‘We need to rethink the category of woman’:
Interview with Judith Butler
Judith Butler and Jules Gleeson
Shortly after its publication, The Guardian decided to redact Jules Gleeson's September 7th interview with Judith Butler, omitting sections directed at the antifascist implications of the philosopher's work. Below is the original unabridged version.
It’s been 31 years since the release of Gender Trouble. What were you aiming to achieve with the book?
It was meant to be a critique of heterosexual assumptions within feminism, but it turned out to be more about gender categories. For instance, what it means to be a woman does not remain the same from decade to decade. The category of woman can and does change, and we need it to be that way. Politically, securing greater freedoms for women requires that we rethink the category of “women” to include those new possibilities. The historical meaning of gender can change as its norms are re-enacted, refused or recreated.
So we should not be surprised or opposed when the category of women expands to include trans women. And since we are also in the business of imagining alternate futures of masculinity, we should be prepared and even joyous to see what trans men are doing with the category of “men.”
Let’s talk about Gender Trouble’s central idea of ‘performativity.’ This remains a controversial view of how gender works, so what did you have in mind?
At the time I was interested in a set of debates in the academy about speech acts. “Performative” speech acts are the kind that make something happen or seek to create a new reality. When a judge declares a sentence, for instance, they produce a new reality, and they usually have the authority to make that happen. But do we say that the judge is all-powerful? Or is the judge citing a set of conventions, following a set of procedures? If it is the latter, then the judge is invoking a power that does not belong to them as a person, but as a designated authority. Their act becomes a citation — they repeat an established protocol.
How does that relate to gender?
I suggested more than 30 years ago that people are, consciously or not, citing conventions of gender when they claim to be expressing their own interior reality or even when they say they are creating themselves anew. It seemed to me that none of us totally escape cultural norms.
At the same time, none of us are totally determined by cultural norms. Gender then becomes a negotiation, a struggle, a way of dealing with historical constraints and making new realities. When we are “girled,” we are entered into a realm of girldom that has been built up over a long time — a series of conventions, sometimes conflicting, that establish girlness within society. We don’t just choose it. And it is not just imposed on us. But that social reality can, and does, change.
Today’s queers often talk about gender being ‘assigned at birth.’ But your meaning here seems pretty different?
Gender is an assignment that does not just happen once: it is ongoing. We are assigned a sex at birth and then a slew of expectations follow which continue to “assign” gender to us. The powers that do that are part of an apparatus of gender that assigns and reassigns norms to bodies, organizes them socially, but also animates them in directions contrary to those norms.
Perhaps we should think of gender as something that is imposed at birth, through sex assignment and all the cultural assumptions that usually go along with that. Yet gender is also what is made along the way — we can take over the power of assignment, make it into self-assignment, which can include sex reassignment at a legal and medical level.
Arguments around identity have become central to much of our politics these days. As someone who is sceptical of stable identity categories, what do you make of that?
I think it matters a great deal how we understand that “centrality.” My own political view is that identity ought not to be the foundation for politics. Alliance, coalition and solidarity are the key terms for an expanding left. And we need to know what we are fighting against and for, and keep that focus.
It is imperative that we work across differences and that we build complex accounts of social power. Accounts that help us to build links among the poor, the precarious, the dispossessed, LGBTQI+ peoples, workers and all those subject to racism and colonial subjugation. These are not always separate groups or identities, but overlapping and interconnected forms of subjugation that oppose racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia but also capitalism and its destructions, including the destruction of the Earth and indigenous ways of life.
Theorists such as Asad Haider have adopted your theory to address racial divides in the United States. Haider emphasizes your view of identity formation as restless and always uprooted. But don’t the right wing usually score victories by pushing a much more fixed vision of identity?
The right is seeking desperately to reclaim forms of identity that have been rightly challenged. At the same time, they tend to reduce movements for racial justice as “identity” politics, or to caricature movements for sexual freedom or against sexual violence as concerned only with “identity.” In fact, these movements are primarily concerned with redefining what justice, equality and freedom can and should mean. In this way, they are essential to any radical democratic movement, so we should reject those caricatures.
So what does that mean for the left? If we base our viewpoints only on particular identities, I am not sure we can grasp the complexity of our social and economic worlds or build the kind of analysis or alliance needed to realize ideals of radical justice, equality and freedom. At the same time, marking identity is a way of making clear how coalitions must change to be more responsive to interlinked oppressions.
Today we often hear about the importance of listening to those with a ‘lived experience’ of oppression. Political philosopher Olúfémi O Táíwò has warned that noble intentions to ‘decenter’ privileged perspectives can easily backfire.
Yes, it is important to acknowledge that, while a white person cannot claim to represent Black experience, that is no reason for white people to be paralyzed on matters on race, refusing to intervene at all. No one needs to represent all Black experience in order to track, expose and oppose systemic racism — and to call upon others to do the same.
If white people become exclusively preoccupied with our own privilege, we risk becoming self-absorbed. We definitely don’t need more white people making everything about themselves: that just re-centralizes whiteness and refuses to do the work of anti-racism.
How has your own gender identity informed your political theory?
My sense is that my “gender identity” — whatever that is — was delivered to me first by my family as well as a variety of school and medical authorities. It was with some difficulty that I found a way of occupying the language used to define and defeat me.
I still rather think that pronouns come to me from others, which I find interesting, since I receive an array of them — so I am always somewhat surprised and impressed when people decide their own pronouns or even when they ask me what pronouns I prefer. I don’t have an easy answer, though I am enjoying the world of “they.” When I wrote Gender Trouble, there was no category for “nonbinary” — but now I don’t see how I cannot be in that category.
