17 Oct 2020

Feminist philosopher Judith Butler: why gender still causes trouble

From Saturday Morning, 10:05 am on 17 October 2020

Feminists and the LGBTQ+ community should be banding together to protect hard-fought rights now under attack by ultra-conservative forces across the globe, a critical theorist says.

Professor Judith Butler told Kim Hill the “nonsensical” debate between trans-exclusionary radical feminist (Terfs) and transgendered and non-binary people was divisive and embarrassing.

Prof Judith Butler

Prof Judith Butler Photo: Miquel Taverna / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

She says feminism would be better served if everyone embraced diversity in the face of sustained right-wing campaigns to rollback laws that enshrine reproductive rights and same-sex marriage equality.

Butler is an activist, writer and philosopher best known for her influential Gender Trouble, where she argues gender is a kind of performance. Her latest book is The Force of Nonviolence.

Recently she's spoken up against a vocal minority of feminists, most notably author JK Rowling, who argue trans women are not authentic women and have no place in the movement.

The Terf position is based on a type of crude biological determinism, which in many ways stands opposed to the fundamental principles of feminism, she says.

“My guess is the feminists who opposed transgender as a phenomenon, and transgender rights more broadly, are arguing that it does make a difference what your biology is and that we need to identify those biological differences because it’s part of who we are, or because we apparently occupy different productive roles in life.

“The idea of a trans man giving birth would be very appalling to such people.

“They may not say ‘your biology decides what kind of job you take or what kind of person you love’. They may be feminist enough to say those are zones of freedom that should be safeguarded. But they would say there is something irreducible about biological difference and that those who seek to dispute its meaning or centrality are deeply mistaken.”

It’s a position Butler finds troubling enough to question whether Terfs are in fact feminists, arguing that a main tenet of the movement has been asserting the right to socially redefine what it means to be a woman and oppose a universal paradigm of womanhood imposed by patriarchy.

“If we say Terfs are not feminists, we can actually say they betray one of the most fundamental principles of feminists, which is that one is not born but rather becomes a woman, or becomes something other than a woman, and I take the first part of that to be Simone de Beauvoir very important formulation.

“But the idea of becoming one’s gender as a form of becoming, that’s really important to feminist consciousness-raising since the 1970s – deciding whether to take on a certain role or stereotype or comply with a certain norm. To become heterosexual or make less money than your husband, to be subservient in sex, or in fact accept battery as part of the deal with the relationship with a man.

“We’ve changed the meaning of what is means to be a woman and we should be proud of that as feminists.”

She says those in the non-binary and queer community are very committed to the idea of feminism and have played a role in its development.

“Unfortunately, this stand-off denies their participation in the history of feminism and their indebtedness to that history,” she says.

Butler says the argument against ‘gender ideology’ has its roots in Catholic social teaching and natural law theory, which hold certain objective realities exist pertaining to gender.

These teachings asserted that emerging post-modern intellectual positions posed dangers to family, society and morality, as these held up subjectivity to be the measure of truth.

“I think the argument against gender that become the basis for ‘gender ideology’ started with the Vatican’s Family Council many years ago in the 1980s. From that council a report emerged claiming that this was in fact a dangerous intellectual position.

“They didn’t call it an ideology, but they did see it as a position that was becoming over more popular in academic circles… The Bible claims that God created man and woman and if in fact we are not created either man or woman and if we have a role in determining what our sexual destination should be that breaks with biblical faith and doctrine.”

Science in the medical system is used to validate and enforce pre-existing religious views on gender, she argues.

Butler rejects the idea that ‘deconstruction’ of language - when words and descriptors like ‘woman’ are redefined to present a new social idea - blurs linguistic meaning and compromises women’s fight for equality in law.

Feminists who hold that men who decide to become women are not authentically women, not least because they have been part of the patriarchy, are wrong because they ignore the existential suffering and pain experienced in society by these people, she says.

They are just as oppressed as anyone else asserting sexual rights and want nothing to do with the male power structures and privilege they are running away from. Being assigned a sex at birth is a life sentence for them, making their lives unbearable, she told Kim Hill.

“A number of people are medically determined to be male at birth and they’re given that assignment and as they grow up they struggle with that assignment, usually in childhood in ways that are very painful. We know what it is to be a gender non-conforming kid…

“It is very painful to be called a certain gender and to live under the expectation that one will realise oneself as that gender, even though it feels impossible and causes mental distress and even physical illness.

“The people who are assigned the category male at birth grow up with that lived experience of difficulty and pain.

