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Contesting the Claims of the Anti-Gender Ideology Movements

18. Dezember 2020 Judith Butler Dirk Schulz

Am heutigen Wissenschaftstag #4genderstudies 2020 veröffentlicht der blog interdisziplinäre geschlechterforschung den zweiten Teil des Gesprächs von Judith Butler und Dirk Schulz. Unter dem Titel “There’s no back to normal” bildete ihr Austausch den Auftakt zur aktuellen Vortragsreihe der GeStiK zum Thema „Krise“. Der erste Teil des Gespächs findet sich hier.

Dirk Schulz As you know too well, gender studies have been and continue to be attacked a lot, precisely because they are regarded by some as “ideology” and not a field of science based on “facts”. Rather they become mediated widely as identity or minority politics and thus not really objective or truth-seeking. Gender studies are perceived by many as a “sect” of people shunning truth. They may believe in or wish for something but they do not really, well, tell or admit the truth, not even try to get to facts and truths in their theories and their research. What’s your concept of “ideology” in this sense in relation to gender studies?

Judith Butler und Dirk Schulz in Köln 2016. Foto: Claudia Nikodemus
In Köln 2016. Foto: Claudia Nikodem

Judith Butler Well, first of all, the reference to facts is interesting because, I mean, that suggests that the theory of truth on offer is positivist and that would precisely not be a Kantian one, or a pragmatic one, or social theoretical. As you know, in philosophy there are a number of ways of approaching the problem of truth. So we have to try to figure out which version of truth is invoked when “facts” are pointed to as the limit-case of truth. Facts not only appear within certain frameworks, but they are also endowed with significance when they appear within that framework… The attack on gender studies as an “ideology” waged by rightwing Christians is less interested in a fact-based challenge than it is in debunking the progress made by gay and lesbian human rights movements, on queer and trans* legal rights and protections, and political powers, and protections. 

They attack gender studies at the same time that they attack feminist legal and political progress, so they focus on abortion, on reproductive freedom, and feminism as a threat to the family (understood as hetero-patriarchal). I think this “ideology” – as it is called – actually stands in for a social reality of gender and sexual freedom, equality, and justice that those who attack gender studies do not want to accept. In some ways, they are ideogenic, believing that ideas generated in the academy produce radical changes in social and political structures. Few of us feel so powerful within the academy! Indeed, our power may be most powerful within the imaginary of the anti-gender ideology movement. They seem to think that if they can destroy the concept of gender then society will “return” to some heteronormative stability. Those who attack gender as an ideology seek to defeat an array of social movements that expand freedoms for LGBTQIA people, and who oppose all sorts of discriminatory and violent practices that such people suffer. The anti-gender ideology people seek to reverse the gains of these social movements and achievements. They want to return to another time in history where they could more easily imagine that the family is exclusively and eternally heteronormative, that sexuality is heteronormative, that patriarchy is the appropriate social structure of communities, that men are men and women are women, that their sex assignments at birth last without change throughout life, and that there are no non-binary people, there are no trans* people, there are no genderqueer people.

Whose reality is being denied?

They are trying to deny an emergent and expanding social reality supported by an interlocking set of social and political movements. Although they claim that gender denies “the facts” of sex, they are themselves denying that lives assigned one sex at birth can emerge into a gender spectrum. For them, the “fact” of sex is not considered to be the effect of “sex assignment”; the latter is a social and medical practice that stabilizes sex at birth, but which can be changed in the course of time. For those who oppose gender, sex not only stays the same, but does not depend on an assignment, and implies an entire social form: heterosexual, married, procreative. They seize upon the idea that gender is a construct or that it is performative to claim that it denies reality. But it is the new social reality of gender that they deny by this very move.

