The funeral parlor, body on slab, is the archetype of more than one branch of transsexual horror. Frankenstein is probably the most immediate resonance: a corpse, laid out prone, then meddled with by a deranged doctor, rises from the plinth as though from a surgical table, outsized and monstrous, and saddled for all eternity with a hopelessly mystified understanding of its own existence. That figuration, of course, limns Frankenstein’s creature with the transsexual monster, who has been described along these lines many times, both by anti-trans activists (Janice Raymond) and trans women ourselves (Susan Stryker), as well as those (Jeannette Winterson) who want to be more supportive than they actually are. Buffalo Bill, the autogynephile serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs, meanwhile, is more funeral director than creature: stitching together corpses to make a suit to step into. A related trope, exhibited in My Girl and elsewhere, entails an over-eager mortuary makeup artist (in this case played by Jamie Lee Curtis) transforming the corpse of a modest, genteel woman into a painted lady, a mockery of femininity, as though the surgeon’s kiss could mangle even your most blameless and wifely wife into a whore. (See the cover image. This is the plot, too, of that sweet transvestite Dr. Frank N. Furter.)
Which of these, if any, may have been on the minds of the Directors of Harris Funeral Homes when they fired Aimee Stephens from the position she had held for six years, is not recorded in Neil Gorsuch’s briefest of glosses on the case history in his otherwise lengthy adjudication in Stephens’s (posthumous) favor. But that a landmark case in the civil rights of trans people concerned such a workplace can hardly have been more illustrative of the complexity of the trans woman’s inhabitation of the workplace, an environment which by its very nature makes coercive demands upon not merely the spirit but the flesh, and which extracts its lien through intrusion and expropriation. Marx’s well-known recourse to the image of capital as a vampire appears in many places, but the most famous motto goes as follows, in Ben Fowkes’s translation of Capital: “Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” As remarkable as the doubly-alliterative pleating of the syntax is the collapse of the synecdoche of blood upon which the Gothic framing of the vampire depends. Marx’s metaphor erases distinctions between blood and body, vessel and fluid, subject and practice, leaving only a distinction between one morass of all of them that happens to be living, and another that happens to be dead; we are all mere flesh (and only mere flesh), but some of us are more clotted than others. The menstrual resonances of the metaphorical shifting recall an oblique reference in Freud’s Totem and Taboo that concern taboos around menstruating women: “it would be wrong to overlook the possibility that this blood dread also serves aesthetic and hygienic purposes….” The latter of these might be easy enough to hypothesize, but what on earth an aesthetic purpose might be, or how one might explain a horror of menstruation, Freud leaves to the reader’s imagination.
All this notwithstanding, Gorsuch’s opinion in the case of Harris Funeral Homes v. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, adjudicated as part of the Bostock vs. Clayton County, Georgia decision, marks the single most far-reaching legal judgment for trans people in the history of the United States. It also massively outpaces the gains made in Lawrence vs. Texas and in Obergefell v. Hodges. A majority of judges in the former case ruled that the state of Texas could not prosecute a sodomy case if the supposed crime had taken place in an environment where the defendant could show a reasonable expectation of privacy. The liberalization of sodomy laws, as was argued at the time by Teemu Ruskola, depended upon a wholly straight notion of sex as partitioned, hived off, kept from view. Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner had already gone further in an essay predating Lawrence, and argued that the construction of sex as a private activity both depended upon and reproduced a capitalist logic of property relations: depended upon, because one needs to own property before one can fuck, and reproduced, because capital deploys “intimacy” as an incentive for buying property. Berlant and Warner’s commitment to “queer counterpublics” aligns the cultivation and enjoinment of queer intimacies with the abolition of the capitalist regime of the private.
Aimee Stephens’ case would seem to answer their call, twenty-two years later. After the decisions in Bostock, neither privacy nor love is a necessary basic for the defense of LGBT rights. Indeed, the actions that the Supreme Court has protected are among those para-cultural practices that indicate queerness, rather than exemplify it. (Gerald Bostock was fired for playing in a gay softball league.) The judgment then seeks to arrest in law the homophobic creep, from acts to identities, occasioned by the liberalization of gay civil rights since Lawrence. The comedian Louis C. K.’s distinction between “a gay guy” and “a faggot” is illustrative:
I would never call a gay guy a faggot, unless he was being a faggot. But not because he’s gay, do you understand? If I saw two guys blowing each other, I don’t know why I’m watching them do it, but if I just happened to. I stumble upon a couple of fellas blowing one another on their respective “penisia” That’s plural for penis that I invented today… “penisia” I would be respectful to them, y’know, “Hello gentlemen.” But if one of them took the dick out of his mouth and started acting all faggy and saying annoying faggy things. “You know people from Phoenix are Phoenisians” or something like that. I’d be like “hey shut up faggot, FAGGOT.” Quit being a faggot and suck that dick, that’s what I would say to them.
