Judith Butler on Their New Book, Joe Biden, Ron DeSantis, and Nex Benedict

Liz Coulbourn

Judith Butler is so iconic that just the invocation of their name — or their first book, 1990's theory classic Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity — can work as a punchline in the queer and trans community. Butler, the rare international-celebrity academic to be name-dropped in Drag Race, has become queer shorthand for the modern American boogeyman that is “gender theory.”

In 2016, a glowing profile of Butler in The Cut — which, natch, made time to take a crack at Teen Vogue using the word “heteronormativity” — was headlined, “Think Gender Is Performance? You Have Judith Butler to Thank for That.” The profile hasn’t aged very well: Published the summer before Trump’s election, it positions both Butler, who presently uses they/them pronouns, and gender nonconformity itself as safely mainstream and accepted.

The article concludes by mentioning that Butler was considering retirement, and that they’d begun work on a children’s book version of Gender Trouble. Of that project, Butler says, they couldn’t come to an agreement over which age range to write it for, so it was shelved; had it been published, picture Ted Cruz imploding on the Senate floor.

Alas, Butler seems to be more current than ever, still teaching at UC Berkeley. Last year, when I was reporting on the conservative hostile takeover of New College of Florida, a small, LGBTQ+-friendly public university, I met a student who fled the school after being targeted by right-winger Christopher Rufo, who had been appointed to the school’s board. In one of our conversations, the student casually mentioned they were doing a panel on academic freedom that fall — and would be joined by Butler.

As times have changed, “progress” that might have seemed possible in summer 2016 has fallen by the wayside. In its wake, we’ve seen a resurgence of anti-gender and anti-queer ideology. The ACLU is tracking some 479 anti-LGBTQ+ bills moving through state legislatures. Just before Butler and I speak, I attended the funeral of trans advocate and author Cecilia Gentili, before I had to cover the death of Nex Benedict.

From Butler’s perspective, if there is ever a time to explain things to the people who don’t get it, it’s now. Butler’s original book, Gender Trouble, is infamous for being a dense and difficult read. (“Sorry about the prose,” they joke, when I bring it up.) That’s one reason I and so many others were so curious to read Who’s Afraid of Gender?, Butler's first book for a nonacademic publisher, released on March 19.

Teen Vogue speaks to Judith Butler about the new book’s origins, the fight for LGBTQ+ life, and what they’ve learned from their students.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Teen Vogue: It’s exciting to be chatting! In the book you cover a lot of the issues and stories we’ve been following.

Judith Butler: I’ve followed a bit. You all are great. Very strong.

TV: Let’s get into it. What's it like to release this book at a time of so much focus on the academy, with actors like Chris Rufo sending schools, including Harvard and New College, into chaos?

JB: Rufo is an interesting case because he has spearheaded both the attack on critical race theory and gender as an ideology, a term that goes back to the Vatican in the early ['80s and] '90s. We didn't see it coming in the US. I was very aware that there were all kinds of scholars and activists dealing with this throughout Europe and Latin America, especially Eastern Europe, and now suddenly, there it is. It's not just anti-trans — although it is predominantly anti-trans in the US — but gender becomes a kind of code word, or what I call an abbreviation, for a whole set of social movements, all of which the right wing wants to shut down or push back.

It's important for us to see that the terms by which we're clustered by the right wing are not always in sync with how we cluster ourselves, and we're not going to be able to fight them unless we do some serious alliance-building.

TV: In the book’s epigraph you say it is dedicated to “the young people who still teach me.” What have you learned from them? How do they inform your work?

JB: A lot of people talk to me about a kind of generational divide, and I have seen that. There's some older feminists I know who are like, “I can't go with this new stuff, the pronouns, the trans stuff, I can't do it.” Some of them are just resisting what's new, and others are driven by certain phobias, prejudices, or even hatreds, which is very, very sad to me. But it's not everybody.

There are a lot of people my age and even older who are open to what's happening, and who think that young people are way ahead of the rest of us: on climate politics, for instance; on sexual and gender politics; on questions of economic equality, critique of corporate power. I also think we see it in some of the protests against the bombing of Gaza. A lot of people my age are super impressed.