By the way I would not say that gender is only performative and it is worth noting that there are different ways of thinking about construction. Sex assignment is itself a construction, based on biological or genetic markers, but not dictated by those markers. The binary requirement on sex assignment has led to a wide range of cruel practices against intersex people who have been subject to surgical correction and social discipline in order to fit the frame. So whose reality is being denied? Which facts do not fit the framework? The point is not to deny facts, to deny the fact of the body or the facts of biological processes, but to ask in what framework are they interpreted, and how are they lived by those who have been subject to those assignments? The enumeration of biological facts cannot by itself explain the emergence of social realities. And yet, we have to be able to talk about both, even ask whether biology is best characterized as a group of facts, or whether processes are more salient than facts.

In any case, it is one thing to name a fact and quite another to ask: how is this biological body being lived, in what social world and with what meanings? And many biologists will argue, among them Anne Fausto-Sterling, that in fact biology and culture are always in an interaction. They are co-constructionists (a model that is most useful in immunology as well). Can we make a firm and fast distinction between the biological and the social? And I am not saying culture produces biology or biology is a myth. I don’t believe it for a moment! I take the idea of the lived body from the phenomenological tradition very seriously, and the corollary that people live their bodies in different ways. So a trans* person who is trans* and understands their reality as trans* is not faking something or denying something. They are reporting on a lived and true subjective experience, one that has been denied by mainstream culture. Talk about truth, I would use truth right there.

Gender is a lived reality

Indeed, one of the most important criticisms of Gender Trouble came from trans* readers who wanted me to know that trans* is the truth of their subjective experience and precisely not performative. If we deny that lived reality we are seeking to eviscerate that person, deprive them of the terms they require to live their lives, the terms by which they seek to be recognized legally, politically, and socially for who they are, quite frankly. I would say that gender is performative in that moment to the degree that a trans* person lays claim to the discourse that names their reality. That enunciation does not produce their trans* reality (in the sense of bringing it into being), but it does give a social and public form to their lives. So, much of the “attack” on gender is also an attack on these lives, on lives that have articulated the terms of their existence and their survivability. There is no question that gender is not merely cultural or only a cultural construct or something like it... It’s a lived reality and even Simone de Beauvoir understood that. She wanted to understand how the body is lived. And the minute we ask that question, we are also asking, within what cultural terms is the body lived?, within what historical vocabulary?, then we’re talking about a social reality. And we can, or must, ask a further question: what about living one’s body within those frameworks makes it livable or unlivable? If the critics of gender want embodied reality to be reduced to a set of biological facts, then they do want reality include social reality. If they are positivists, and think that only facts exist, then the reduction of biological processes and their interactions to “facts” actually deprives the living body of its life. Quite frankly, they need to do some more reading or we need to have that kind of debate more openly.

I think there is a bitter irony in this. The heteronormative order, from our birth on, has its means to make us think there are only two gender options, two sexes and we are either this or that. And since we’re also taught this is not one of many possible aspects but an essential part of our selfhood it creates a kind of stability. Therewith the binary order becomes what many people uphold and need for their lives. And then, when the gender theories come to them, a lot of people feel threatened because it takes away this "foundation" of their identity. Because that’s what we were taught to believe, that our “sex” is the most fundamental thing that we maybe “have” or bring to this world in our bodies or with our bodies. So taking that order – internalized as natural – away and that certainty and “reality” is really frightening for a lot of people. I guess that this is why people react in certain ways to the multiplying of lived realities in terms of gender and sexuality. And to gender studies.

I think you are right Dirk, but I would say this. It’s been many years since Gender Trouble was published, over 30 now. I wrote it I think, it must have been 32 or 33 years ago, so my own thinking has changed and it’s a book that actually… I think, does belong to its time. It hasn’t survived, but it exists still as a testament to its time and place. I understand that it is still read in courses and I receive mail from all over the world about it every week, but, truthfully, it would need to be totally rewritten in light of contemporary social life. But I will say this, in the years following some people have said to me – and some of them very conservative and some of them not: "I like the binary, I want to live inside the binary, the binary gives me a framework, a grounding, I like the idea that there are men and women". And even some trans* people have said this to me: "I don’t oppose the binary, I just want to be in another position within the binary. So don’t mess with my binary!" And even a claim like: "I need the binary in order to live, in order to be grounded, in order to have a stable framework, that is what it gives me and plus I believe it’s true." Okay, that’s one set of positions that need to be heard and acknowledged. At the same time, there’s always a number of other people who say: "I could never live within the binary. It actually was completely unlivable, I was always disoriented, I could never find my ground, I could never find stability there, I felt effaced, excluded, and could not breathe".