You have often been the target of protesters across the world. In 2014, anti-gay marriage protesters in France marched on the streets denouncing ‘théorie du genre’ – gender theory. In 2017, you were burnt in effigy by evangelical Christian protesters in Brazil chanting ‘take your ideology to hell’. What do you make of that?
The anti-gender ideology movement, a global movement, insists that sex is biological and real, or that sex is divinely ordained, and that gender is a destructive fiction, taking down both “man” and “civilization” and “God.” Anti-gender politics have been bolstered by the Vatican and the more conservative evangelical and apostolic churches on several continents, but also by neoliberals in France and elsewhere who need the normative family to absorb the decimation of social welfare.
This movement is at once anti-feminist, homophobic and transphobic, opposing both reproductive freedom and trans rights. It seeks to censor gender studies programs, to take gender out of public education — a topic so important for young people to discuss. And to reverse major legal and legislative successes for sexual freedom, gender equality and laws against gender discrimination and sexual violence.
It seems that some within feminist movements are becoming sympathetic to these far-right campaigns. This year’s furore around Wi Spa in Los Angeles saw an online outrage by transphobes followed by bloody protests organized by the Proud Boys. Can we expect this alliance to continue?
It is very appalling and sometimes quite frightening to see how trans-exclusionary feminists have allied with rightwing attacks on gender. The anti-gender ideology movement is not opposing a specific account of gender, but seeking to eradicate “gender” as a concept or discourse, a field of study, an approach to social power. Sometimes they claim that “sex” alone has scientific standing, but other times they appeal to divine mandates for masculine domination and difference. They don’t seem to mind contradicting themselves.
The Terfs (trans exclusionary radical feminists) and the so-called gender critical writers have also rejected the important work in feminist philosophy of science showing how culture and nature interact (such as Karen Barad, Donna Haraway, EM Hammonds or Anne Fausto-Sterling) in favor of a regressive and spurious form of biological essentialism. So they will not be part of the coalition that seeks to fight the anti-gender movement. The anti-gender ideology is one of the dominant strains of fascism in our times. So the Terfs will not be part of the contemporary struggle against fascism, one that requires a coalition guided by struggles against racism, nationalism, xenophobia and carceral violence, one that is mindful of the high rates of femicide throughout the world, which include high rates of attacks on trans and genderqueer people.
The anti-gender movement circulates a specter of “gender” as a force of destruction, but they never actually read any works in gender studies. Quick and fearful conclusions take the place of considered judgments. Yes, some work on gender is difficult and not everyone can read it, so we have to do better in reaching a broader public. As important as it is, however, to make complex concepts available to a popular audience, it is equally important to encourage intellectual inquiry as part of public life. Unfortunately, we are living in anti-intellectual times, and neo-fascism is becoming more normalized.
You’ve always stressed that your gender theory is not only informed by scholarly debate but also your own years participating in lesbian and gay communities. Since the early 1990s you’ve become a uniquely influential thinker within these circles. How much has changed since you came out?
Oh, I never came out. I was outed by my parents at the age of 14. So, I’ve been identified variously as butch, queer, trans* for over 50 years.
I was certainly affected by the gay and lesbian bars I frequented too often in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and I was concerned then as well with the challenges faced by bisexuals to gain acceptance. I met with intersex groups to understand their struggle with the medical establishment and eventually came to think more carefully about the difference between drag, transgender and gender in general. I’ve always been involved in non-academic activist groups, and that is an ongoing part of my life.
What kind of issues were being addressed by radical gay and lesbian politics before the word ‘queer’ emerged?
The demonstrations in my youth were certainly about the right to come out, the struggle against discrimination and pathologization and violence, both domestic and public. We fought against psychiatric pathologization and its carceral consequences. But also we fought for a collective right to live one’s body in public without fear of violence, the right to grieve openly over lives and loves that were lost. And this struggle took a very dramatic shape once HIV arrived and Act Up emerged.
Queer was, for me, never an identity, but a way of affiliating with the fight against homophobia. It began as a movement opposed to the policing of identity — opposing the police, in fact.
These protests focused on rights to healthcare, education, public freedoms and opposing discrimination and violence – we wanted to live in a world where one could breathe and move and love more easily. But we also imagined and created new forms of kinship, community and solidarity, however fractious they tended to be.
I went to dyke demonstrations but also worked on international human rights, understanding what those limits were. And I came to understand that broader coalitions equally opposed to racism, economic injustice and colonialism were essential for any queer politics. We see how this works now in queer Marxism groups, Queers for Economic and Racial Justice, queers against apartheid, ‘alQaws, the Palestinian group against both occupation and homophobia.
How does political life today compare?
Today I appreciate especially queer and feminist movements that are dedicated to healthcare and education as public goods, that are anti-capitalist, committed to the struggle for racial justice, disability rights, Palestinian political freedoms, and which oppose the destruction of the Earth and indigenous lifeworlds — as evident in the work of Jasbir Puar, Sara Ahmed, Silvia Federici, Angela Davis — the work of Ni Una Menos and abolition feminism. There is now a broader vision, even though this is a time of great despair as we see global economic inequalities intensify under the pandemic.
Many gender theorists have written on your work’s direct impact on them, from Julia Serano’s sheepish recounting of your attending a poetry reading that included the line ‘Fuck Judith Butler!’, to Jordy Rosenberg’s immersive reflection ‘Gender Trouble on Mother’s Day’. What has becoming an intellectual celebrity felt like for you personally?
I have found a way to live to the side of my name. That has proven to be very helpful. I know that many queer and trans folks feel strongly about their names and I respect that. But my survival probably depends on my ability to live at a distance from my name.
-September 7th, 2021.