Alumni News

Gender Trouble in Brazil

Judith Butler '78, one of the leading academics in the United States in the areas of philosophy and gender studies, was burned in effigy by bigoted far-right Christian protesters outside of a conference she helped organize in Brazil.

Judith Butler

Butler, who reflected on the experience in Inside Higher Ed, said that the protesters seemed to wrongly take her "performative theory of gender," which she describes in her book, Gender Trouble, to be "promoting the idea that one can become any gender one wants, that there are not natural laws or natural differences, and that both the biblical and scientific basis for establishing the differences between the sexes would be, or already is, destroyed by the theory attributed to me."

On the contrary, she says, her theory aims to "offer more language and recognition to those who found themselves ostracized because they did not confirm to restrictive ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman. But that theory never denied the existence of constraints, and as I developed it in later years, I sought to show how it served the moral purpose of creating a more livable life for all people who span the gender spectrum."

Looking back on the protest, Butler said, "My sense is that the group who engaged this frenzy of effigy burning, stalking and harassment want to defend 'Brazil' as a place where LGBTQ people are not welcome, where the family remains heterosexual (so no gay marriage), where abortion is illegal and reproductive freedom does not exist. They want boys to be boys, and girls to be girls, and for there to be no complexity in questions such as these. The effort is antifeminist, antitrans, homophobic and nationalist, using social media to stage and disseminate their events. In this way, they resemble the forms of neo-fascism that we see emerging in different parts of the world. Indeed, they reminded us at the conference why we were right to worry about the state of democracy."