Skip to content

Gender Fear

Toward a passionate pro-trans politics

Who’s Afraid of Gender? by Judith Butler. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages. 2024.

Last November, Pope Francis made headlines for sitting down to a spaghetti lunch with a group of trans women. The meal, held in the working-class Italian beach town of Torvaianica as part of the Church’s World Day of the Poor, was the signal of an abrupt policy change: under some circumstances, trans people could now be baptized Catholic, as well as serve as witnesses in weddings or as godparents. The shift seemed to slightly stun even those who had helped bring it about. “Before the church was closed to us. They did not see us as normal people, they saw us as the devil,” explained Andrea Paola Torres Lopez, one of the trans women Francis had invited to his table. “Then Pope Francis arrived, and the doors of the church opened for us.” “This is a fantastic opportunity for all of us transsexuals,” added Carla Segovia with a flourish. “I send the pope a big kiss.”

Coming at the end of a year that saw a record number of anti-trans laws passed in the United States, and a surge of transphobic rhetoric and violence across the world, the headline was almost too dissonant to digest, at least when it first circulated with wary annotations on my social media feeds. The episode of unlikely Christian compassion, drawing as it did on the inherent dignity of trans people, felt like something of a challenge to haughty liberals who defend trans people on the basis of peer-reviewed studies and evidence-based medicine. They’ve grown accustomed to fending off religious arguments about morality exclusively on these grounds. Indeed, until last year, Francis had not only ratified but arguably expanded the anti-trans proclamations initiated by his predecessors. As Judith Butler notes, in 2016 he accused trans people, and anyone “experimenting with gender,” of committing the gravest of transgressions: “taking over the creative power of the divine.

After years of observing the futility of pleas for the separation of church and state, and the mainstreaming of the argument that transition is legitimate because the medical establishment says so, I couldn’t banish the spaghetti lunch from my mind while reading Butler’s new book, Who’s Afraid of Gender? In fact, Butler’s analysis of the forces animating anti-gender movements begins with the Vatican because in the 1990s it invented the blueprint for the syllogistic collapse of feminism, gays and lesbians, and trans people into the vague but apparently world-destroying threat of “gender ideology”—or just “gender,” tout court. Where once Francis doubled down on this thinking, he has now abruptly broken from it. How are we to make sense of such incoherence?

Butler’s take on anti-gender politics has been highly anticipated, no doubt, because their 1990 book Gender Trouble has itself become an unlikely synecdoche for whatever gender supposedly is today, to admirers and detractors alike. In the book, Butler advanced the theory of gender’s performativity: that there is no inherent substance to categories like “woman” or “man,” either in the sexed body or culturally. Rather, gender is iterative, which means it must constantly be reaffirmed and reenacted to hold together. That constant repetition might be a genuine weakness, but it is also gender’s greatest strength, as we are all compelled to act it out without being able to opt out—though the risks of straying too far from cultural norms can be devastating, making your very life unrepresentable as human.

This, however, was not the most popular takeaway from Butler’s work. College-educated queers latched onto Butler’s short discussion of drag in Gender Trouble, distilling from it a feel-good story that intentionally messing with gender presentation was politically subversive. The proposition met an urbane, and largely white, queer and transgender scene’s claim that anyone could perform “boy” or “girl,” regardless of their sexed body. Three decades later, conflating gender’s performativity with its conscious performance has, despite Butler’s more nuanced theory, gone mainstream. Stale nonbinary aesthetics now lend a progressive patina to corporate brands and New York Fashion Week.

What could be read as capitalist commodification was received as cataclysmic immorality by Butler’s opponents. As Butler’s work became synonymous with both university gender studies and the sensibility of queer, feminist, and trans social movements, reactionary anti-gender partisans began to target the philosopher. Most famously, when Butler attended a conference in São Paulo in 2017, far-right demonstrators burned them in effigy outside.

The overinflated fear that suffuses gender charges it with outrageous political significance.

