Alex Blaze

Judith Butler, identity politics, and Berlin

Filed By Alex Blaze | June 28, 2010 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics, The Movement
Tags: berlin, coalitional politics, identity politics, judith butler, LGBT, racism

Judith Butler was offered the Civil Courage Prize at Christopher Street Day in Berlin last week, and she rejected it. Love the awkward comments after her speech:

Of course, because someone with a relatively high profile in the community decided to bring up the issue of racism among LGBT people (specifically the racist way some LGBT people will use a disempowered racial minority's hang-ups with sex, gender, and sexuality as a tool to beat them with and an excuse for explicitly racist statements and policies), prepare for the inevitable incoherent babbling about coalitions and intersectionality and working together and "radical inclusion" (love that last one for all the wrong reasons). Will anyone notice that that's exactly the mentality, and the far-too-easy co-option of the same, that brought us here in the first place?

It seems to be a relatively new argument in the LGBT community, or maybe it's just more pronounced than before: "It's not that I don't like X group of people, it's that they don't like me because they're homophobic. So whatever I say about them is justified." It's something rightwing queers (like those who write at GayPatriot or work for Republican gay orgs, to make this concrete) are fairly open about, and it's usually a part of rightwingers' call for LGBT people to support the Perpetual War on Terror.

It's also quite pronounced when Americans discuss Israel/Palestine, because that's an issue that America's right, center, and liberal factions have all pretty much agreed on: Palestinians are violent and backwards and need to be punished and marginalized. It's not uncommon to hear people make a comment like this one on a recent TBP thread on Israel/Palestine:

Compare and contrast:

LGBT rights in the Palestinian territories

LGBT rights in Israel

As an out lesbian, I know where I'd rather live!

Because where a blog commenter would rather live is relevant to Israel and its allies' decision to blockade Gaza and ensure rampant hunger, death, displacement, and economic oppression. Does that make any sense at all?

Of course, in a sane universe, it doesn't make much sense. But in one where fidelity to an identity has replaced fidelity to an ideology, it's par for the course. You see, we're little armies (gay, trans, women, black, native, latino/a, undocumented, Asian, deaf) who are all fighting for separate agendas. Each agenda cannot be debated; if you're in our army and you disagree then you're "self-hating." The agenda itself is decided based on respect and security and formal inclusion of said army in society at large.

We have allies, and the way we decide who's an ally and who's not is by how much they agree with our agenda, which was never democratically decided in the first place. And we have enemies, who stand in the way of our army's goals, and the way we win is the same way one wins any war: destroying or marginalizing those enemies.

It reminds me of a bizarre conversation I had recently with a Dutch woman who got off course and was talking about the known, rampant racism in the Netherlands and justified it by saying that they're just really pro-gay and liberal in the Netherlands, and they don't want immigrants to come in and ruin their culture. That cart-before-horse argument is easily disproved when the Netherlands' history of racism that extends further back in time than the word "homosexual" does is examined, but it also makes me question someone's commitment to fighting homophobia. Since I don't believe that the racism comes as a result of being pro-gay, how deep is their commitment to a pro-gay world in a way that would benefit queer boys like me instead of queer boys like the queer boys I never hang out with?

Consider a recent move by CD Kirven, a GetEQUAL organizer, to start GetEQUAL Now, a separate org (without the huge funding of GetEQUAL) that will also confront racism and transphobia in the LGBT community:

While attending Michelangelo Signorile's LGBT Leadership Town Hall this April, GetEQUAL member Chastity Kirven noticed two things. First, that mainstream LGBT leadership not only seems okay with the government's slow movement on our issues but also wants other queers to accept it as well. Secondly, Kirven realized that in a room of 60 activists she was only one of three people of color. Even the panel itself had only one person of color -- Pam Spaulding of Pam's House Blend. So Kirven stepped up to the mic to ask how the LGBT rights movement could more fully represent the actual diversity existing within our community. But instead of having her concerns addressed, Kirven was told they didn't have enough time to answer her, and would she please ask her question "next time," whenever that was.

On the way home, Kirven complained about what happened and was told by one of her GetEQUAL cohorts, "Whenever you play the race card, you drag the gay rights movement down. We have too much to do and don't have time to have this conversation now." Kirven felt incensed. "[The LGBT movement's leaders] are getting paid $250k and have spent years regularly cutting out transgender people and queers of color from their back room deals," Kirven said. "Earning that much money, it behooves them to explain themselves when it comes to race and inequality. I'm not the one playing the race card; it's already on the table and they're acting like it's not there."

When your goal is to advance a very specific agenda for no reason other than it's "the" agenda for the class you identify with, then criticizing said class for anything or talking about goals outside of the agenda isn't helping.

Lots of people instinctively don't like that, and their instincts are in the right place. But they're articulated as a call to "build coalitions." I think I could live a very decent life without ever hearing that phrase again, because it's definitely not the solution to the original problem. I suppose if you've already accepted the identity politics paradigm, already accepted that we're little armies trying to advance a specific agenda, then a "coalition" is the best way to go about justifying caring about people who are not in that army.

But I never really get what these coalitions are supposed to look like. Is it Joe Solmonese giving a speech about how terrible the recent Arizona immigration law is? Is it the NAACP filing an amicus brief in the case against Prop 8? Is it trans citizens turning up at an immigration rally? Is the best we can come up with is looking at the other armies out there and deciding to help them out every now and then to show that there's no ill-will?