Bostock protects the faggot, rather than the gay guy. The trans woman, meanwhile, is the archetypal faggot, in Louis C. K.’s terms: transition is perforce a public act, entailing questions of passableness, recognition, and reference. It cannot be completed in private, and so it will not submit to the legal regime of privacy that Lawrence had enforced; rather, the emergence of trans civil rights as a movement (to which Aimee Stephens’s simple act of self-identification contributed powerfully) has disrupted and perhaps even overthrown that regime. Trans lives, in other words, were counterpublics from the start; if we were to be granted any legal protection, it would have had to be on that basis.
Nonetheless, Bostock extracts a price for its protection. It requires that workers accede to the isomorphism of workplace and public; it protects us in public only if we limit our publicness to the workplace. It closes this deal with two juridical devices. First, it creates a new incentive for queer and trans people to identify ourselves to our bosses according to a legible taxonomic framework, in order to protect ourselves from harassment and dismissal. In so doing, Bostock exerts control over the types of queer identities that it appears merely to recognize, acting in that respect like a licensing authority deciding which brands of sparkling wine may be referred to as “champagne.” Second, and more insidiously, Bostock grants rights to queer and trans people in the workplace that they may exercise in no other domain of their life: we may be kicked out of our homes, families, shelters, hospitals, schools, and places of worship (and Gorsuch specifically activates a possible future exemption for any religious employer, too), but we may not be fired. As such, Bostock can be seen as both an enormous leap forward for LGBT civil rights in the United States, and as a conservative decision whose purpose is to inoculate the state against the radical threat that the trans civil rights poses to the regime of privacy, which is the regime of capital itself.
Capitalism demands that we go to work, earn a living, “make something” or ourselves; in so doing, it reifies work into a seemingly natural state and an individual choice, negotiated between individuals, rather than the social and structural order—and site for political action—that it is. The workplace has variously functioned as a site of homo- and transphobic oppression, queer survival, and, sometimes, emancipatory struggle. Queer people have been shut out of waged labor altogether or shuttled into more supposedly “tolerant” industries (fashion is the most frequently cited example). Workplaces have both helped create and given some protections to queer genders. Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, for example, is a history of both the working-class roots of butch identity and of how butch and trans people were able to survive thanks to unionized labor:
It was time to find a factory job. The butches urged me to try to get into steel or auto. Of course I already knew that. I wasn’t a damn fool. The strength of the unions in those heavy industries had won livable wages and decent benefits.
But Edwin said there was more to it than that. The trade unions safeguarded job security. She told me that unlike a nonunion shop if she had a run-in with a jerk on the plant floor, it didn’t signal her last day on the job. You couldn’t be fired just because some foreman didn’t like your face. With union protection, all the butches agreed, a he-she could carve out a niche, and begin earning valuable seniority.
Bostock has its roots in a long history of both individual agitation and queer collective bargaining. In 1961, Frank Kameny, who was fired from his job in the United States Army Map Service in the government purge of gay workers that came to be known as the Lavender Scare, was the first person to demand that the Supreme Court protect gay workers’ rights. In the early 1970s the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association discussed the issue of fair treatment for gay workers at executive meetings and national conventions, and adopted resolutions affirming gay workers’ rights. In 1970, the Executive Council of the AFT approved a resolution to “protest any action against any teacher solely because he or she practices homosexual behavior in private life”; three years later, the AFT approved a resolution at its national convention to support “the repeal of state laws and school district regulations which attempt to punish acts committed by teachers in the course of their private lives.” The fight against workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation has since its inception fought on the basis of the individual’s right to privacy. What you did at home didn’t really matter, as long as you came into work and publicly conformed to the role of worker.
In contrast, the history of trans activism in the workplace is a history of fighting for workplace visibility. In the 1980s, the rights of transgender workers were first affirmed in labor agreements in contracts negotiated by the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. A union steward at an industrial laundry in New Jersey was harassed when she returned to work after gender confirmation surgery. She raised the issue with her union representative, Clayola Brown. The laundry contract included sexual orientation in its antidiscrimination articles, but Brown and the steward pushed for explicit protections for transgender workers. In the next round of contract negotiations, labor and management agreed on the addition of “change of sex” to the list of protected classes. Not only is this a specific acknowledgement of trans rights, it does not rely on the privacy argument on which protections for lesbian, gay, and bisexual workers are predicated.
These stories from the 1970s and 80s have vanishingly little place in our narratives of queer liberation. This is unsurprising, perhaps; throwing stones and bricks is infinitely sexier than contract negotiations in New Jersey laundries. Perhaps, too, this historical blind spot is because gay and trans activism in the workplace coincided with the degradation of American unions and the decline in work-based activism. Few American workers are unionized, and so few lesbian and gay workers in the United States have enjoyed these union protections.
