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The Phantom of Gender: Reflections on Freedom and Violence

11/21/2017 - 11h06



From the very start the opposition to my presence in Brazil was caught up in a phantasy. The petition called for the cancellation of a talk at Sesc-Pompeia that I was never giving.

The imaginary talk seemed to be about "gender" although the conference held there was dedicated to the theme, "The Ends of Democracy?" So there was from the start an imagined talk instead of an actual conference, and I was giving a lecture, even though I was organizing an international event on populism, authoritarianism, and the current anxiety that democracy is under attack.

I am not sure what power was given to the lecture on gender that I was imagined to give. It must have been a very powerful lecture, since it apparently threatened the family, morality, even the nation.

Moacyr Lopes Junior/Folhapress
Judith Butler
Judith Butler

The only meaning "Judith Butler" carried for those who opposed my presence in Brazil was as a proponent of a gender ideology, the imagined founder of this preposterous and nefarious point of view, someone -apparently– who believes in no sexual restrictions, whose theory destroys biblical teaching and contests scientific facts. How did this come about, and what does it mean?

Let us consider what I actually wrote and believe and compare that to the interesting and damaging fiction that has caused so much alarm.

In late 1989, nearly 30 years ago, I published a book called "Gender Trouble" (published in 2015 as Problemas de gênero: feminismo e subversão da identidade in Portuguese), where I offered an account of the performative character of gender. What does that mean?

We are all assigned a gender from birth, which means that we are named by parents or social institutions in certain ways. Sometimes in being assigned a gender, a set of expectations are communicated: this is a girl, so she will assume a traditional women's role in the family and the workplace when she grows up: this is a boy, so he will assume a predictable place in society as a man.

And yet many people do experience difficulty with their assignment -they do not wish to conform to those expectations, and their felt sense of who they are departs from the social assignment they have been given. So the question that arises from this situation is the following: how free are young people and adults to craft the meaning of their gender assignment?

They are born into society, but they are also social actors, and they can work within social norms to shape their lives in ways that are more livable.

And social institutions, including religious institutions, schools, and social and psychological services should also be able to support people as they come to know how best to live in their bodies, pursue their desires, and establish relationships that are fulfilling to them.

Some people live at peace with the gender they are assigned, but others suffer when they are compelled to conform to social norms that nullify their most profound sense of who they are and wish to be. And for them, the need to establish the terms of a livable life is an urgent one.

So first and foremost Gender Trouble sought to affirm the complexity of our gender identifications and desires, and to join those within the contemporary LGBTQ movement who believed that one of the fundamental freedoms that ought to be respected is the freedom of gender expression.

Did it deny the existence of a natural difference between the sexes? It certainly never did, though it underscores that there were differing scientific paradigms for determining the differences between the sexes, and that some bodies have mixed attributes that make them difficult to classify.

I also affirmed that human sexuality takes different forms, and that we ought not to presume that knowing someone's gender gives us any clue about their sexual orientation. A masculine man may be straight or gay, and that is the same for a masculine woman.

Our ideas of masculine and feminine vary across cultures, and there are no fixed meanings for these terms. They are cultural dimensions of our lives that assume different and new meanings in the course of history, and since we ourselves are historical actors, we have some freedom to determine those meanings.

But the aim of such a theory was to produce greater freedom and acceptance for the range of gender identifications and desires that constitute our complexity as human beings.

That work, and much of my work that followed, has also been dedicated to a critique and condemnation of bodily violation and violence.

Further, the freedom to pursue gender expression or to live as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or queer (that list is not exhaustive), can only be guaranteed in a society that refuses to accept violence against women and trans people, that refuses to accept discrimination on the basis of gender, and that refuses to pathologize and demean those who have embraced such categories in order to live a more livable life, with greater dignity, joy and freedom.

The commitment was to oppose forms of harm that undermine the possibility of living with joy and dignity. So I oppose unequivocally rape, sexual harassment and violence, and all forms of the exploitation of children.

Freedom is not -and never is– the freedom to do harm. If a free action injures another person or deprives them of freedom, then the first act cannot be regarded as free; it becomes an injurious action.

Indeed, what has concerned me is how often people who do not conform to gender norms and heterosexual expectations are harassed, beaten, and killed.

The statistics on feminicídio are a case in point. Women who are not subservient enough are force to pay with their lives.

Trans people and travestis who wish only to have the freedom to move in the public world as they are and wish to be, are regularly punished with physical attacks and death. Mothers are at risk of losing their children if they come out; many people still lose their jobs and their family connections when they come out.

The social and psychological suffering incurred by social ostracism and condemnation is enormous. The radical injustice of feminicídio should be universally condemned and the profound social transformations that would make such a crime unthinkable have to be instigated and sustained by social movements and institutions that refuse to allow people to be killed on the basis of their gender and sexuality.

In Brazil, a woman is killed every two hours. The recent torture and killing of Dandara dos Santos in Fortaleza was but one graphic example of the pervasive killing of trans people in Brazil, one that has earned Brazil a reputation of being the country most well-known for LGBT murders.

These are the clear social harms and atrocities that I oppose, and my book -and the queer movement of which it is a part- have sought to produce a world without suffering and violence of this kind.

The theory of gender performativity is one that seeks to understand gender formation and to give support to the idea of gender expression as a basic right and freedom. It is not an "ideology."