"Coalitional politics" is an inadequate solution that has been called for for decades but has never materialized in any real way, mainly because the "coalitional politics" is based on identity politics (if we don't organize around our identities, then we can't make coalitions between identities), and these problems of division, of seeking out respect and security and formal inclusion for me but not for thee, is in fact a very human and very natural way of responding to being told that you're on one team playing against X, Y, and Z other teams.

The biggest red flag when it comes to the utility of the identity politics paradigm should be how little we're invited to identity along the lines of class. It's understandable - the times in history when people identified as a class didn't turn out all that well for rich people. It turns out there are a whole lot more poor people than there are of everyone else, and they have the least to lose if the system of distributing rights and privileges and resources completely changed. On the other hand, though, the fact that it seems inherent in this system that we should not identify with our position on the money totem poll shows how it sets people up for easy co-option by keeping them from knowing exactly where they and others stand when it comes to the most basic measure of power and quality of life.

All of this is to say that, yes, there are issues not just with racism in the LGBT community but with getting people to care about creating an anti-racist society, but, no, that work isn't going to be accomplished simply by chastising people about not being charitable enough to work on other people's struggles. It's also not going to happen by just telling people that someone else's struggle is (the same as) their own - people can generally see right through that especially when they see themselves as gay and won't see the connections that, frankly, aren't legible in the context of identity politics.

I hope that the discussion that Butler's rejection of that award with start will be one that focuses on the ideological reasons racism is bad, which are related to the ideological reasons homophobia is bad, instead of a discussion about how various identities need to help one another out.

Because, as some people will be quick to point out, asking for the free speech rights or economic advancement of people who might not like you doesn't promise much of an immediate benefit for LGBT people, but rejecting the game in which some people are silenced because of their viewpoint or people are punished economically in order to eliminate them or change their political views and actions (something we should know quite well) to help others does.

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Alex, I just saw a new film called "Stonewall Uprising" made by some filmmakers with very good reputations. Every person interviewed in the film was WHITE! And at the end of the film, the packed Frameline audience was clapping and hooting as though they'd just seen some incredible vision of truth when it was just another whitewash job.

I'm usually not a big Butler fan but good for her.

Identity politics are ultimately harmful.

Descriptive politics are more useful and more flexible and much harder to compromise on.

And the cool thing is you don't have to change the terminology, just the mindset.

But changing that mindset requires one to look at one's own racism and homophobia and transphobia.

That means looking at one's failings.

Too few people will do that.

Oh, that Judith Butler. You know how she is. *grins*

(I couldn't resist.)

I'm never entirely sure what to make of the pedestalling of Judith Butler, even when she actually says something that makes sense.

The entire foundation of her work is the dismissal of transsexual people and our claims of being mis-SEXed at birth, and her incomprehension at the rage that drove David Reimer to take his own life rather than continue, even when he tried, tried so hard, to struggle with the gender that was forced upon him in support of a gender ideology.

How incomprehensible gender ideology is to those who espouse it!

After reading the above post I am left with the sense of a world turned upside down. Where those who must recognize themselves are treated unequally. Gay, lesbian, and less, bisexual people are recognized and possibly transgender and certainly transsexual people are less so, yet all are accused of identity politics, and standing in the way of equality, with the expectation they will all meekly accept the melting pot by those who commit the greatest identity political coup of all time:

they call for the melting pot in their image

Why isn't the dominant identity, instead of sexual orientation, transgender?

Why, since same-sex sex is gender transgressive after all, are not all gay men and lesbians proud trangenders?

I always think the celebration of someone who has no conception of the lived experience of those who must change sex becomes the arbiter of the lives of those who must.

And declares the core of their lives, the urge to change sex, is nothing, and it is really the discomfort with gender--and so recruits them for her gender ideology.

But then, this is the common goal of those who demand common identity.


I don't agree that the foundation of Judith Butler's work is the dismissal of transsexual people. It's the dismissal of identity politics as the savior of equality. I personally have no problem with identity politics, so long as one recognizes it as a means to an end, and recognizes its linkages with the struggles of all for equality, humanity and liberty. It is not and cannot be an end in itself because it is necessarily incomplete and indeterminate, as Butler demonstrates in her work. But to discard any identity is to ultimately discard one's humanity, and so I identify as transsexual, transgender and bisexual and work within my community to reach out to other communities, including the gay community, the African-American community, the immigrant community, the working class and underclass community, and others. Our issues are different because we are different, with different needs, but our issues are at their core the same because we are all human, with the same core human needs.

I think Butler earned her courage prize by rejecting it.

I was greatly amused by the double bird flip in the frame. It summed up the problem so neatly.

It is neither identity nor identity politics that is the focus of my critique of Butler.

It is her total incomprehension at the rage of David Reimer, the rage not only at what was done to him, but the rage that lead him to take his life--and that of his brother to take his life.

How can a cissexual person make a principled attempt to speak to the lived experience of transsexual people?

The elision of the lived experience of those who must change sex with those who explore gender--something Butler knows well, as gay and lesbian people are gender transgressive as part of "all things associated" with homosexuality--is no less than violence; it is clearly oppression.

And this becomes the basis--certainly one of many--of the discourse that declares our experience is non-existent, that what we must really be experiencing is gender dysphoria.

This is why I challenge the theory, abstract and ungrounded, of Butler and all the oppression that issues from it.

Prince Jei | July 5, 2010 4:28 PM

I find it disappointing how qtpoc struggles in Berlin have been turned into an event in U.S. discussions that gets individualised and personalised to Butler and whoever wants to add their 2c now. Why not reach out directly to folks and send messages of support?