled by the liberal state.” The book fulfills the author’s hope.

Sohini Chatterjee (SC): Your book Atmospheres of Violence helps us think critically about the current political moment in the US. How did the book come into being, what intellectual and political influences shaped it, and why do you think it had to be written now?


Eric Stanley (ES): Many of the ideas that I think with in the book are the materialization of decades of organizing, mostly outside of nonprofits. I see the project as collaborative in that radical anticapitalist trans/queer collectivity has both helped me sharpen my analysis and allowed me space to imagine more than our current political order. Those spaces have really served as my hideout from the hostility and violent liberalism of much of the US academy. I, of course, am also in deep conversation with many more properly academic writers who have taught me much. However, my understanding of the world is built as much from street queens’ theorizations as from academics.


SC: There is an undeniable upswell of anti-trans violence in the US, taking the form of new or newly articulated anti-LGBT laws, book bans, and the proliferation of public physical attacks. How are you thinking about this current moment within your academic and organizing work?


ES: I’m always thinking recursively. What that means is that I try to pay attention to both what appears as new and how patterns repeat and intensify. This current moment is scary—that I, or any of us, might be physically attacked while teaching is never lost on me. However, it’s also important to see where trans/queer books have long been banned, like prisons and detention centers, and how the slow violence of structuring neglect has always constituted life for so many trans/queer people who live against the promises of white LGBT politics. I think a lot of the promises of inclusion are crumbling, and people are unsure what to do. I hope that this will radicalize us all toward demanding an end to this world and [demanding] one [where] we can all survive. I also keep thinking about what [author and activist] Miss Major says: that we must fight on all fronts, everywhere and all the time.

SC: Your book foregrounds and honors the legacy of resistance left by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera by archiving their resistance practices and many calls to action. What political promise do their resistances hold, and why do you think the recovery of their legacy, as you point out in the book, also solidifies their identities and poses dangers to contemporary LGBTQ politics and activism?


ES: Marsha and Sylvia, as many others have noted, were until the recent past disappeared from the dominant narrative of gay liberation. They, along with other trans women of color, did not fit into the assimilationist story of inevitable progress that was cemented as historical fact. In that iteration, the oppression of the past was remedied through the courts and [progress] solidified by inclusion into civil society, landing us now in a moment of “LGBT equality.” However, if you think with the demands made by Sylvia, Marsha, and so many others, quite a different story unfolds. They were struggling for and as people directly impacted by houselessness, imprisonment, racial capitalism, HIV/AIDS, and much more. Yet within the recent past, we see their inclusion in LGBT history in an attempt to empty them of their revolutionary politics and the necessary friction they brought to both traditional political organizing and lesbian and gay spaces. They now often appear as symbols of a multicultural LGBT movement that is little more than a white fantasy. It’s not that they should not be brought into the historical record (along with so many others). But if their arrival does not disrupt the political order, then we have betrayed the world they were fighting to bring into being and solidified the one they were intent on destroying.

SC: The central thesis of your book is that anti-trans/queer violence is integral to modernity and that law is its indispensable accomplice. Could you expand on this for our readers?


ES: Yes, that is the central claim, and it seems both obvious and unbelievable, although perhaps it’s a bit less unbelievable in our current moment than it was a few years ago. I look at the consistency and methodologies of attacks directed toward trans/queer people to argue that the similarity and consistency does not allow us to believe that these are “random acts of violence,” which is the explanation offered by the state. I also believe that the state is not something outside of the social but rather the congealment of collective fantasies and phobias—the literalization of power and the machinery of its own reproduction. This is a theoretical point that many Black and/or anticolonial feminists have long made. This abstraction, in other words, also lives in the flesh. One example that crystalizes this co-constitutive relationship is the gay or trans panic defense, which has been successfully used to argue that a person was so terrified at the realization of either sexual or gender non-normativity that their only recourse was murder.

Further, I pay attention to the “overkill” of many trans/queer people. That term is offered to describe when violence goes beyond that of biological death and into the symbolics of subjectivity itself. Put differently, it is when killing a person is not only about ending their life but also about extinguishing the very possibility of their being. This is not in the book, but we could also look at Florida’s proposed “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which is designed to “out” students to families with no other aim than causing young people even more harm.