Who’s Afraid of Gender? is not a reflection on those events, nor a reappraisal of the theory of performativity. There’s no revelation at hand, either about what gender really is, or the one simple trick it would take to solve all its political baggage. It tenders something much humbler. Gender, Butler argues, now condenses a vast array of beliefs, claims, and political desires across disparate continents, languages, and cultures. In all these different contexts, it can hardly remain consistent or coherent. Labeling gender a bogeyman or even a scapegoat would not capture the degree to which it has been loaded with conflicting meanings, aligning groups that have little in common, from the Catholic Church to British feminists to authoritarian strongmen in Eastern Europe. Butler submits, convincingly, that gender has therefore acquired the form of a phantasm: an illusion that passes for many things that it is not. What unites unlikely bedfellows are the feelings gender generates in them, foremost among them fear. And it is fear that Butler considers essential to understand. The overinflated fear that suffuses gender—the fear that whatever it is, or whoever is aligned with it, gender will visit immanent destruction on the family, the nation, and the world—charges it with outrageous political significance.

By calling gender a phantasm, Butler is thinking psychoanalytically, pointing out that the fantasies in our heads are not fictitious, as in unconnected to reality; on the contrary, they are cultural, which is another way of saying that they are shared and social, instead of private. Fantasies seek to organize and tame the overwhelming chaos of the real world by distorting it, weaving in compelling stories that produce satisfying victims, enemies, and righteous vanquishers to temper our feelings of powerlessness. Fantasies shared by the Vatican and right-wing gay politicians about opposing gender are not the product of conspiratorial geniuses, ignorant false consciousness, or even fully conscious will. They are restorationist, emotionally charged promises to remake the world in the image of an ideal that is all the more compelling for having never actually existed.

What matters most about describing gender as a phantasm is that it cannot be reasoned with. The phantasm doesn’t crave facts or evidence; it exalts in the fluid exercise of illogic, something that feels at once pleasurable and painful, quite impossible to ignore. No wonder anti-gender politics have become so destructive, but no wonder, too, that attempting to reason with them has led to humiliating political losses. Hallucinations of child mutilation and brainwashing have prompted real changes in law and policy in several countries, leading to ever more fervent calls for the further repression of the dangerous trans minority. Interrupting this histrionic politics could never be so simple as pointing out that its premises are completely unfounded. After all, several years of rigorously debunking anti-trans claims about health care with stacks of credentialed research, even under oath in courtrooms, has not consistently succeeded in stopping state laws banning youth transition from taking effect in the United States. The phantasm is nothing if not captivating.

For this reason, the most interesting experience in reading Butler’s methodical treatment of anti-gender discourses is tonal. By identifying how gender functions on the level of fantasy for its opponents, Butler is free to approach the many contradictions, sadisms, and logical self-invalidations of this group without mirroring their dramatic affectations. They critically survey the ideas and rhetoric of prominent anti-trans campaigners without indulging the kind of excitable declaration of victory over one’s idiotic opponents that we perhaps associate with dunking on social media, or retail politicking. (Think of the self-congratulatory snark that often accompanies the claim that a Republican lawmaker is too stupid to realize they used pronouns in a tweet declaring they don’t use pronouns, or that they can’t even define the word woke.) Yet the very patience of the philosopher of gender—the methodical, reasonable, critical picking apart of outrageous and dehumanizing claims without ever tiring—becomes itself oddly tiring. I say so not to attribute fault, or error, to the book or its author. It’s not that Butler is boring, but there is something self-soothing about putting id-fueled bloviation in sober context, accompanied by a wealth of footnotes you’ll rarely see in right-wing media. To defang sometimes fascist, sometimes openly violent, and occasionally eliminationist rhetoric by making larger sense of it produces a strange feeling of deflation in the reader.

This strategy presumably produces a similar apathy in the writer. I have certainly experienced it when undertaking historical research and patient analysis of cause and effect to describe how and why, so far as I can tell, anti-trans political violence has acquired such effective power. On some days, a self-defeating feeling about that discipline creeps into the corner of my mind as a ridiculous equation: I left X under an avalanche of harassment, and now I have nowhere to park the cheap urge for anger-fueled takes except well-researched essays, which are hardly satisfying substitutes. The real goal of critical engagement, as Butler reminds us, is thankfully quite different than seeking to trounce the other side.