I've been at political meetings where people in their 70s just said, “Oh, I'm so grateful to the young people.” For some reason, they're more clear, or they’re less conflicted. Their moral and political vision is pretty clear now, which doesn't mean that you don't have arguments among yourselves — I know you do. But there's a certain way people want to live; I see among people in their late teens and 20s that they are making community, communities of care and solidarity, that are super impressive, and I hope that will one day translate into policy and politics in the adult world. I've learned a lot.…

If somebody tells you, “This is who I am, this is my felt sense, this is how I live, this is how I want to live, and please recognize me in this way,” you'd be, I think, quite rude and damaging and hurtful not to accept what they say to you. So I had to adjust a lot of different presuppositions I had from my own lesbian, gay background.

I also see that there's a proliferation of terms that people like and are experimenting with, and it's hard for me to master that list; I don't think I ever will. But I appreciate that there's an experimental practice going on, and that people are trying to figure out ways of living to the side of normative categories. We all stand to learn from that.

TV: It’s nice to hear what older generations are learning from mine, because I feel like I’ve been learning so much from the cultural works that came out around the same time as Gender Trouble, like Dykes to Watch Out For or Stone Butch Blues. I’d initially learned more about these concepts from Tumblr and other online spaces, but going through older works reminds me that there were queer and trans people in the past.

JB: That's important. Some of the people in my generation complain, “These young people, they don't realize that there was a feminist movement, a gay and lesbian movement, before they came along and started re-creating the wheel.” My guess is that young people are going to choose what from that history is relevant to them and helpful to them, and what is not. I think we all need to resist presentism — that is, the belief that we are in the present, so we're the most enlightened people ever. Maybe on some issues, but maybe not on all.

"We need language to figure out who we are; we need our communities to support us, especially when we're exposed to hideous forms of hatred and violence. But we also need to make alliances, even when we don't love the people with whom we're on the street."

I hope debates like that don't end up producing different kinds of camps that don't speak to each other and can't ally with one another because, as I said, there's a lot of anti-trans legislation that we all need to be fighting, no matter how we identify.

This is happening everywhere, and it's done in the name of “saving the children” from “harm” — harm done by gender, or trans people, or drag performers who want to read at libraries. You have to ask yourself: What are they imagining, what kind of harm can happen there? Then they do harm in the name of preventing harm, and people get confused because they want to be against “harm.”

We all want to be against harm, I presume. And yet, we need to be out there and speaking in more public ways, in order to explain the harm that's actually being done and why it's unjust.

TV: We’re speaking shortly after the death of Nex Benedict. In an early statement, Oklahoma Rep. Mauree Turner used the term “transgenocide” to describe what’s happening in US politics. Given that we're looking at 2024, the Biden White House has been pretty tepid on LGBTQ+ issues

JB: He thinks we're in his pocket. He appointed [Pete] Buttigieg to transportation or something, and he thinks we're in his pocket.

TV: So what are you thinking about this election year?

JB: I think it's really hard for trans advocates to trust that they have a strong alliance with feminists or on the left. Transphobic feminists are [loud]; they do not speak for everyone, and an increasing number of feminists, in my view, are identifying as trans feminists, allies, and that's super important.… They're getting on board a little late, but here they are. Then on the left, there is what I've come to think about as a soft-patriarchal left that doesn't want anything bad to happen to LGBTQI+ peoples, but it's secondary or tertiary oppression, not the main thing.

But if class is their main thing, then they should surely realize that class runs through all these communities; that a lot of these communities are poor or precarious or struggling precisely because they've suffered discrimination at sites of employment or they are excluded from their communities or do not have access to family wealth, because they're either living at some distance from that or have been radically excluded.

There are reasons not quite to know which politics to take, and who are the allies in this movement. I think nothing could be more important than strengthening alliances, which means really listening to each other. People who have skepticism about trans issues, they have to allow themselves to be transformed by what they hear. They're not going to be the same person, they're not going to have the same views, they're going to change — they're going to be changed by what they hear. A lot of people want to hold on to their preexisting frameworks and don't want to let it go. And we have to, we have to.

