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Judith Butler on updating 'queer' to be trans-inclusive


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For the journal Sexualities, Goldsmiths professor Sara Ahmed interviews Judith Butler about the enduring legacy of Gender Trouble. Butler speaks to Ahmed about issues relating to her derailment as a philosopher as well as the concept of vulnerability. Butler also offers some thoughts about updating queerness to be less exclusionary to trans people and people of color. She writes, “If ‘queer’ means that we are generally people whose gender and sexuality is ‘unfixed’ then what room is there in a queer movement for those who understand themselves as requiring – and wanting – a clear gender category within a binary frame? Or what room is there for people who require a gender designation that is more or less unequivocal in order to function well and to be relieved of certain forms of social ostracism?”

Read an excerpt of the interview below, or in full via Sexualities.

If ‘queer’ once sought to provide an umbrella term for nonconforming genders and various sexualities, ones that did not easily submit to categorization, it is now clearly embroiled in a battle of its own. Many trans people, or trans advocates, have argued that queer is exclusionary, that it does not include or describe trans experience. And though certain versions of queer have been rightly criticized for being presumptively white and classist, I think that the ‘queers of colour’ movement has done enormously powerful work to redirect the orientation of the term, to democratize its potential, and to expose and oppose its exclusionary limits in the context of a broadening struggle, the articulating of a more complex alliance that contests some of the older versions of ‘the collective’.

I think there are questions about how the term ‘queers of colour’ works outside of geopolitical contexts that are for the most part arguing about race and colonialism within the framework of multiculturalism. Some groups want to be described more specifically, and others worry that the framework is too US-based. But what impresses me most is the way that queer activists have worked in organizations that seek to shift significantly HIV politics not only within the Euro-Atlantic context but in the global south, especially Africa, as well as organizations that battle antimigrant nationalism and racism in Europe. There are also many important links in South America as movements there continue to debate about how the ‘postcolonial’ as it is currently theorized does and does not include them. Queer politics in South America often has to deal with post-dictatorial conditions and the emergence of ‘democracy’ in ways that require a different genealogy, and which debate the structure of public space and economic precarity. I have learned from Leticia Sabsay at LSE about much of this.

But the strongest criticism of ‘queer’ lately has come from the trans community. And that takes several forms. I accept these criticisms as necessary, and have found myself revising my views in response to some of what has been said. I also found that those who work on ‘intersex’ have found ‘queer’ to be sometimes less than helpful, so it is important to understand why. If ‘queer’ means that we are generally people whose gender and sexuality is ‘unfixed’ then what room is there in a queer movement for those who understand themselves as requiring – and wanting – a clear gender category within a binary frame? Or what room is there for people who require a gender designation that is more or less unequivocal in order to function well and to be relieved of certain forms of social ostracism? Many people with intersexed conditions want to be categorized within a binary system and do not want to be romanticized as existing ‘beyond all categories’.

Of course, there are different debates on this issue in both trans and intersex communities, but the message to the advocates of ‘queer’ seems quite pertinent: some people very much require a clear name and gender, and struggle for recognition on the basis of that clear name and gender. It is a fundamental issue of how to establish and insist upon those forms of address that make life liveable. At issue as well is a question of autonomy, conceptualized not through individualism, but as an emergent social phenomenon: how do I name myself, how can I establish my status within the law or within medical institutions, and to what extent will my desire to live as a particular gender or within an established gender category be honoured by those who claim to ally with me but who position themselves against my desire to be named and recognized a certain way? This question makes sense to me, which is why it is really important for us to rethink questions of autonomy and embodiment within a social field saturated with power.

*Image of Judith Butler via EGS