TransAdvocate Interview with Judith Butler on Gender Identity

The TransAdvocate recently posted an interview with Judith Butler on gender and gender identity, specifically surrounding trans* issues. There are a lot of quotable gems in there, so I encourage you to check it out!


“We [all] form ourselves within the vocabularies that we did not choose”


“No matter whether one feels one’s gendered and sexed reality to be firmly fixed or less so, every person should have the right to determine the legal and linguistic terms of their embodied lives.”


“My sense is that we may not need the language of innateness or genetics to understand that we are all ethically bound to recognize another person’s declared or enacted sense of sex and/or gender. We do not have to agree upon the “origins” of that sense of self to agree that it is ethically obligatory to support and recognize sexed and gendered modes of being that are crucial to a person’s well-being.”


“Sometimes there are ways to minimize the importance of gender in life, or to confuse gender categories so that they no longer have descriptive power. But other times gender can be very important to us, and some people really love the gender that they have claimed for themselves. If gender is eradicated, so too is an important domain of pleasure for many people. And others have a strong sense of self bound up with their genders, so to get rid of gender would be to shatter their self-hood. I think we have to accept a wide variety of positions on gender. Some want to be gender-free, but others want to be free really to be a gender that is crucial to who they are.”

2 thoughts on “TransAdvocate Interview with Judith Butler on Gender Identity

  1. Has there been much work on comparing conversion from one religion to another, or from/to non-religion or non-spiritual, with trans* issues? Given the language Butler here uses, specifically how gender is embedded in vocabularies, descriptions, legality, and languages, it seems there are likely some parallels for thinking about what’s going on in one’s identity as one seeks transformation of that identity so that biology—the movements and operations of the physical—and the feeling of being within that biology—the conceptual, subjective reflections we have on ours and others’ emotions and perceptions as ‘natural’—come into some kind or sense of alignment, even when ‘alignment’ or fitting-in is itself embedded in both biology and languages.

    It seems intuitive to me that these kinds of transformations of one’s identity within a struggling between the diverse realities of bodies and the categories of the natural through which we come to live inside our selves, whether we transform the bodies themselves or the categories of the natural, are very much all alike. I mean, take this section:

    “So whether one wants to be free to live out a “hard-wired” sense of sex or a more fluid sense of gender, is less important than the right to be free to live it out, without discrimination, harassment, injury, pathologization or criminalization – and with full institutional and community support.”

    Replace ‘sex’ with spirituality or ‘gender’ with religion (or flip them the other way, if you prefer), and we have a very similar argument for how to think about religious/spirituality pluralism that’s already adopted by even conservatives—evangelicalism defines itself as the right to pursue one’s religious identity apart from strict, historically institutional controls (this or that Church, this or that State) while choosing to adopt other institutionalizations or none at all, with the support of the community and the polis allowing people free exercise of their religious identities. At least, this is ostensibly the basis for religious freedom in our mixed-up age. You can even take the last quoted block in the post and replace ‘gender’ with ‘religion’ to see how similar these thoughts are.

    Perhaps if we see this kind of deeper connection to how our identities form, then allowing for more proliferation of self-study or introspection and of self-transformations is one result, acknowledging alongside a similar kind of danger and temptation given how greater religious freedom requires vigilance to avoid the return of the institutions controlling which choices *seem* natural. It seems to me that if one holds the logics and values of plurality are valuable in one area—if someone frames how others should respect their own beliefs by citing religious freedom to practice or not practice our own religious habits—then it’s on them to ensure they come to the same formal conclusion not only about others’ religious beliefs (religious freedom for one is freedom for all) but also about their gender identities (gender freedom for one is freedom for all). The deep structure of freedom, whether gender-related or religious, here being that freedom pursued is plurality realized.

    I mean, there are enough evidence and arguments to acknowledge some biological reasons for broadly human urges to think of something transcendent, or think one’s self annihilated, or think one’s self connected across material space to animals or plants or rocks or people or all, but culturally and historically these urges become shaped and reconstructed in many different ways. We can also see how the temptations to institutionalization arise despite the initial adherence to plurality: the categories separating one from another need to be pure, undiluted, unmixed, stable, defining, and useful even if we’re allowing plurality at one level. Eclectic and eccentric modes disrupt too much, and hybrids undermine the rules we say are more real than bodies. But bodies at the biological level are impure, diluted, mixed, unstable, unclean, and not always so useful for selves, and so all too often they are problems at the natural level, where they become unnatural and needing rehabilitation back into the right places for the bodies to “be themselves.” Rather than let bodies home themselves, some people feel strongly the need to make homes for them.

  2. I think the rhetoric around one’s previous self as “annihilated” (or whatever cognate one uses) during or after a transition is wrong. However, it’s easy to understand *why* many trans* people choose that language, as it’s a powerful need, in many cases, to distance one’s current (“new”) self from one’s “previous self.” Part of it has to do with attempts to affirm one’s realness post-transition, which is generally heavily socially enforced.

    I am no longer the person I used to be, in many (many!) ways, but that previous person is still part of me. *I* (me, now) still did those things in my past. I don’t get to claim that I didn’t.

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