Usually, an ideology is understood to be a viewpoint that is both illusory and dogmatic, one that has "taken hold" of the thinking of people in an uncritical way.

My viewpoint, however, is a critical one, asking about the kinds of assumptions people take for granted in their everyday lives, the assumptions that medical and social services make about what a family is, and what counts as a pathological or deviant life.

How many of us still believe that biological sex determines the social roles that we assume in life? How many of us still maintain that the meaning of masculine and feminine are determined by the institutions of the heterosexual family and the idea of the nation that enforces a conjugal notion of marriage and family?

Queer families and travestis enact forms of intimate association, kinship, and support of another kind. Single mothers have different kinship ties. So, too, do blended families, where people have remarried or joined families in new amalgamations quite different from traditional family structures.

We find support and nourishment through many social forms, including the family, but the family is also an historical formation: its structure and meaning change across time and place. If we fail to affirm that, we fail to affirm the complexity and richness of human existence.

The idea of gender as an ideology was introduced by Joseph Ratzinger in 1997 before he became Pope Benedict. The scholarly work of Richard Miskolci and Maximiliano Campana traces the reception of that formulation through various Vatican documents.

In 2010 Jorge Scala from Argentina published a book called "Gender Ideology" that was translated into Portuguese by an evangelical press. This may have been a turning point in Brazilian and Latin American receptions of "gender".

According to Scala's caricature, those who work on gender deny the natural differences between the sexes and believe that sexuality should be free of all constraints. Those who depart from the norm of heterosexual marriage were understood to be free of all norms. The theory of gender seen through such a lens not only denied biological differences, but produces a moral danger.

At the Congonhas airport, one of the women confronting me started to yell about pedophilia. Why is this? It may be that she believed that gay men are pedophiles, and that the movement for LGBTQI rights was propaganda for pedophilia.

But I found myself wondering why a movement for sexual dignity and rights and against sexual violence and exploitation is blamed for pedophilia when it is surely the Catholic Church in the last years that has been exposed to harbor pedophiles, protecting them from discipline and prosecution while not protecting their hundreds of victims.

Could it be that "gender ideology" has become a phantasm of sexual chaos and predation precisely in order to deflect from the sexual exploitation and moral corruption within the Catholic Church, a situation that has profoundly shaken its moral authority?

Do we have to understand how "projection" works in order to understand how a theory of gender could be transformed into "a diabolical ideology"?

Perhaps those who burnt the effigy of me as a witch and trans advocate did not know that those who were called witches and burnt at the stake were those whose beliefs did not comport with the accepted dogma of the church.

Historically, witches have been invested with powers they could not possibly have; they became scapegoats whose death was supposed to cleanse the community of sexual and moral corruption.

These women were understood to have committed heresy, to worship the devil, and to have brought evil into the community in places like Salem, Massachusetts, in Baden, Germany, in the Western Alps, in Austria, and in England.

Very often that "evil" was figured as sexual license. The phantasm of these women as the devil or its representatives resonates now in the "diabolical" ideology of gender.

And yet, the torture and killing of those women throughout the ages as witches represented an effort to suppress dissident voices, those who would call certain dogmas of religion into question. It was responsible people within the Church who put an end to that form of scapegoating, cruelty, and murder, who insisted that witch burning did not represent true Christian values.

The burning of witches was, after all, a form of femicide undertaken in the name of a morality and orthodoxy. Although I am not a scholar of Christianity, I understand that one of its great contributions was doctrine of love and regard for the precious quality of life -a far cry from the venom of witch hunts.

Although only my image was burnt, and I have been left unscathed, I was horrified by the action not so much on my own behalf but on behalf of those courageous queer and feminist people in Brazil who are striving for greater freedom and equality, who seek to defend and realize democracy where sexual rights are affirmed and where violence against sexual and gender minorities is abhorred.

That symbolic gesture of burning my image sent a chilling and threatening message to all those who believe in the equality of women, the right of women, gay and lesbian people, trans, and travesties to be protected from violence and murder.

They believe in the right of young people to exercise the freedom to find their desire and to live in a world that refuses to threaten, criminalize, pathologize, or kill all those whose gender identity or ways of loving harm no one.

This is the vision of Archbishop Justin Welby from England, who recently asserted the right of young people to explore their gender identity, supporting a more open and accepting attitude toward gender roles in society.

This ethical openness is important for democracy that includes the freedom of gender expression as one of the fundamental democratic freedoms, that the equality of women is a proper part of a democratic commitment to equality, and that discrimination, harassment, and murder undermine any polity with democratic aspirations.

Perhaps the focus on "gender" was not really, in the end, a deflection from the question of our conference, namely what are the ends of democracy?

When violence and hatred become the instruments of religious morality and politics, then democracy is threatened by those who would tear apart the social fabric, punish difference, and undermine the social bonds required to support our co-existence here on earth.

I will remember Brazil for all the generous and thoughtful people, whether secular or religious, who sought to block the blows and stop the hatred.

They are the ones who seem to know that the "end" of democracy is to keep alive hope for a non-violent common life and commitment to equality and to freedom, where intolerance does not become simple tolerance, but is rather overcome by the courageous affirmation of our differences.

Then we all begin to live and breathe and move with greater ease and joy -the ultimate goal of the courageous democratic struggle to which I am proud to belong: to become free, to be treated as an equal, and to live together without violence.

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