The Visibility Trap

42 Pages Posted: 31 Oct 2022

See all articles by Kate Redburn

Kate Redburn

Columbia Law School; Yale University, Faculty of Arts & Sciences, Department of History

Date Written: October 21, 2022


Transgender people in the United States are under attack. From municipal policing to state legislation and federal administrative law, trans people face well-organized efforts to regulate non-normative gender identities out of existence. Within the transgender movement - and the broader LGBT legal movement of which it is a part - much of the debate over how to respond to apparent backlash turns on visibility politics. Some advocates herald visibility as the path to social justice, arguing that cultural representation that accurately portrays transgender lives will sway public opinion in favor of inclusion. A growing chorus responds that visibility without protection invites surveillance and backlash.

In her brilliant work of legal history, Vice Patrol, Anna Lvovsky disentangles the forms of cultural salience, stereotype, and self-representation that often fly under the banner of “visibility.” Lvovsky takes moments of mid-century gay visibility as her starting point, showing how media attention hardened stereotypes about gay culture. Those stereotypes had a curious afterlife in the legal system, leading to “epistemic gaps” between enforcement institutions. On her account, courts did more than showcase public debates over the nature of homosexuality: they established “binding truths” about queer life.

This essay reads contemporary anti-transgender policing and transgender civil rights struggles through Vice Patrol to explore possible escape routes from the visibility trap. Through a deeper understanding of the way criminal enforcement metabolizes popular representation, it encourages contemporary transgender advocates to develop a kind of strategic intelligibility, by distinguishing circumstances and situations where visibility to the state is more or less necessary and desirable.

Keywords: legal history, transgender law, policing, civil rights, queer legal theory

Suggested Citation

Redburn, Kate, The Visibility Trap (October 21, 2022). University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 89, No. 6, 2022, Available at SSRN:

Kate Redburn (Contact Author)

Columbia Law School

435 West 116th St
NEW YORK, NY 10027

Yale University, Faculty of Arts & Sciences, Department of History ( email )

New Haven, CT
United States

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