So for this second group, to have another set of vocabularies and another set of ways of thinking about gender actually allowed them to live, to orient themselves, to be part of a community in which they felt recognisable or at least felt belonging and ground, orientation, stability to be outside the binary. So why can’t we simply accept that for some people the binary is a necessity for their lives and for others it is absolutely not. For the latter, their lives must be outside of it or in some critical relationship to it and that this is part of the diversity we live with. Gender is a very complex and troublesome spectrum. Sexuality is a very complex spectrum. And I think we have to have the courage to know that spectrum in its complexity and also offer acknowledgement to people who need one framework or who require another in order to live. Right? I have offered two, but there are many more.

Gender should be livable

My basic position is that gender should be livable, and we should struggle to create and maintain a more livable world. For a long time, women could not live within their genders if that meant accepting violence, poor pay, discrimination. No, they didn’t find it livable until they started to change the very terms of gender, to change what it means to be a woman. For a long time, queer and trans* people, non-binary people – myself included – didn’t find it livable within mainstream society. You know, we have not always found gender to be a livable sphere. So what if what we are doing, if the whole value of gender theory is to establish a more livable world and a more livable world of gender? If so, then we need to accept that those frameworks are not lies and falsehoods, fictions and fantasies, but existential necessities, even though they are not the same. But we don’t need to be the same. We can and must exist in a field of differences. And I think that’s finally what needs to be acknowledged and affirmed.

Yeah, I completely agree but I also see at least an aggressive impatience of people. They want this to stop at a certain point. Because what’s next? It’s like they have this fear… and it is already too much for them. They can deal with the binaries but with the non-binaries for example or with genderqueer… it seems frightening to think which new categories will come next and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of...

They see it as a fashion or a trend.

A fashion? Yes, but then I also think if they only perceived it as a fashion, then why is there this need to comment on it, to make derogatory remarks about this, and to even act violently against it? If it was merely a fashion then they could say: "Okay, there are those people – and let’s not forget usually conceived of as minority groups – who do not follow the binary and they make their own rules, they play with it, fine, let ‘them’ have it, whatever”. But there seems to be this need, this urgency to say: "Stop! Stop here and now! Because where is this going to go otherwise?" And I find this evident panic remarkable. When I talk about the problem of naturalized heteronormativity and the importance of deconstruction and denaturalization a lot of people respond by asking me: "But what would your ideal world look like? What is the utopia? What’s the idea of the world you want to create with those questions?" Whereas for me, the main point is to continue to challenge and question the binary, the naturalized order, the concepts, discourses and narratives on “gender” and listen to other stories and perspectives... But for many people there is an apparently fundamental threat involved in thinking beyond the binary.

Well. I think maybe this story responds to your comment, which is an important one. You know, in Brazil where there was very intense opposition to “me” or my theory as it was imagined, people said that gender theory was destroying the basis of civilization and that their family structure, heterosexuality and the gender hierarchy within heterosexuality gave society its stability and its structure. And people who challenge that are bringing civilization down. They are undermining the foundation of society itself. And my question for them was: "Well if you have a heteronormative family and this is how you want to live, then why  insist that everybody has to live in that same way? Why must your form of life – which you value, clearly – be universalised to be everyone’s form of life?" And what is interesting is that many people... it’s not enough for them to just have their way of life, their own way of life has to become everyone’s way. 

