Photo Credit: by nito/Shutterstock
The latest Judith Butler story goes like this: Butler, a renowned philosopher and queer theory bigwig, did an interview with Jules Gleeson of The Guardian. The interview was published on September 7, 2021: social media instantly exploded over Butler’s assertion that so-called “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” (otherwise known by their opponents as TERFs) “have allied with rightwing attacks on gender.” Thus, they “will not be part of the contemporary struggle against fascism.”
In typical social-media style, Lefties were elated; TERFs, vindictive.
In chapter two of the drama, however, The Guardian then released an edited version of the interview that omitted Gleeson’s original question and Butler’s controversial three-paragraph answer. The Guardian explained this stunning journalistic reversal by claiming that Gleeson’s question did not meet its journalistic standards—even though Gleeson offered to revise the question rather than cut the passage.
Cries of censorship exploded all over social media. Of course.
In the aftermath of this mess, I recommend that you read Butler and Gleeson’s original text (hat tip to the Internet Archive’s quick work in saving it). Where the social-media buzz was impassioned and Manichean, the interview itself is refreshingly nuanced, easy to understand, and intellectually rigorous. And let’s be clear: Butler did not, in fact, “call TERFs fascists.” They did something much more useful: they situated TERFs within the context of the larger conservative movement to confine gender to a binary, and described how fascism feeds on biological essentialism, whether it comes from the right or the left.
In other words, TERFs don’t have to be “fascists” to contribute to the political conditions on which fascism thrives.
In the wake of the Texas Fetal Heartbeat Law, Laura Briggs called the statute’s tight control of women’s bodies “creeping fascism.” Butler develops this argument further, challenging us to go beyond simplistic accounts of both conservative backlash and fascism. It’s too easy, and incorrect, to say that conservatives “hate,” and progressives are completely allied with, women and trans people. Analyzing conservatism through the lens of hatred reduces it to an overly simplified war of groups identity: straight people against gays, cis-gendered people against trans people, men against women.
It’s not how the world works, for one. But it also only adds fuel to the fire for conservatives, who are all too eager to claim that the progressive left is nothing more than an army of fragmented identities, each asking for a share of the proverbial pie.
By contrast, Butler rejects identity politics. As they explain in the original interview:
“If we base our viewpoints only on particular identities, I am not sure we can grasp the complexity of our social and economic worlds or build the kind of analysis or alliance needed to realize ideals of radical justice, equality, and freedom. At the same time, marking identity is a way of making clear how coalitions must change to be more responsive to interlinked oppressions.”
What made TERFs so angry? That Butler is a feminist who refuses to reify the category of “woman” as a principle point of knowledge for dismantling patriarchy.
Why does Butler think this way? Because their feminism operates not from a place of fear, but from a place of creativity—a place of, to quote civil-rights icon John Lewis, “good trouble.”
If you’ve ever talked to a TERF, you know that fear is crucial to their feminism. They are afraid of cisgender men, of trans people, of non-binary people—they are even afraid of other cisgender women who refuse the logic of TERFdom. Like many conservatives, theirs is a politics of scarcity: there are not enough resources for “women” as it is, so newcomers to the party are seen as taking things—jobs, starting positions on varsity field hockey, locker room space—that properly belong to what they call “natal women.”
Among its other traits, fascism is an ideology that relies on fear. As a modern ideology, it was built on the principle that for society’s largesse to be equitably shared, the recipients of those benefits need to be pure agents of the ideal state—racially pure, sexually pure, and ideologically pure. For fascists, the role of the state is not to negotiate difference, but to eliminate it. For fascists, gender is not a category, but a fact: a clear, naturally-occurring binary whose opposing poles contribute to a healthy and balanced society that is free from fear.
According to the tenets of trans-exclusionary radical feminism, “women” deserve equality as women. Women have been oppressed by “men.” Men are violent, dangerous, and unrestrained. Trans women, according to TERFs, are “biologically male,” and therefore embody all of the above traits.
In fact, TERFs’ anti-trans agenda is built on the implication that trans women are not just men, but worse than men. Violent and dangerous because of the sex they were assigned at birth, TERFs accuse trans women of willfully invading “single-sex” spaces and—this has emerged most prominently in the debate over athletics—stealing opportunities from cisgender women.
According to TERFs, maleness is the source of women’s oppression and “authentic” femaleness, the source of women’s liberation, and thus something to be cherished and protected. TERFs believe that sexual categories are innate, binary, and unchangeable, and that a just society can only emerge from a balanced gender/sex binary in which maleness is no longer dominant.
Needless to say, queer theory’s central project is to explode not just the binary, but gender itself: thus, for TERFs, queer theory—and the activisms and new identities it has produced—are an aberration of feminism. As one TERF activist wrote in The Guardian in 2017, “Queer politics positions gender as an innately held identity. The radical feminist understanding is that gender exists as a political system, not an identity.”
This is, of course, not only hypocritical, but a gross misunderstanding of queer politics and queer theory. As Butler explains in their own recent interview, the word “queer” was conceived by early activists as a way of “affiliating with the fight against homophobia. It began as a movement opposed to the policing of identity—opposing the police, in fact.”
Like all prominent struggles led by marginalized groups, however, queer movements have been reduced by their detractors to “mere” identity politics (itself a term coined by Black feminists to express the possibility of creating new, broad-based social movements). And ironically, TERFs, like conservative critics of transgender people, discount the radical potential of queerness by claiming that identity is a flimsy basis for politics—while basing their own activism on the need to protect female identity as exclusive and unique.
TERFs share a penchant for vigilante justice with the drafters of Texas’s SB8 bill, which mobilizes private citizens to punish people seeking and providing abortions. For TERFs, any cisgender woman has a “right” to identify and examine anyone she perceives to be “biologically male,” expose them, expel them from the “single-sex” space they have supposedly invaded— whether it is a bathroom, a locker room, or a soccer field. And, like Texas abortion vigilantes, TERFs claim to be “protecting” women—and, increasingly, children, as we’ve seen with the new anti-trans obsession with sports.
But what is really being protected here? The purity of the female body: one that matches the sex it was assigned at birth and carries out the “natural” functions of that sex.
The antidote to fascism is not feminism, but queerness—a theory and a politics built on the notion that nothing is natural and no one owns the truth of gender. Because gender is, as historian Joan Scott puts it, a “primary way of signifying relationships of power,” queerness also teaches us that no one owns, or should own, the key to power. Queerness is not about the right to have an identity, but about the right to question its source and its meaning, and by doing that, question the society that determines those identities.
As Butler reminds us, gender is “a struggle, a way of dealing with historical constraints and making new realities.” A truly radical feminism is not one that depends on exclusion, but one that questions power—its sources, its language, and its effects—and welcomes anyone who is willing to take part in that questioning to join the fight.
Hannah Leffingwell is a PhD candidate at New York University in the departments of History and French Studies. Her work centers on the intersections of queer identity, feminism, and social justice. Her first chapbook, A Thirst For Salt, was published by Gazing Grain Press in 2018. @hanleffingwell