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I read Toby Beauchamp’s Going Stealth: Transgender Politics and U.S. Surveillance Practices (2019, Duke University Press) while traveling by air across national borders with two different medical devices attached to my body. I can’t go through the security body scanners because just one trip provides enough electromagnetic interference to break a $10,000 device. You might want to opt out of it too. Still, getting the alternative pat down is intrusive, time consuming, and mildly humiliating, and asking to opt out immediately flags you as a problem, if you weren’t already flagged as a problem. TSA agents have responded to my opt-out requests will all kinds of micro-aggressions – “ma’am, please stand to the side so the compliant travelers are not delayed by you” ranks among the juiciest in a line of otherwise irritating but mild maneuvers to delay me as a deterrent for my perceived audacity. I never mention my opt-out is medically necessary until the agents demand I put my “phone” on the conveyer belt. My “phone” is actually two insulin pumps and a continuous glucose monitor receiver, three high-tech self-surveillance-for-health tools that would all be destroyed if passed through the X-ray machine. One time I was delayed so long as retribution for “making everyone’s job harder” and “stopping national security just for your needs,” that I resorted to accusing the TSA official of medical discrimination. I say “resorted” because doing so plays into the idea that there is some appropriately targeted suspicious actor somewhere that makes all these security performances necessary. In that same instance, my trans-masculine partner stood on the other side of the checkpoint, having cleared and graciously brushed off the everyday gender trouble of the binary X in the body scanner report, frantically trying to advocate for me to be allowed through with the TSA manager. The TSA agent suggested in the future we consult with the TSA Cares website for travelers with disabilities. TSA Cares found no wrongdoing in the case. Between us, we agreed that our public protestations were simultaneously disrespected and deprioritized because we are visibly queer/trans and were received as less aggressive and threatening because we are white U.S. citizens.
All of these dynamics are explored within Beauchamp’s Going Stealth: Transgender Politics and U.S. Surveillance Practices, which accomplishes the best of what we imagine theory to be good for – making sense of our everyday experiences, grounding personal interactions with the state in histories of structural oppression, and illuminating the broader context of our banal negotiations between dignity, resilience, convenience, resistance, politics-in-practice, and privilege. The book asks trans studies and surveillance studies to think together about the ways that state recognition of one’s identity does not so much reflect one’s “true” identity as construct it; further, state recognition of one’s rights does not so much liberate us as produce new conditions of inclusion and exclusion to navigate. The book argues that programs of gender and surveillance reinforce and disrupt one another, with explicit attention to how gender deviance comes to be known and marked through race and status. The chapters span four case studies – identity documents, airport security, public bathrooms, and Chelsea Manning’s detention and espionage trial. The dynamics of each scenario are thoroughly unpacked; in fact, one of Beauchamp’s strengths as a writer is his ability and willingness to think through the complexity of any given rhetorical situation, whether a trans advocacy document or a Republican policy commercial, resisting any strong declaration of good, bad, better, worst, in favor of ever-demonstrating the importance of “complicat[ing] aspirations of legibility and visibility” (p. 23).
Beauchamp’s main contribution to trans studies is his argument for ‘trans’ as an analytic that helps us understand how the worlds we live in are made. In so doing, he joins an exciting wave of scholars across the critical “studies” who want to think identity categories beyond subjects and objects of study and toward how any given category has co-constituted current governing systems. On this point, I also read his attentiveness to the racial histories of surveillance technologies as a nod to the ways in which black studies scholars have catalyzed this multidisciplinary effort through their work to reposition the study of blackness and anti-blackness as central to the study of the category Human.
Within surveillance studies, Beauchamp explicitly builds on the path-breaking work by Simone Browne to push the field to think beyond its colorblind central animating concern with privacy. The concept of privacy was enshrined through liberal philosophy’s conception that white property rights derive from the ownership of one’s own private body. As such “privacy” is an inherently racialized concept. Beauchamp considers how this plays out in practice: “privacy is not a default status but an exceptional one, granted largely on the basis of wealth and racial privilege” (p. 3). Various bodily intrusions, uses of technology, and discourses around the right to privacy are always “fraught with questions of race” (p. 66). Not all groups have or have had equal access to privacy rights. The lack of privacy extended to incarcerated populations, for instance, is not just a problematic exclusion that needs to be reformed; it is also precisely how outside populations demark their own right to privacy and freedom. In other words, we come to know and feel our freedom through the lack of freedom of others. And that is also how we come to feel entitled to our freedoms: because the mythical we are not the problem.