“The task is not only to reveal the falsehood,” writes Butler, “but also to deflate the power of the phantasm to circulate and convince, and to produce another imaginary in which the targets of the anti-gender movement ally with one another to oppose those who would destroy their right to inhabit the world in ways that are livable and free.” In saying so, Butler is in good company, joining other feminists and trans people, many of whom are cited in the book, sounding the alarm about how anti-gender and, especially, anti-trans political violence demand an equally sophisticated counterpolitics, coalitions that do more than debunk or debate. To what political alternative does careful and critical contemplation lead us? We’re not trying to bore ourselves by understanding the stakes of present-day crises; we’re trying to invent a way out of them.

But the sheer reasonableness of Butler’s engagement with unreasonable anti-gender ideas generates a dilemma: Why on earth do we need ten philosophically dispassionate chapters to earn the permission to politick differently? What are we, who oppose the anti-gender phantasm, so afraid of that we must write diligently first, before collaborating on a compelling alternative?

Critique of Pure Reason

The boredom, or at least the sense of tedious routine, in being so damned reasonable about sadism suggests a bit of awkward envy on the part of gender’s defenders. At my most generous, I will happily offer that I probably feel much less taxing anger, personal torture, and existential dread about sex and gender than the prototypical evangelical politician or gender-critical feminist. (I also suspect that I feel magnitudes of pleasure in sex and gender that would overwhelm both. Such are the rewards of changing your sex—take note.) Yet the intoxicating emancipation from critical thinking in anti-gender partisans, their release from liberal reason, is not just threatening, it is fascinating, as Susan Sontag noted about a prior generation of fascism. It makes me wonder what it would feel like to act brazenly, without careful research, critical self-examination, and a dogged passion for empiricism. It makes me wonder if the failure, thus far, to generate the kind of political alliance Butler so strongly advocates isn’t because pro-trans politics are also deeply afraid. Afraid of fascists whose tangible danger was established a century ago by Nazis, sure, but also afraid of abandoning faith in liberalism, which dangles the promise of belonging in a pluralist, if rigidly hierarchical, society.

We’re not trying to bore ourselves by understanding the stakes of present-day crises; we’re trying to invent a way out of them.

The fear that maintains a fantasy of the good liberal order emerges through the cracks in Butler’s defense of trans youth. When discussing British anti-trans feminists, Butler patiently reads now infamous statements by author J.K. Rowling claiming that proposed reforms to the United Kingdom’s Gender Recognition Act to permit gender self-determination would open the floodgates to predatory men masquerading as women for sexually violent purposes. Underlining the insincerity of Rowling’s distinction between legitimate trans women, who have received psychiatric diagnoses as reformable deviants, and alleged men who will take advantage of self-determination, Butler observes of the first group that “the fact that she calls it ‘dysphoria’ suggests that it is an illness, a malfunction, a pathology to be cured.”

True enough. But only two chapters prior, Butler draws an uncomfortably similar circle of legitimacy around the treatment of trans youth, who face a baroque system of clinical evaluation, codified by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, that is designed to stop them from accessing blockers or hormones unless the risk of their dysphoria, measured in severe depression or suicidality, outweighs the risk of granting their wishes. “Health care should ideally be a service that alleviates a form of suffering,” Butler reasons. “The deprivation of health care abandons people to their suffering without recourse to remedy. Of course, there are serious discussions to be had about what kind of health care is wise for young people, and at what age. But,” they continue, “to have that debate we have to be within the sphere of legality. If the very consideration of gender-affirming care is prohibited, then no one can decide which form is best for a specific child at a certain age. We need to keep those debates open to make sure that health care serves the well-being and flourishing of the child.”

It is an awkward juxtaposition, separated by some fifty-odd pages. Butler is not coming to anywhere near the same conclusions as Rowling. They draw our attention to a genuine inhumanity in the right’s attack on trans health care: by removing the very possibility of contemplating young people’s demands to medically transition, the law consigns them to a horror of finality. As Butler puts it in the conclusion to the book, “The attack on the right to health care is itself the harm; the claim to be ‘saving’ youth facilitates sadism with a moral alibi.” But this is not quite right. Some young people will surely pursue DIY, which is to say illegal, transition, perhaps even in defiance of their parents. That has long been the case, since trans health care, particularly for youth, has never been a right. It has been available only to those whose families enjoy the finances and time to navigate an intentionally labyrinthine system.