So what if you had a heteronormative family in a neighborhood and then you had a queer family or you had a blended family, a single woman, gay male parents, you know... They could not be in proximity to each other because even the sheer proximity questions the universality of that social form and what they have. Those who hold to this view, who believe the multiplication of family forms, or gender, or sexual orientations threatens society or civilization, need for their personal arrangement to be universal and founded in a natural law or a cultural law that is universal in its scope. They want to be an instance of the universal. They want to be exemplifying natural law in their sexuality and their gender. And that is a lot to ask. But I think why? Multiplying forms of life do not destroy your way of life. You can still have that. We are not going to attack you for that. Go and have that, have your family, do your patriarchal thing. We are just over here, you know, constituting a vibrant set of alternatives.

What function is gender serving in this political economy?

But even such a simple pluralistic framework (hardly revolutionary) is still threatening, right, because it contests the basic universality and law-like character of their own private social form and I think  people do need to give that up. They need to mourn the loss of their sense of supremacy, their attachment to natural law, their absolutism in favor of co-habitation. It’s destabilizing for them because it seems as if we were saying: "Your life could be different or you could live otherwise." And of course that is true. Which suggests that maybe they could be gay or maybe they could be trans* or what else!?... "This is not an option for me", they will say. Fine, it’s not an option for you but why do you need your social form to be natural law imposed on all others? You can just say it’s not an option, and accept that for others it is their reality, even their chosen reality. Go on about your life. No one is forcing you! But the rightwing fantasy that it is being promulgated, that in schools we will be converting people or imposing our “ideology” or that we are the new totalitarians and that we will mandate that others live as we do. Maybe this is “projective identification” in the Kleinian sense… That conviction about our totalitarian aims comes precisely from this massive fantasy that if we admit difference at the level of gender, kinship, sexuality, then everything is possible and that possibility is dangerous, that the mere thought of another social form will destroy the anchor, the grounding that heteronormative social formations secure for some people. Well they’ll have to ground themselves another way.

I guess you heard that in Romania there is also now a law debated banning “gender” as a subject or topic at schools or at universities. So unfortunately and alarmingly there is a growing refusal of gender studies and LGBTQIA*- rights when we look at Poland, Hungary and Romania now [1]. I guess it is quite obvious that they are trying to avert exactly what we have just been talking about. It becomes very evident that heteronormativity is nervous and fragile, that it can be seriously challenged. Other stories could be told, heard and potentially be embraced and this potential needs to be prevented by all means. But do you have any ideas about why the subject of gender seems to be particularly feared there?

I think to the degree that gender is understood as an attack on the heteronormative and patriarchal family form it is also understood to attack national identity. Gender is figured as this thing that comes from somewhere else. It’s an import, a dangerous, urban import from the west. It will undermine their society, national identity, ways of ordering society. I think as economic instability grows, the attack on migrants escalates with the attack on gender and both become ways to reconsolidate the family in its traditional form and society in its alleged ethnic purity. Perhaps it could be demonstrated that as social services are defunded, and the state loses its status as a social state, sacrificing all commitment to the public good, the attacks on new migrants and gender theory grow. Especially under pandemic conditions, people who are poor or precarious want to know from what source they will receive basic social services. As the neoliberal state sheds its social commitments, the family and the church take on a more central role. And neoliberal states, including in Latin America, need the reinvigoration of traditional social forms to take over the tasks abandoned by the state so that the state is free to conduct the economic and financial policy and the immigration policy that it believes will serve its interests.

What is it about gender?

I think we maybe sometimes make a mistake in thinking that if we could only clarify gender better, the attacks would subside. We ask: “Oh they have a problem with gender. What is it about gender?” But maybe gender is about the family, kinship, sexuality, trans* life, feminism, the private sphere, the sphere of need, even social services now absorbed by the private sphere. Under the banner of “anti-gender”, what they’re really doing is seeking to shore up national identity and to restore traditional social forms to absorb the social services abandoned by the neoliberal state. I think we need to make sure we don’t get bogged down in the particular debates about gender when it might be better to ask, “what function is gender serving in this political economy or this cultural economy?” Something about gender is going on, but something else is also going on here. Gender has become an overdetermined site.

