Judith Butler at the LSE

Please note: The below post is my personal interpretation of the discussion that occurred in response to a question I raised. 

Last night I was fortunate enough to be sat in the same room as one of my academic idols, Professor Judith Butler; an American philosopher and gender theorist whose work has influenced political philosophy, ethics and the fields of feminist, queer and literary theory.

In terms of the academic gender field, she’s an absolute rockstar.

I’m going to respect the request by the organisers to not disclose what was discussed during our two hour session on gender and mono-linguistics. However, I feel it would be remiss of me to not make note of the ideas and questions the discussion raised for me personally.

The biggest one, perhaps, relates to the use of the word ‘cisgender’.

I’ve long held the staunch belief that, in order to further the progression of trans rights and societal acceptance/normalisation of non-binary identities, there was an intrinsic need to define a distinction between the concept of trans and non-trans (cisgender/cis). As a campaigner and a communicator, this felt like a very foundational concept necessary to positioning identity politics in an accessible manner.

I might even take this further and suppose that I have, in the past, viewed those whose instinctive reaction to being labelled cis is to refute it (not, let’s be clear, because they themselves are trans, nor because they’re inherently transphobic – but simply because they balk at the notion of categorisation) as doltish and reactive.

Surely, as a simple and easily-integrateable form of categorisation, no one should view it as oppressive or degrading? Isn’t the cis label movement here to help everybody out? I have struggled on a personal level to understand the often-emotional and fervent backlash it induces as a term.

This personal inability to comprehend was why I ended up asking Judith Butler about it. My question to her was:

Is there a solution to navigating the often-fraught and emotional public discourse about trans identities and rights if it is, as you nodded towards, against claiming of personal freedoms for non-trans people to be designated as cis against their will? Surely the distinction is necessary to advance discussion of trans identities in a cisnormative society?

It should be noted that much of the address up until this point had been heavily-theoretical, and so I was eager to discuss a slightly more practical interpretation of gender as a linguistic issue – and what impact it might have on campaigning.

Professor Butler’s response was one which, unsurprisingly, has give me reason to pause and think – and below are my interpretations of her response. It’s worth noting that a few others I’ve spoken to have come away with something different, and a few the same.

The first point mentioned was the work that the word ‘cis’ is doing in denaturalising normative gender alignments, and that this role was vitally important. The discussion then moved, in my recollection, to speak of the need to be wary of moving from one normative binary (male/female) into another, well-intended one (cis/trans). That we might instead focus on ensuring that the concept of gender remains one in which people can find ‘liveability in language’ – fluid, accepting, inclusive, but importantly with room for people to reject it if they are not able to/do not want to situate themselves within it.

Further to this, the fact we need to ensure we are actually asking our audiences how they want to be defined was discussed; not to assume that our non-normative positions within the gender spectrum  allow us to be lazy and make sweeping assumptions about our audiences.

Finally, and perhaps ironically due to my own genderqueer identity, the fact that not everyone can be divided into the binary cis/trans categories was touched upon, and we must remain vigilant to not ‘other’ those identities.

I’m not quite sure where this leaves my thinking, at the moment – I’ll certainly be processing the response for weeks to come, and asking myself some very difficult questions. But I still don’t quite understand how I, as a trans rights campaigner, can begin a conversation with an audience who may have no previous knowledge about / interest in the concept of trans identity without positioning identity in such a useful way as cis/trans. Often, of course this takes the form of a ‘you/me’ dichotomy in which I assume my audience to be cisgender – and this is what I need to work on.

I’d be very interested to hear what your thoughts are – feel free to comment here, or get in touch on Twitter!


One comment

  • Two more things for you to think about.

    Firstly, trans is an umbrella term. That makes it very difficult to decide who is trans and who isn’t. Obviously people have the right to not identify as trans if they wish, even if the seem very trans-like. But I always ask people why they don’t want to be seen as trans. If their reasons boil down to, “I don’t want to be associated with *those people* I am likely to be unimpressed. If it is because they have some rigid and restrictive definition of what trans means that’s different, if possibly unhelpful.

    Secondly, while all people have a right to be labeled in a way they are comfortable with, I’m unimpressed with anyone who demands the label “normal” in contrast to a minority group.


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