Beauchamp analyzes each surveillance technology and discourse – whether X-rays or gender segregated bathrooms – through their histories of development, which demonstrates how the technologies themselves, regardless of how they are applied, cannot be separated from the history of racial subjection and militarization, which is to say, cannot be separated from the history of violence. Beauchamp’s reading of the history of public bathrooms is instructive: women’s bathrooms were created for the protection, privacy, and propriety of white women entering the work force while racially segregated bathrooms did not offer gender-specific options for African Americans. These distinctions reflected and co-produced discourses of civilization and white supremacy. Whites are understood to be more evolved and civilized because of their highly differentiated gender social roles, which thus necessitate gender-specific bathrooms, which in turn bestows greater social dignity upon the white women who have access to them. This analysis also effectively demonstrates what we mean when we say race and gender based oppressions are constitutive. On this point, I see Going Stealth as a wonderful companion to C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides for thinking through how blackness, transness, gender deviance, medicalization, surveillance, opacity and visibility work together to construct worlds of freedom and unfreedom. These are contributions that the fields of surveillance and security studies, along with the larger field of Communication, would do well to take to heart. There is simply no study of space without the study of racialized gender.
Three productive tensions run through the chapters: visibility, vulnerability, and liberal recognition; reform-based and structural approaches to mediating discrimination; and the relationships among concealment, fraud, and disguise. Chapter One thinks through visual documents as verifiers of identity (the ever-persistent myth of the visual as self-evidential truth) alongside “strategic visibility as a safety precaution” (p. 45) for transgender people. If visual identity documents are intended to prevent the use of gendered disguises for fraudulent behavior, the subjective nature of visual documents stands in for the ambivalent relationship to visibility and legibility as a political strategy for trans inclusion. Beauchamp demonstrates how trans advocacy that encourages disclosure of one’s trans status to prove there is “nothing to hide” also reinforces the legitimacy of the project of the surveillance state (that there is someone somewhere with something to hide) while simultaneously assuming a white trans subject who is not also being targeted as suspicious due to their color, name, citizenship, or religion.
Chapter Two analyzes privacy as it relates to TSA screenings and prosthetics. The TSA Cares initiative does not prevent additional scrutiny of travelers with medical prostheses, but does suggest that surveillance can be done in a way that is sensitive to travelers with medical necessities. Rather than using trans and sick bodies to call out the burden and charade of surveillance for all bodies, the discourse of medical necessity further naturalizes the need for surveillance by suggesting it is not the sicko trans folks the state is after (although it is). By thinking through the “explosive genitals” incident as the impetus for the body scanner technology alongside medically necessary genital prosthetics for trans people and for former combatants whose genitals were targeted as an act of war in the War on Terror, Beauchamp moves beyond notions of good versus bad tech and draws attention to how “we can understand harmful and helpful technologies as…fundamentally intertwined: the development of war-making technologies occurs alongside medical advances to treat injuries incurred in war, in a continuous cycle” (p. 71). This point is well illustrated in the case of virtual reality, which was developed to train soldiers how to kill and is now used to help treat war veterans with PTSD.
Chapter Three considers the bathroom laws and how they gained traction through mobilizing a “discourse of deception” built on post-9/11 surveillance logics that suggest biometric data is more objective and harder to falsify than identity documents. By thinking through how public bathrooms have been sites of managing “good citizenship,” Beauchamp discusses the relationship between anti-immigrant “show me your papers” laws and bathroom checks for legally documented sex. He helpfully points out that some well-intentioned advocacy around the relationship between trans and migrant “border crossings” reify the imagined trans person as mutually exclusive to the imagined migrant. Building on his problematization of the veracity of identity documents, Beauchamp troubles the truth claims of biometric data. Here we see how trans as an analytic denaturalizes an important cultural, and governing, logic: the myth of the “unambiguous truth of the physical body” (p. 95).
Chapter Four offers the monograph’s most illuminating example of the limitations and complexities of “visibility” as a strategy for rights. Using the case of Chelsea Manning and her exploitation while incarcerated, Beauchamp shows how Manning’s legal defense linked the mounting pressure she felt regarding keeping gender secrets to an inability to live with the moral weight of keeping the state’s violent secrets any longer. This rhetorical strategy was double-edged because the prosecution used narratives of transgender deception to indict Manning and deflect attention from the crimes of the state. I was moved by Beauchamp’s discussion of visibility vis-à-vis Manning’s treatment while incarcerated, which drives home one of the main contributions of the book: the tensions among the “belief in security through visibility” (p. 121), the state’s entitlement to opacity in the name of national security, and the limits of visibility for liberation. Violent prison practices that forced Manning to be visible to guards at all times, including the forced removal of her clothing for her own protection, is synecdoche for the limits of visibility as a political strategy for the marginalized. To be made visible in the name of state protection is to be subjected to additional violence; further, to exceptionalize the violence experienced by the white individual is to rationalize the everyday constitutive violence of state-sanctioned unfreedoms.
Going Stealth is a helpful contribution to multiple literatures, and it demonstrates the ways in which robust interdisciplinarity also requires solidarity in scholarship.