Butler here brushes up against a deeper problem. If health care ideally “alleviates a form of suffering,” as they put it, does that mean trans youth are ill with “what the medical world calls ‘gender dysphoria’”? This is treated as a lamentable subterfuge when Rowling floats it about adult trans women, reducing their legitimate existence to a medical condition. Why, then, is the reduction acceptable for youth? Perhaps a medical framing relieves adults of confronting something genuinely more challenging: young people electing freely to do what they wish with their bodies. On that count, right-wing politicians seem more honest about what they despise, which is any reproductive, sexual, and bodily exercise of self-determination.

Butler is hardly unique in this latent contradiction. Restricting the freedom of youth is frequently put forward as a reasonable political compromise with anti-trans movements, one all goodhearted people can agree is fair, even if it is a glaring exception to the maxim that trans people have a right to their own bodies. Indeed, the exception of youth was the original justification behind bills banning gender-affirming care for minors, even if their proponents were lying about the true scope of their intentions. My point is to prod the irrational investment in liberal apologia for domination that suffuses pro-trans politics. By casting the harm affecting trans youth as only the withdrawal of legal health care—as if when such health care is legal, it can be made ideal through the deliberations of adult gatekeepers—Butler gets caught in a serious snag.

For all the incisive analysis of phantasms in Who’s Afraid of Gender?, there remains in these reservoirs a tautological insistence on liberal institutions like medicine, as if they are enlightened in treating the trans people we can’t really trust because they are too young to be trustworthy. The psychiatric gatekeeping of transition emerged in the mid-twentieth century precisely because doctors could produce no objective test that demonstrated who was really trans and who was not. Psychiatrists would not accept the desire to transition at face value; they assumed it to be inherently pathological. The first clinics that formed the bedrock of trans health care today made access to hormones and surgery contingent not on being transgender, but on a patient’s ability to demonstrate their social and economic “rehabilitation.” Dressing conservatively, aspiring to heterosexual marriage, and working gender-stereotyped jobs were the sticks held out against the carrot of the body people deeply wanted, overseen by clinicians who gleefully described their utter disdain for trans people in the pages of medical journals. The root premise of medicalization is absolute deference to the all-knowing physician.

In Butler’s reasonable defense of youth from health care bans, it remains unclear what freedom youth should enjoy, or if it should ever be exercised independent of legal, psychiatric, and adult authority. The state’s intrusion into the clinic and the private home should be remedied, in Butler’s view, by restoring decision-making power to the proper custodians of yesteryear: doctors and parents operating in “the sphere of legality,” where youth do not have the right to participate fully. Then, finally, adults can have “serious discussions” over young people’s bodies without intrusive right-wing fantasies—but also without the apparently frightening fantasies of young people, who yearn for bodies they are not old enough to legally say yes to.

Ultimately, I find Butler entirely unremarkable in these moments. Trans youth are not the protagonists of Who’s Afraid of Gender?, but the problem they pose draws out a central challenge for effective pro-trans politics today. My fatigue in reading stems from the contradiction of opposing anti-gender attacks on trans freedom with a faith in liberal institutions like medicine, or the weak legal right to health care. This faith constrains freedom by making transition dependent on psychiatrists and guarantees its vulnerability by making it dependent on the state’s blessing, restrictions that Butler otherwise critiques, asking pro-trans political coalitions to prioritize material needs and abandon austerity mindsets that mistakenly equate freedom with legal equality. “The only way out of this bind is to ally the struggle for gender freedoms and rights with the critique of capitalism,” they write, “to let gender become part of a broader struggle for a social and economic world that eliminates precarity and provides health care, shelter, and food across all regions.” Trans youth simply remain an odd zone of exception to the arc of the book and its admirable political project.