The present, it's a living present. We can't just hold to frameworks we clung to for years and years without allowing them to be revised by new movements in search of freedom, equality, justice, and to live a life free of violence and pathologization. It's a moment where things could go one way or another, where trans people could be jettisoned by the left precisely because, “Oh, that's not real” or “This is a distraction.” We know people — we know major pundits — who actually do feel that way.

TV: How did you decide to open the book with a focus on Christianity? So many LGBTQ+ young people I know don’t think Christian influences really impact them or their lives in any direct way.

JB: I didn't decide to do that; as I started doing my research, it became apparent to me that most of the anti-gender ideology movement emerges from the Catholic Church…. The way that that Vatican doctrine got translated into Latin America, and then became part of the World Congress on Families, and then ended up being spouted by people like [Giorgia] Meloni and [Vladimir] Putin at the same time, and [Viktor] Orbán and [Jair] Bolsonaro and [Ron] DeSantis, we actually can track this.

TV: I'm curious about your choice to make this book your first for a major publisher, and about the different types of writing you engage in for something like this versus, say, Gender Trouble.

JB: I did want to write a more accessible book, and I think it is, for the most part, accessible. It's not easy for me, because I'm used to, “Oh, let's go into this idea and spend a million hours on it and take it apart in a million different ways.” That's part of my Talmudic, strange formation — close textual analysis! “Let's go in there and come back in a couple of days.” But I felt really strongly that people should know about this movement, and that if this moment is targeting me and my colleagues, then we should consider ourselves platforms for a response. I'm trying to turn myself from a target into a platform.

I had to learn a lot about what's happening in gender studies and what they get wrong, and also reply to some of the so-called gender critical misrepresentations of gender studies or questions of materiality and sex. So I spent a lot of time on that, because I really feel like those feminists shouldn't be able to get away with such bad argumentation.

But also, we're living in a perilous time. Of course, I do write op-eds sometimes, and the voice I use in The Guardian or whatever it is, that's an accessible voice. I'm trying to reach a broader public. I'm not talking to people who read the history of continental philosophy. I'm trying to introduce stuff to people and bring them in.

…I'm translating, and I'm trying to have a relationship to the public, and to bring attention to this issue that we don't understand its history, we don't understand its dangers. And they are intense, because the anti-gender ideology people are also voting for authoritarianism.

TV: What gives you optimism?

JB: In Argentina — I don't know how they do it, but — they got [thousands of] people on the street [on International Women's Day] defending feminist, gay, lesbian, trans rights against Milei, the new Trumpian neofascist who was inexplicably elected to power. My [thing] about that movement and Ni Una Menos, but also other feminist movements and queer movements and trans movements there is that I happen to know they don't all get along, they don't all share the same framework. Some of them are Marxist, some of them are not, some of them think neoliberalism is the problem. Some of them think it’s patriarchy or heteronormativity or cisgender privilege; there are a lot of different frameworks. But somehow they all showed up.

But these are interlinking struggles. As much as we need to define identity and know who we are and find our way — I actually have always thought that super important, because I was a kid who had no language for who I was or what I desired. There was somebody named Sappho who lived thousands of years ago, and it was like, Is that really the only other person? I had no social movement. It was high school. I was being bullied in the bathroom.

The Nex Benedict story, I remember being bullied in that bathroom. I remember being pushed up against the wall in that bathroom, and I thought, These girls are much bigger than me and I don't stand a chance here. There was something about that Nex Benedict thing, it really got to me.

We need language to figure out who we are; we need our communities to support us, especially when we're exposed to hideous forms of hatred and violence. But we also need to make alliances, even when we don't love the people with whom we're on the street. Obviously, there are limits to every alliance, but we need to start thinking that way, and I think Ni Una Menos as a movement has done that. It goes into churches and goes into unions, outside of the echo chamber of the urban intellectual or activist. It's finding people to join in and listening to what they have to say and adapting their language to make sure that they're truly inclusive, not just in some superficial way. That's important to me.

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