Friday, June 5, 2015

Gender Trouble and Trans Affirmation

As a college student thirty years ago, I took a seminar called Gender, Identity and Desire, and it was taught by a young professor named Judith Butler. That class changed not only my academic path, but how I understood myself--the sort of transformation we romantically hope college classes will inspire, but that rarely actually occurs. I was a young intersex person with no vocabulary to think about my experience outside the pathologizing medical one, and Butler gave me the tools to do so. I was grateful. A few years later, she would publish the materials we engaged with in that seminar in her classic book Gender Trouble.

However, in recent years, as an intersex trans academic and advocate, it's been dismaying to see how Gender Trouble and its central theme of gender performativity have been cited many times by transphobic people who think of themselves as radical feminists--some old second-wavers, but others young university students. They share a belief that there is no such thing as gender identity--only an evil (for those assigned male at birth) or Stockholm-syndrome-style (for those assigned female) embracing of patriarchy. These trans-exclusionary radical feminists or TERFs see themselves as having escaped the trap of gender. They believe that gender is somehow fake--a performance in an oppressive play that most are fooled into thinking is real, while they have learned better. And because Judith Butler speaks about gender performativity and the value of gender subversion, they cite her as "proof" that trans people are dupes who are in love with patriarchy and gender stereotypes.

That's why I was very happy to come across this interview. What Judith Butler makes clear in the interview is that Gender Trouble is a book that was written in the 1980s (though the publication date is in 1990, the seminar which I took with Butler in which she was working through the manuscript took place in the mid 80s). This was a very different era, in terms of thinking about sex, gender, and sexuality. The humanities were enthralled with the then-novel precepts of postmodernism and deconstruction, which strongly shape how the book is framed. Sexual identity politics were still nascent, and not only were trans issues little on the radar, wars were being fought on campuses over the legitimacy of even a bisexual identity. Thus, the discussion of sex, gender and sexuality in the book is limited, as entire identity categories such as binary and nonbinary trans identites, transmasculine and transfeminine identities, and a language to express agender experience, had not yet been articulated.

Gender Trouble is still a very interesting book, but it's hardly a bible speaking eternal truths. Judith Butler herself has moved on in the way she thinks about and frames issues. Her main project remains the same, and it is mine as well--to find ways about talking about the constraints put on us as people with legal sexes and gender identities and gender expressions and sexualities, and to look for ways to increase our agency to escape those constraints. Butler makes it very explicit in this interview that she embraces trans identities and despises transmisogyny as fully as she does misogyny aimed at cis women. She asserts the lived reality of gender identity, and states that she too has a gender identity she experiences as fully real and unchanging.

Butler continues to use the language of gender performativity instead of the more broadly used language of social construction. But she makes it clear here that the two ways of talking about gender are very similar in her mind, and that they are both misused by TERFs. To say gender is performative or socially constructed is not to deny its reality, or frame it as voluntary--something we put on in the morning when we choose an outfit. 

The way I as a sociologist put it is this: that we are naturally social beings. Our biological reality is that we cannot think or live without being members of a society, and from birth this shapes not just our behavior, but our bodies and brains. Now, societies vary--they employ different languages; they may understand sex as a binary, or as comprised by three or more categories; they have different gender roles and norms, so that, for example, women may be viewed as physically weak, or women may be viewed as the physically robust gender expected to carry massive water jugs for miles on their heads. Experiences of sex, gender and sexuality vary hugely across times and cultures--but all of these variations are real for those living within them. And in all societies, there are those who do not conform to the norms. 

The question then becomes how those minorities are treated: are their variations celebrated, treated as having no more or less significance than variations in toe length, or are they despised and marginalized? For those who are marginalized in any society, "liberation" consists of seeking to be treated with social respect without hiding one's sense of authentic selfhood. For intersex and trans people today, this involves trying to change social institutions and beliefs that frame sex as a binary and sex assignment at birth as immutable. So, recognizing that binary sex is a social construct, as are particular ideas about who is a "real" woman or man, as is the social ideology that nonbinary gender identities are not "real"--that recognition is important. What is socially constructed can be changed over time through social movements.

What recognizing that gender is social constructed or performative is not is some excuse to perpetuate transphobia, especially transmisogyny. And that's what Butler assures us she agrees with in this interview: "we should all have greater freedoms to define and pursue our lives without pathologization, de-realization, harassment, threats of violence, violence, and criminalization." We must not create a new feminist "moral prison" in which some people (cis feminist women in pants) are centered, some (cis women in skirts) pitied, others (those who assert nonbinary gender identities) treated with exasperation, yet others (trans men) scolded, and a last group (trans women) despised and attacked.

Hear, hear.


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