This is my sober assessment, but I feel no rush in pointing it out. I feel only more political depression. Fascists will attempt to ride the ginned-up trans panic all the way to permanent minority rule, here and across the Atlantic. And I suspect they will find that task much easier because liberal institutions and their dispassionate defenders don’t even disagree, in the first place, that some people ought to live supervised lives, severed from decision-making power over their own bodies as a condition of their wretched existence. Butler does not believe that. In fact, they argue for hundreds of pages against that very notion when articulated by anti-gender partisans. It’s just that, underneath the attempt to outthink one phantasm turned against gender, another sleeps peacefully. Is there a future for trans people that survives present attacks and delivers more than the misery of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders? If so, it does not arrive for trans youth in Butler’s book.

The Passion of Torvaianica

My daydreams about the trans women who dined with Pope Francis return here. As someone raised in a different religious tradition, I have no stake in the Catholic Church, but I think it would be callous to dismiss the change of heart in the papacy as pure mirage. After all, in a year of political losses, it rises to the rather low standard of a win. But more importantly, the story behind Pope Francis’s transformation suggests something less boring and reasonable than critiquing our opponents without risking our attachment to conventional liberal institutions of power.

My fatigue in reading stems from the contradiction of opposing anti-gender attacks on trans freedom with a faith in liberal institutions like medicine, or the weak legal right to health care.

The pope’s change of heart was years in the making. During the first year of the pandemic, Father Andrea Conocchia, pastor for the Blessed Immaculate Virgin parish in Torvaianica, was compelled by requests for help brought by local poor trans women. The town is home to a community of trans women sex workers, many of whom are migrants from Latin America, including the pontiff’s home country of Argentina. The women were among those most affected by the state’s inflation of disparity through the coronavirus: not only were their livelihoods cut off by public health closures, but as migrants and sex workers, they had little recourse in the Italian welfare state to fill the gap. But trans women sex workers have long been resourceful and effective political actors in the direst of circumstances. The group that sought assistance at Blessed Immaculate Virgin convinced Father Conocchia to appeal directly to the Vatican cardinal responsible for the pope’s charities. In the face of poverty and social stigma made worse by the pandemic, an appeal to charity aligned masterfully with Francis’s mandate to champion the poor. A relationship bloomed from there, no doubt driven by the unique charisma of many trans women who work in the sex industry. Eventually, the cardinal arranged for them to get early access to the first Covid-19 vaccines at the Vatican so that they could more safely resume work. He also arranged for them to meet the pope himself.

As a result of this poverty-driven campaign led by trans women sex workers, official policy for a billion Catholics abruptly improved. At its widest aperture, Church-wide, the win may prove to be soft. But on the ground, for the trans women of Torvaianica, the achievements were tangible, securing the basic resources of life and a degree of safety in an environment otherwise arranged for their premature deaths. I’m too distant from Catholicism to speculate on how the women might have made incisive use of Christ’s love for sex workers to secure the Pope’s change of heart. What stands out to me is that they did so with passion enough to send him a kiss, a powerful confrontation with the shame projected onto trans women and sex workers.

It is this process of conversion, from seeking material aid to transforming trans people’s legitimacy within the anti-gender Church, that fascinates me. How did the passion with which trans sex workers confronted their political opponents achieve a victory beyond logic? I wonder if the political consciousness born of trans sex work conferred a powerful ability to expose and transform the contradiction in Vatican policy between opposing trans people’s existence and using the Church’s wealth for charity. I have to imagine that becoming irresistible is how the trans women of Torvaianica leveraged a material demand for help into changing the Pope’s heart. And that change of heart, though not their original intent, says a lot about how powerful a politics of trans passion can be, especially when compared with the dispassionate accounting of legal, medical, and scientific defenses against right-wing phantasms.

There is no program, no manifesto, or ready-made lesson in this passionate victory that I can surmise. Its force remains emotional and startling, which is precisely what I welcome. These trans women made to do with the least, who at times shoulder the desire and hatred of nearly everyone else around them, freed themselves of their fears of the institution of the Church to make concrete change in their lives. They presented forgiveness to Francis not to exonerate the Vatican for its staggering crimes but to bring its unearthly power down to the ground for an exhilarating moment, extending the fearless generosity of trans sex workers around the world through the office of the pope. The sheer ambition of that endeavor, its irrepressible feeling, cannot be ignored. Whatever comes next in the swell of anti-trans and anti-gender politics threatening to consume us one and all, I will happily join with the trans women of Torvaianica in facing it, without fear.