Trigger warning: I use the language oppressors use to degender trans people as a way to reflect how gender is constructed in the United States.
For a little while, I was immersed in queer theory as a lens for understanding myself and the world around me. Given where I was at, it made perfect sense: gender is a performance of cultural fictions. But now, I realize just how incomplete this framework is. I mostly attribute that to how new it is, and as with any other framework, it is always important to problematize where said framework is currently at. For those who don’t know, queer theory emerged in the early 1990’s out of the fields of queer studies and women’s studies. Queer theory is a part of post-structuralism. If you aren’t sure what post-structuralism is, somebody happened to explain it very well in a Yahoo Answers post. That post avoids a ton of jargon and is something I believe to be a great summary of post-structuralism, though I would still recommend further reading at Princeton. If you’re not wanting to read more, here’s a 10-minute, three-part video series that examines it. In other words, you have zero excuse not to have some understanding of post-structuralism before reading on.
That’s a bit of context for you, and in writing this piece, I don’t expect my readers to have a complete (if you read the stuff/watched the video series, the word ‘complete’ should be dripping with irony) understanding of post-structuralism or queer theory. Nothing’s wrong with that, and so I’ll provide the context I feel is most relevant and necessary. I highly recommend being on the lookout for any biases I bring in, such as my whiteness, educational privilege, and class privilege. It is in itself a privilege to engage in theoretical gender discourse, so that needs to be named as well before proceeding.
Gender Cannot Be Performed, Only Expressed
What inspired this piece has been recent conversations I’ve had with friends, where we concluded that saying “gender is performance” is inherently racist and transmisogynistic. Queer theory, not so coincidentally, is a perpetrator of both of these, and because queer theory is such a powerful influencer in queer and trans spaces, I need to address it directly.
Judith Butler, one of the pioneers of queer theory, characterized gender as something that is practiced/performed. For some people, this practice produces the effect of a static or “normal” gender while obscuring the contradiction and instability of any single person’s gender act. This effect produces what is often considered to be someone’s “true gender”, a narrative that is sustained by “[…] the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions – and the punishments that attend not agreeing to believe in them” (Gender Trouble, p. 179).
So what the hell is Butler talking about, right? In short, gender is a social position or status that is assigned to you by others based on obvious physical characteristics (what you’re wearing, apparent sex characteristics, etc.) and behaviors, i.e. “acting girly.” How people position you is based on their frame of reference, which is informed by dominant narratives. Butler would likely argue that people can only perform gender in the way it is presented to them. In the United States, that means the white patriarchy is what’s presenting gender. You can be boy or girl, but wait! If you’re “born a boy,” you can’t do girl stuff. If you’re “born a girl,” you can’t do boy stuff. The white patriarchy does not have any other options, and you can conform to these narratives, or you can experience violence based on non-conformity.
But do you see what the focus is on? The focus in Butler’s work, and too much of queer theory, is focused on how people “do gender.” I bet some, if not most, of you missed how I employed that exact language in talking about what options the white patriarchy offers, and in how I described gender as a social position or status. That’s the problem. It is not about being gender, it is about “doing gender.”
This leaves a lot of room for people to say that “gender isn’t real, just a social construct.” That statement erases the realities that all trans people live. Gender is very real, and to say that gender only exists as a consequence of this particular social construct is reductive and just straight up wrong. Gender is socially constructed, yes, but that’s not all of it. There is a sort of social determinism required for this understanding to make sense, that people only “pick” a gender because it’s been placed in front of them. Gender does not only exist as a consequence.
Gender is a part of that sense of self, else there would be no need for words like transgender and cisgender. Both of these terms acknowledge the individual determination of one’s identity as they defer or match up with conventional ideas of gender. In fact, words for non-binary genders also emerged to reflect this part of one’s internal sense of self. Being trans means that your internal sense of gender disagrees with the gender assigned to you. Being cis means your internal sense of gender agrees with the gender assigned to you. As Toni D’orsay puts it, “Roughly translated, the whole thing means that a Trans person is aware that they are a woman, man, both, or neither, at the same core level as they are aware of themselves as a person, distinct from other people” (Source).
It is impossible merely to perform something that is intrinsically a part of one’s being. Because gender is a part of you, you must be expressing it. And what’s the difference between expression and performance? Performance means the act of doing something (successfully), using knowledge instead of just possessing it. Think acting; think Jared Leto. Expression, on the other hand, means to communicate who you are. Gender is not performance, because gender is not something you take on. It is in part something you take on, because we all live in a gendered world, but more accurately, gender is one aspect by which you understand yourself and move through the world. As my friend voz told me countless times, “You are a self-gendered person operating in a gendered world.”
Given all of that, I will now briefly describe why characterizing gender as performance is both racist and transmisogynistic.
Characterizing Gender as Performance Serves Whiteness
First, it is very important to point at who set up gender in what is now known as the United States: white settlers. Essentially, all things constructed about gender in the United States are eurocentric (read: white). It follows then that this construction of gender serves whiteness: eurocentric beauty standards, the abolition (by way of genocide and boarding schools) of gender systems in Indigenous communities, and a whole lot more all point to this construction of gender serving white people. To say gender is performative gives us white folks a whole lot of room to appropriate, exploit, and devalue “performances” that defer from white patriarchal standards. Why? Because us white people have the “truest” performance of gender, because everyone else in the United States has been forced into our gender system. Our experience of gender is the only legitimate one–now quick! Think of the history of feminism! Never having to acknowledge that gender is a part of someone’s being creates space for us to easily dismiss and/or co-opt other “performances,” especially when they don’t line up with the standards of the white patriarchy. Everything is then ours, because nothing is truly anybody’s in this framework, except for white people. It’s only true and authentic if white people do it. Conceiving of gender as performance energizes whiteness.
Why Characterizing Gender as Performance Is Transmisogynistic
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say “gender performance?” Probably a drag queen, right? Something similar might come to mind if I had said “gender bending.” Why is femininity always seen as mockery? Artificial? Inherently fake? To demonstrate why, makeup is associated with femininity, something people (usually women) put on in order to change the way they look or to enhance features they already have. What is also associated with this? Deception by way of creating a new image. Words that people use to insult folks who wear makeup: fake, plastic. Who is deception associated with most often? Trans feminine people. What’s being energized when gender is conceived as a performance? Transmisogyny, because if femininity is constantly associated with deception, then how could it ever be a legitimate part of someone’s identity? Think about the way that ties into the last section. If nothing is ever a part of someone’s identity and only performance, then it is up for grabs at all times. Trans femininity, in the context of gender as performance, then belongs to everybody else and is presupposed to be weak and submissive. Making sense now? Good.
Do not trust white DFAB queer theory just yet. Gender is not a performance, it is an expression of one’s internal sense of self. To say that gender is performance energizes both whiteness and transmisogyny. The implications perpetuate oppression. Saying that gender is an expression of one’s internal sense of self affirms everybody. However, I do understand that calling something an expression rather than a performance will not suddenly stop oppressors from bending our identities to their whim, but the moment we begin to build into academia and movements that gender is performative is the moment we accept defeat, and I’m not about to accept that. Not now, not ever, and I implore you don’t either. Do not embrace frameworks that remove your agency. Do not embrace frameworks that imply your identity is artificial. They are nothing more than the same old repackaged as brand new.