Recently I was asked a question on Tumblr about gender performance theory which stirred an intense awakening of old memories and forgotten aggressions from my early days of coming out. When I came out, I didn’t know anyone gay, queer, or trans* and my only feasible connection to people like me was my campus’ Women’s Studies department. Like many people, my initial coming out was a frustrating, painful, and isolating experience. I desperately wanted answers to why I was the way I was and I thought Women’s Studies would have them. Turns out it didn’t, but it had something else: Judith Butler’s Gender Performance Theory and a dedicated hoard of faculty, students, books, and films telling me that it was my choice to be trans, and it was my fault.
I am a proud feminist. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of love for Women’s Studies. All in all, the department served as significant safe space for me and I am grateful. But the good things about Women’s Studies don’t block out the problematic elements ingrained into the origins of gender theory that are continued to be taught today. No, we wouldn’t have Queer Theory if it hadn’t been for the charges of Women’s Studies pushing it into legitimacy, but we wouldn’t have a lot of inner community transphobia either. Know all those sayings about how trans people mutilate themselves and are trying to steal people’s spaces? Yeah, women’s studies theorists wrote that shit too, or have we forgotten second wave feminism and Janice Raymond? Women’s Studies is awesome for a lot of reasons, Gender Performance Theory is not one of them. “Choice” is not always a choice. There have been many points in my life where I have been told I could fix “it” if I made different choices – it was just a matter of wanting it. I could be happy, if I wanted to. I could be healthy if I believed I could. I could do well in school, if I tried harder. If I wanted to, I could be feminine and pretty, and when I came out I was additionally told I could be masculine and tough if I worked at it. If I really wanted to, I could pass as a guy and no one would harass me. If I wanted to, I could stop being trans and just be a lesbian, or better yet be straight. If I wanted to, I could be everything I’m supposed to be, agree with everyone, and fit in just fine. Seems like people assume that I’m a weird, stupid, crazy, trans, queer, genderfucked, failure on purpose. But what does that have to do with Judith Butler? Nothing really, except to point out that this idea that we can and should control and change certain integral elements of our bodies and identities is the center of every “-ism” I know.
Did the Butler intend for gender performance theory to be oppressive? Of course not. “Gender as performance” was one of the women’s empowerment movement’s moves to legitimize gender difference and subversiveness, primarily referencing expression but at the time, gender expression and gender identity were thought to be the same thing. Under this theory, there is no personalized element of gender and that is the main fallacy; It denies is the most human element of gender: identity – the personal. Gender Identity is expressed through visible cues and we figure out what feels right based on our identity and work from that. If our decisions about presentation (or “performance”) are based out of some internal drive to express ourselves, is it really a choice? My femme exists as an embodiment of what I feel, to show the femme I have on the inside. I didn’t choose to be feminine, but I do technically choose to allow myself to express femme. I could force myself to not be feminine, but if I am given the choice to either be myself or to be someone I’m not, I don’t think I actually have a choice. I didn’t come this far to live as someone else. If I was going to do that, I never would have transitioned in the first place.
Gender identity and gender expression are linked to one another, not as a point of causation, but as a series of interactions. The clothes don’t make the human. Sometimes I feel the most masculine when I appear to be the most feminine. I can wear a dress and make it masculine simply by being a male person who is wearing it. I can still be masculine, it is just a different kind of masculinity that, perhaps includes some femininity or is just genderqueered. Or I can make myself more feminine by wearing a dress, and my femininity can be masculine or it can be genderqueered. It’s all about how we conceptualize it, and we must conceptualize it via rejecting cultural definitions of gender. I’m like a broken record, always saying that gender is the key to societal recognition. If you are outside a heteronormative construct of gender expectations you can not be recognized by society as anything but “other” without challenging gendered society itself. I think thatButlerintended this same idea in the original argument of gender performativity – people wanted to challenge gendered society and reject definition by presentation. The problem is that they took the theory too far, enabling it to delegitimize every form of gender expression and identity. A perfect example of this is Femme-phobia. Gender performativity states that if you are feminine, you are choosing to perform it, and according to some branches of feminism, being feminine is supporting the patriarchy that sexualizes women as beauty objects. So femmes are choosing to support the patriarchy. There is no option for someone to like being feminine for the sake of enjoying femininity. This is essentially saying that femininity is bad and that a woman can not be feminine for her own pleasure without being a sell out. It is arguments like these that lead me to believe gender performance theorists were down right delusional. How is that feminist? And speaking of feminism, as I mentioned before, gender performance theories are at the root of second wave feminism’s rampant transphobia. If we are performing gender, then we are choosing to violate our bodies and minds, and taking the rest of society down with us. We are impostors, perverts, and invaders transitioning out of weakness or selfishness, or both.
I can already picture people getting upset about what I’m saying; I’m being too harsh on gender theories and I need to take them contextually. I don’t think I should have to apply context to any theory that does not apply context to me. If every Women’s Studies classroom was teaching Gender Performance Theory through a critical lens, discussing the complexities of social gender presentation and personal gender identity and expression, then I would have nothing to say about it. But that is not the case, so here I am writing this post. It is not that I don’t see some value in Butler’s original ideas. I think that ‘performance’ can be used to reference gender presentation, but only in certain circumstances. One could say the difference between performing gender presentation and expressing gender identity through presentation is the genuineness of it. A lot of culturally gendered practices and expressions (such as make up, or “macho-ness”) are acts of cultural coercion and therefore ingenuine. I perform gender very consciously sometimes: When I am on the road in the inner Midwest, I almost exclusively try to pass myself off as female because it is safer to be a punked out, possibly lesbian woman than a flamingly queer guy. I will raise my eye brows, raise my voice, smile a lot, and do whatever else we stereotype to be “female” behavior.” It is an act and I use femininity as a tool. On stage, I use visible gender performance in ways that correlate closely to Butler’s Gender Performance Theory. I use gendered elements such as clothing, movement styles, and expressions that are culturally coded as masculine or feminine in order to create a conversation about gender. The cultural binary framework for what is masculine and what is feminine enables me to raise and lower gendered elements, combine them, or erase them. I think this might be how Butler really intended us to think about Gender Trouble and everyone just interpreted it wrong, but I could be just trying to be supportive of a history that I want to support me…
Gender performance isn’t all bull, there are elements to be analyzed, but it can not be done without oppressing gender variant communities unless it is supplemented by the recognition of gender identity and personal gender expression. I think that a lot of people intend to think of gender performance in this way, but because of privilege, they don’t realize that by simply stating ‘gender is performed’ they are being problematic. Let’s be real, if there was a “How to exercise non-trans privilege 101” gender performance theory would be in chapter one. Gender Theory has a lot of updating to do because as it is now it is actively promoting the oppressions it originally set out to demolish. We must destroy the idea that there is one way to be feminine or masculine, and instill the knowledge that there are ways to be both or neither. Once that happens, if it ever does, then performance will really be seen as what is deliberate and chosen, like on a stage, and expression is what is understood and personal, and that the two are not the same. Then, and only then, can we be certain that all the future’s baby genderqueers will go searching for a safe space, searching for answers, and actually find them.