Another way I think about the state as a racist anti-trans/queer formation is through the organizing work of imprisoned trans people who make this point undeniable. From the criminalization of one’s very identity to the endless policing any- and everywhere of trans people of color, this history also lives in the future. Abolition [of prisons] then is necessary not only to confront this policing but also, more importantly, to end the common sense that deputizes us all—the cop in our head.


SC: You also emphasize the privatization of anti-trans/queer violence and that when we think of violence as individual acts and refuse to recognize it as epistemic force, it does the work of supporting what you call “the normative and normalizing structuring of public pain.” What privatization does, as you rightly observe, is heterosexualize, whitewash, and render gender normative the social and its trauma. This, to my mind, is a critical intervention. How do you think the privatization of anti-trans/queer violence normalizes state violence and renders it unremarkable at a time when narratives of progress are increasingly being attached to (limited) LGBTQ rights and inclusion in the West, but postfeminist and postrace discourses are being taken up in dangerous ways to shore up linear progress narratives and statist discourses of exceptionalism?


ES: It’s important that we collectively grapple with these questions as we are living, at least in the US, under another wave of counterrevolutionary activity. I see this in the multiple articulations of postrace and postfeminist declarations, as you pointed out. For example, the demands for prison abolition that were popularized last year have been, via the magic of transubstantiation, inverted into demands for more police to protect Black trans people. This is of course not new, but it feels like we are living in something of its acceleration. Here, again, violence is reprivatized, and rather than the settler state being identified as its cause, more (state) violence is offered as the only remedy. Frantz Fanon’s work can really help us untie this knot. His relentless observation is that phobia is the function, in the first order, of those in power “fearing” not that which might bring them harm, but those they are harming. Learning this is unsettling in its clarity. It will take deep study and direct action to get us beyond observation, but it’s a start.

Another way we might track this counterinsurgency is by following the recent attempt to remove police from San Francisco’s Pride parade. Last year Pride finally made a small movement toward this demand when they said uniformed police could no longer march in the parade. The police objected, as they would not be paid if not in uniform. The straight mayor, London Breed, and a newly appointed gay supervisor, Matt Dorsey (himself a former SFPD employee), launched a boycott of Pride in solidarity with the police. After a week, a behind-the-scenes “compromise” was reached where uniformed and armed (and paid) police were allowed back into the parade. Victory was announced—the police, politicians, and nonprofiteers won—while trans/queer people of color, and all those terrorized by the police, lost. Instead of Pride refusing the violence of policing, they declared “dialogue” necessary, once again privatizing the harm that is policing.


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SC: You write, “Anti-trans/queer violence is written as an outlaw practice, a random event, and an unexpected tragedy. Dominant culture’s drive to dissolve the scope and intensity of this violence is expected. Yet mainstream LGBT politics also colludes in this disappearance in exchange for recognition, however partial and contingent.” Could you tell us a little bit about the forms this recognition has taken in contemporary LGBT politics in North America and what has caused this politics to be limited in its critique and in its imagination of the urgent, as well as the possible?


ES: It takes less work to imagine that cis heterosexual culture would personalize racialized anti-trans/queer violence because doing so affirms the continuity of their world. However, one of the points I make clear in the book is that not all who might identify as trans/queer have this same relationship to violence. In the introduction I offer a reading of a scene at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day celebration where Sylvia Rivera had to fight her way onto stage to speak about her people—gays in jails and shelters, poor people and street queens—those that the emerging LGBT movement did not want to include, let alone help liberate. We can see the evolution of this logic in the Human Rights Campaign’s “Equality Index,” which rates corporations. In a stunning turn of irony’s end, those it gave a top rating to in 2022 include Chevron, JPMorgan Chase, Lockheed Martin—all of which are antithetical to trans/queer life around the globe. We can also track this through groups like Equality California, which supports Scott Wiener, a gay politician who rose to power in San Francisco through his legislation targeting houseless and poor trans/queer people in the Castro. There are, sadly, endless examples of how assimilation is central to the multiple projects of racial capitalism. Under such directives, one can point to the inclusion of those historically excluded as incontrovertible proof that we have indeed overcome, while the material conditions of the majority of Black, Brown, and/or Indigenous trans/queer people have, in many cases, gotten worse. Rather than simply seeing this as an unintentional consequence, I’m interested in this correlation.


SC: You note in the book that “violence also remains a tactic of communal interdiction, anticolonial struggle, and trans/queer flourishing against an otherwise deadly world.” Would you like to expand on the interconnections among violence, community making, and trans/queer flourishing? How does the book develop while being cognizant of this complex connectedness?