We want both to argue for a renewed work-based queer activism and to retain a degree of suspicion around the possibility for queer liberation within the workplace, for work itself is not free. “The workplace remains the fundamental unfree association of civil society,” as Michael Denning notes. Few of us choose to work. Work is both an economic imperative—the primary way most of us gain the means of subsistence—and a social order; moreover, it is a social order disguised as a natural one. Kathi Weeks makes this argument more broadly in her anti-work polemic, writing that “after the family, waged work is often the most important, if not sole, source of sociality for millions”; it is a “social convention and disciplinary apparatus.” The refusal of work understands capitalism through how work is imposed and organized; in Moishe Postone’s reading, “labor’s constitutive centrality to social life characterizes capitalism and forms the ultimate ground of its abstract mode of domination.” Bostock invites us to repoliticize the workplace as a site of domination, a task which might allow us to reimagine a future beyond the workplace. Rather than queer liberation within work—within the un- and underemployment, low wages, precarity, and overwork that characterize most of our jobs—we should be aiming for work’s end. To be queer at work means to be anti-work, for queerness is an abolitionist project that seeks to end the capitalist heteropatriarchy, and the imperative to work is a centerpiece of that system.
Bostock won’t solve most of the problems facing queer workers in the United States. It won’t fix an unemployment crisis which, in a country that ties healthcare to employment, amounts to a murderous denial of medical care. It does nothing to eradicate prison labor, it won’t help the crisis of caring labor that the pandemic has created, and it will not fight the administration’s continual and escalating assaults on immigrant and undocumented workers. We should be ready to fight the voracious and subsuming powers of capital, which has proven itself capable of incorporating and exploiting almost anything. As queerness is further enfolded into the workplace, it risks entrenching both the economic and “ethical” standing of corporations. (This year, Walmart and Uber were at the top of the Human Rights Commission’s “Corporate Equality Index”.) We fear “outness” will sit comfortably alongside “wellness” in the managerial toolkit, and individual wellbeing at work will be used to demand more work.
Moreover, a funeral parlor is one kind of workplace–artisanal, professional, clerical–but as one considers economic activity more broadly as a sphere for gendered and sexual identity, it is far from typical. Outsourced workers, like those who produce the chemical products upon which the funeral home industry depends, work in environments where such protections could only be extended through homonationalist imperial projects. Sex workers, whose workplaces are routinely denied even the basic recognition that such they are, and who are more likely than funeral home workers to be queer and/or trans, will lack access to Bostock protections until the industry is fully legalized. The sex worker, activist, and advocate Femi Babylon, meanwhile, has recently argued that “sex work is antiwork”—revising the familiar slogan “sex work is work” to include an additional twist: that the communal social practices and phenomenologies of Black sex workers point towards an abolition of the capitalist labor relation, beginning with the abolition of the cop and the prison that enforce it. The cop, meanwhile, doesn’t just have an office, he has a beat: an area of the commons over which he is given power to enforce labor relations. The cop’s beat encapsulates, as if phylogenetically, the whole history of labor’s relation to capital: the beat is an enclosure of land, expropriated by capital from workers, and then leased back to the worker for the cost of surplus labor, and the cop installed as the superintendent of capital’s interest.
Figure 1. Arterial fluid
The social significance of work and the ability of the workplace to create and cement social norms endows Bostock with a special potential: work is a site where gender is performed and made legible, and the ability for trans and gender non-conforming workers to be visible carries enormous potential for work-based activism that centers gender. We are experiencing a new workers’ militancy, both from union and non-union labor, and living in a moment when the abolition of the police and of carceral capitalism feels possible within our lifetime thanks to the tireless work of black activists. Bostock v. Clayton County has the potential to be a non-reformist reform—to borrow the term developed by André Gorz and used by Ruth Wilson Gilmore—in its centering of workers’ rights. A renewed queer labor activism might help reignite the political future of queerness which, if it is to have any future at all, exists as an abolitionist project. The days of assimilation and privacy are over.
Queer and trans people after Bostock, then, are in a new position that is also a very old position: we are called by the discourse of civil rights towards new and ever more vividly visible techniques of identity, even as we become more dependent on coercive and violently extractive structure. This is the paradigm named and theorized by Johanna Burton, Eric Stanley, and Tourmaline in Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility. As literary scholars responsive to the insights of the literary gothic, we turn to poetry to help us understand the affective, embodied, and political hydraulics of the Bostock aftermath. In “litany with blood all over,” a poem from their 2017 collection Don’t Call Us Dead, Danez Smith figures an HIV positive diagnosis variously as a “bloodwedding,” a “bloodfuneral,” and a pregnancy made from blood. Smith’s blood embarks on the full trajectory—marriage, children, funeral, burial—of a reproductive life. But this blood reproduction spins out of control: “i hate my husband / he left me with child / i cut his awful seed out of me / but it always grows back.” These pregnancies bear endless blood children; in the poem’s final two pages, “my blood” and “his blood” proliferate, spilling over themselves and into one another until the page is thick with ink. Smith’s exercise in concrete poetics reminds us of a truth of blood: it is both mostly invisible, safe in our veins, and threatens to spill out at any moment. As “his blood” and “my blood” flood the page and one another, they become at once insistently visible and almost illegible. Litanies are insistent things; they use repetition less to clarify than to assert (and, maybe, to demand). “i am telling you something,” the poem announces, before it tells us something about legibility: that it can be overflowing, fuzzy, uncontainable, and insistent all at once. We find that stirring.
Cover Image: Mrs. Porter in My Girl, directed by Howard Zieff (1991).