“They are looking to change gender in order for their lived experience, their reality to be properly acknowledged in public life, in law, in medical rules and that makes sense because they are trying to move from a situation of impossible suffering to living a liveable life – to be the person known as a woman or another gender category that more properly reflects the reality that is theirs.

“For someone on the outside to say that’s inauthentic for you to take on that new category…is arrogant and presumptuous."

The right to self-determine one’s sex and gender is a valid right that all feminists should champion, she says.

“Who are we to say what is authentic to another person? I believe that we all should have the rights and power to determine our gender categories in the world, according to the reality of the gender that we live – and only we can know what that reality is. No one can tell us. The problem was people did try to tell us from the beginning.”

She argues that the ‘category’ of women should be internally differentiated – a position brought about by intersectional analysis that emerged from black feminism. Women can be different but able unite for common causes, in the fight to end sexual violence, for example. There is room in that category for transgendered people.

On the question of whether gender is formed socially or biologically, Butler says she agrees with Anne Fausto-Sterling’s theory of interactionism, that biology is affected by culture and culture affected by biology. But, she says, the medical and law systems of society imposing arbitrary categories on people from birth is unacceptably oppressive.

“Biology is one thing, the medical determination of sex is another. That’s done according to certain laws.

“We have medical apparatus and legal apparatus coming in on the infant’s body and intersex people know just how brutal this can be, deciding which sex that body is and putting that legal name on it.

“So, it’s a legal category, a medical category. The struggle to be transgender or have transgender affirmed… is one that seeks to reassign, to enter into that process, which starts for must of us at birth.”

There is a distinction between that and having the right to determine what race you feel comfortable belonging to, she says. Suffering, she argues, makes the two subjective feelings different.

People who have been suffering should be given the legal and public entitlement to adapt a gender that “corresponds with their lived subjective reality”, it’s not merely a preference. There is a distinction, she says.

“If you just see it as a kind of preference…then it seems that it’s a kind of choice on that level actually for most trans-people it’s a deep and abiding sense of how they are, and it’s been with them for their whole lives. For some, maybe not, it dawns more slowly, but it’s a question of what their reality actually is.

“The truth is that I don’t think that gender is a choice in that way. I think we should have legal choices to adopt categories that correspond with our reality, but that doesn’t mean our reality is chosen.”

She says the public positions of people like author JK Rowling are embarrassing. Rowling has argued that giving the right of a man who thinks he’s a woman to use female changing rooms and toilets risks violence. Butler says this type of threat fantasy is absurd.

“I think she may need to rethink her ideas on anatomy, because I know a whole lot of people with penises who’ve never threatened anybody.

“Most trans women who continue to have penises are precisely stepping out of the gender norms that would weild the penis in a threatening way… trans women are stepping out of patriarchal power because it hurt them too.”

Butler acknowledges that certain behaviour and provocative appearances by some transgendered people stand opposed to what many feminists have been struggling to point out is objectifying.

But she argues, taking on a hyper-feminine roles publicly is an amazing accomplishment for trans-people, a statement of pride, power and courage.

“I don’t think that trans women who are on the runway are just being objectified, they are being appreciated as people who are brave and clearing a pathway for a wide range of other trans people who are still in hiding.”

There has been controversy about young people having reassignment surgery and subsequently changing their minds.

Canadian neuroscientist Debra W Soh, in The End of Gender: Debunking the Myths about Sex and Identity in Our Society, says young children begin transitioning at too early an age and claims that in the UK, hundreds each year regret the decision.

Butler says this is being addressed and that ‘non-transphobic’ psychotherapists are drawing up protocols to ensure young people know the consequences of transitioning.

“That is an issue that has been taken up by the trans-community itself and there are a wide range of opinions there. Some would say kids should work closely with a non-transphobic therapist or counsellor to see how they feel as they emerge into their teens, or wait until 18, or wait until they’re old enough to understand what the consequences are for themselves.”

She says many trans-people don’t take hormones, which they believe are toxic and others don’t undergo reassignment surgery.

The academic warns there is current a global right-wing movement attempting to roll back the rights of women, gays and transgender people. She says it is essential feminists and others band together against this serious assault on things like reproductive rights and same-sex marriage and not engage in what she calls “this nonsensical debate”.

Butler herself has been subject to public backlashes for her stand, most notably a Brazilian Evangelical group burned her effigy in a public display of outrage usually reserved for demonic witches.

She asks why would radical feminists be aligning with such socially retrogressive right-wing religious movements.

“We should look at our allies. I would rather there be a feminism, a strong feminism – for reproductive rights, for equality, against sexual violence, that aligns with trans and non-binary people and struggles for racial justice. We need broad alliances right now, otherwise we’re all in big trouble."