Yes, true. Although when I think about the ruling political representatives of countries banning gender studies and opposing LGBTQIA* rights and recognitions – Victor Orbán, Andrzej Duda, or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil – they seem to exemplify cases of nervous, heterosexual masculinities too. Like: “this is not happening here, this will not be tolerated under my rule!” As if being in charge, being endowed with and also being expected to act according to their governing power, one of the first things they need to make sure is that gender – particularly in non-heteronormative ways – is not debatable, nothing to be talked about leave alone questioned. So it indicates – or rather highlights in very ostentatious ways – the linkage of the apparent need to reconsolidate national and gender identities.

I think it’s also an attack on “the left”. At least with Bolsonaro you see this shameless proclamation, “yes, I’m homophobic!” His shameless, happy acknowledgement of homophobia. He positions himself as somebody who is fighting off the tyrannical left that will impose all these restrictions on speech and conduct and sexuality (especially sexual violence), a left that thinks women should have equal pay, that believes women should have a stronger place in the public sphere, want protections and entitlements for trans* and queer people, … it’s all of a piece. And these new social movements that are indeed trying to make a safer, more livable world for a vast number of gender and sexual minorities, many of whom in Brazil are also racial minorities, is understood as a tyrannical or totalitarian movement. So this posturing against gender is a way of saying “we don’t accept any of those social movements and seek to repeal their achievements!” They imagine going back to the place where all men were heterosexual and born that way, and had enormous power for god-given reasons and where patriarchal structures were secure and eternal.

I mean it’s terrible that these laws and rulings against gender and gender studies are happening but we must look carefully at what is happening and realise we have become powerful if they fight us in this way and even if they misconstrue us in this way. They draw these phantasmagorical pictures of what gender studies is, right? It is a fantasy text of their making, and we should be learning how to read political fantasy anew. Otherwise we won’t be able to understand what is happening or to oppose it effectively.

Absolutely. Well, maybe this is a good moment to stop – or rather pause – here, on this positive note by pointing to the evident power gender studies – along with activism of course – have gained. If so-called minority issues can achieve so much public attention and even cause political panic, the traditionally assumed solidity and natural founding of heteronormativity along with its gendered power structures and binaries becomes more than dubious, merely a longtime forceful fantasy text for the sake of legitimizing socio-political orders and power structures that we have been rereading and will continue to reread!

Thank you so much Judith for taking your time to have this conversation and sharing your readings with us!

[1] At the time of this conversation, gender studies had already been banned from universities in Hungary by the Orban government. Romania’s senate followed Hungary’s intervention by passing an education law prohibiting any reference to gender identity as a separate one from biological gender, thereby effectively banning gender studies in the country. In Poland a growing number of regions had declared themselves “lgbt-free zones”, apparently backed by government members.

Zitation: Judith Butler, Dirk Schulz: Contesting the Claims of the Anti-Gender Ideology Movements, in: blog interdisziplinäre geschlechterforschung, 18.12.2020,, DOI:

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Prof. Dr. Judith Butler

Judith Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley. She served as Founding Director of the Critical Theory Program at UC Berkeley and Co-director of the International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs. She is currently the President of the Modern Language Association. Her books have been translated into 27 languages.

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Dr. Dirk Schulz

Dirk Schulz ist promovierter Anglist und Geschäftsführer von GeStiK - Gender Studies in Köln. Dort lehrt er im Zertifikatsprogramm sowie im fakultäts- und hochschulübergreifenden Masterstudiengang "Gender & Queer Studies". Seit 2018 ist er ein Sprecher* der KEG (Konferenz d. Einrichtungen für Frauen- & Geschlechterstudien im deutschsprachigen Raum) sowie Redaktionsmitglied beim Open Gender Journal. Forschung- und Publikation vor allem in Gender/Queer Studies, Literatur- & Kulturwissenschaften.

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