- The Life and Death of Latisha King: A Critical Phenomenology of Transphobia by Gayle Salamon
New York: New York University Press, 2018, 192 pp.
It was February 12, 2008. A group of eighth-grade students filed into the computer lab, Room 42, at E. O. Green High School in Oxnard, California. Abuzz with talk of the upcoming Valentine's Day, they sat down to write essays for their unit on tolerance. The computers themselves were old, with big, square bellies and hazy faces. One kid asked another, "Larry! Are you really changing your name?" "Yes!" came the excited reply. Another student, Brandon, sporting a pale face and crew cut under his dark hoodie, stood up slowly, pulled a revolver from his waist, aimed, and shot. Twice. A girl slumped over her keyboard. The cursor blinked heavily beside her new name: Latisha.
In The Life and Death of Latisha King, Gayle Salamon reflects on the murder itself, the trial that followed, and the political issues at stake. Salamon attended the trial, which stretched from July 5 to September 1, 2011. She was joined by psychoanalyst Ken Corbett, author of Murder Over a Girl, and documentarian Marta Cunningham, director of Valentine Road. Training her eye and ear not only on the crisp court transcript, but also on the rich gestural and tonal fabric of the trial itself, Salamon emerges with a counter-narrative. The story is not, as the juridical system, Oxnard inhabitants, or even Ellen Degeneres1 would [End Page 153] have it, one of a boy killed for being gay. No. For Salamon, it's not a gay story. It's a trans story. Aligning herself with Latisha's friend Aliyah, who states, "I don't think Larry is gay. He's transgendered [sic]. It's a big difference" (20), Salamon argues in clear, cogent language: this was a case of transphobic hate. Latisha's gender—like transgender expression more generally—was perceived as a weapon (15), answerable only by another weapon.
While Salamon's methodology might be surprising in this context, it is eminently effective. She does not offer a historical account, a sociological account, or even a traditional philosophical account. She does not ask what happened, when, and how, who did what to whom. Nor does she ask what moral imperatives were broken and why. No systematic attempt is made to get to the bottom of things. Instead, Salamon expressly attends to how things appear and how they get passed over, how they are experienced and how those experiences get buried (10). In tracing the threads of affect and meaning across figures and scenes, Salamon gets between things. Between the phenomena themselves and their already overburdened interpretations. Between the sleeves of gendered embodiment, gesture, and language. Between juridical protocol and the raw demands of responsibility. Salamon understands this to be the work of critical phenomenology, which, while it anchors reflection in first-person experience, places that experience in intersubjective context (17). This eminently reflective book aims to do justice to the texture of individual experiences, enmeshed, as they are, in social worlds.
The Life and Death of Latisha King is organized into four main chapters: "Comportment," "Movement," "Anonymity," and "Objects." In each, Salamon turns her critical phenomenological attention to both the case and the courtroom in an attempt to pry apart the conditions that make transphobic violence possible.
In chapter 1, "Comportment," Salamon explores how Latisha's gender is perceived as a provocation, a projectile, and a weapon; a form of harassment, bullying, and assault. Drawing on Erwin Strauss and Iris Marion Young, she insists that "an understanding of bodily movement is paramount to understanding how [. . .] gender expression becomes transformed into sexual aggression" (41). When non-normative gender becomes fungible with non-normative sexuality, such that one's transgressive mode of embodiment—one's queer walk, for example—is taken to signify a transgressive sexual act, gender itself becomes an act of aggression, a violent acting upon unsuspecting and unconsenting cisgender, heterosexual bystanders. Latisha is said to flaunt her gender, throwing...