ES: Atmospheres of Violence is not a pacifist text. And while my aim is to stop the racist anti-trans/queer violence I write about, I believe that to do that we must ask: What is the time of violence, when does it begin and end? We can’t know this in advance. For example, I write about Duanna Johnson, a Black trans woman who was attacked by police while in custody and fought back in an attempt to protect herself. In my estimation, she did not engage in harm but in self-, which is also to say collective, defense. Relatedly, the state has a monopoly on violence, meaning that it gets to dictate what constitutes a trespass while always being outside of its own administration. This leaves the question of justice unanswered and perhaps unanswerable.


SC: Within the current political landscape I’ve been thinking a lot about your conceptualization of ungovernability. You write that becoming liberated is to become ungovernable, and it might offer us a way out. How does trans/queer ungovernability become resistance against state violence and democratic oppression and misrecognition?


ES: While ungovernability takes many paths, here it approximates living in and as refusal. I make no claim to it other than a quiet attempt to name practices of beautiful negation that have long existed. Here, ungovernability gathers up riotous joy, not toward the aim of recognition but so that it might be weaponized against the harshness of endless administration. This can include illicit practices, scams, and the gossip of the streets, which fashion a trans underground of opulence, even in desperation and defeat. In other words, it’s not that ungovernability alone can destroy the worlds that have destroyed so many of us, but that it opens a bit of space, however fleeting, from where the struggle might be waged.


SC: Given that the anti-LGBT laws that are proposed, and in many cases passed, follow democratic processes, your observation that “if the attempt to fashion a more perfect democracy is also the order under which its deadly force expands, then ungovernability becomes an abolitionist way of life” is important to think about. How do ungovernability and the prison abolition movement dream of and work toward securing trans/queer liberation?


ES: I begin with democracy’s impasse: What if the majority wants you dead? This might seem hyperbolic, but the ongoing attacks on Black and/or Indigenous people in particular, and on so many others, remind us that our severity of critique can never match the ruthlessness of the world’s actions. As you note, one of the more controversial concepts that I try to unthink in the book is democracy. This is not because I want its assumed opposite, totalitarianism, but because democracy as a concept and as a feeling collects people from all political cosmologies. So I ask: What is its substance? This line of inquiry comes from an abolitionist analysis that suggests, however provisionally, that democracy, like prisons, might not be “broken,” but it is functioning at its limit and as it was designed. Or it’s a mechanism of racial, gendered, ableist terror that constitutes the “we” of the people, always beyond the majority of us. This is perhaps a too complicated way of saying, if democracy has, since its inception, brutally excluded so many and is built on that exclusion, then perhaps we should look for freedom elsewhere.


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SC: Collective care is foundational to the kinds of transformative projects you think with in the book. Attention to mutual aid and other projects that do not circle through state institutions seems even more important now for those under attack. What role do trans and/or queer communities and anticapitalist forms of care play in disrupting normative and violent social orders?


ES: This might be a good place to return to Sylvia and Marsha’s work with STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), the collective they built. Along with the organizing they engaged in with other Third World Liberation movements, STAR functioned as a mutual aid project that housed, clothed, and fed their people outside the social service model. They kept each other alive so that they might live to struggle another day and have some fun in between. While it’s important to not idealize STAR, as their contradictions are also pedagogical insights, we can look to the ways that they, along with Major and so many others, offer alternative geologies, still in the making, of trans resistance that was building not toward inclusion in the capitalist world order but toward its demise. This destruction is also generative, which is another lesson we learn from abolition: for the community garden to be planted, the prison must be razed.


SC: You write, “for the law to read anti-trans/queer violence as a symptom of civil society, justice would demand dismantling of its own administration.” It’s such a powerful statement. What possibilities do you think would be generated if this vision were realized, and what kind of politics do you think would facilitate such dismantling?


ES: As is apparent throughout the text, I’m not a very proscriptive thinker. That said, I do believe, following [activist] Tourmaline, that there is already enough for us all and that among our tasks is extinguishing our attachments to scarcity and the idea that “less bad” is the only option we have. That is an enormous task. To begin to ask the question of what life we want and need, we must let go of the institutions that not only trap us into the pragmatism of the current moment but also, and perhaps more violently, prohibit us from dreaming of more. icon

Featured image courtesy of Eric A. Stanley