[FSG; 2024]

Early this April, the Vatican issued a curious document: “Infinite Dignity” is a twenty-page declaration touching on matters like abortion and euthanasia. As one might expect, the Catholic Church is not a fan. But tucked away in there was a bit about what Pope Francis called “gender theory,” something he has previously said threatens humanity. According to him, the very idea of transition threatens “the unique dignity” of each person.

It is unsurprising that an organization as conservative as the Catholic Church is against transgender rights. But, as author and academic Judith Butler shows in their new book, between the church’s global reach and its alliance with the American evangelical right, these declarations have global implications. And the church isn’t alone in this fight, either.

With Who’s Afraid of Gender, Butler returns to look into what’s become a troublesome and loaded phrase. In some ways it’s a return to form, in others it’s a new step for them: a move to the mainstream. But more than that, it’s a welcome book that takes this part of the so-called culture wars seriously.

In the more than three decades since Gender Trouble was first published, trans and gender rights in the anglophone world have come a long way, even as the route remains troubled and challenged by cis norms. From representational politics—characters in pop culture (Alexis from Ugly Betty, Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black)—to lawmakers like Danica Roem, trans people made headway in visibility and perception. Those once the butt of a sitcom joke were now on the cover of Time magazine, holding office, and starring in prestige television. But at the same time, pushback from the far right has also risen around the world. Writes Butler: “In Brazil under Bolsonaro, as with Putin’s Russia, the very idea of the nation, of masculinity itself, was threatened by a ‘gender ideology’ characterized as a dangerous cultural import.”

Who’s Afraid of Gender primarily takes aim at the way the far-right pushes back at trans and LGBTQIA+ rights when they confront “gender ideology.” From the way the Vatican claims that gender ideology is colonizers imposing their way on the African continent to the way TERFs reduce trans women to a single body part, Butler pushes back at their arguments with facts and data, only using academic jargon sparingly. They argue with these various elements in good faith, often letting their opponents hang themselves with their own rope.

For example, here’s Butler on UK TERF group Sex Matters’s claim that “scientific periodicals are now running articles undermining the observable reality of biological sex”: “If the science Sex Matters cites is harmful to scientific research, then they should be able to demonstrate why, distinguishing good from bad science. Instead there is only a pouty assertion where a good argument should be, one formulated on the basis of evidence.” Or as they put it elsewhere: “They paradoxically issue a warning against science in the name of science” to push an anti-trans narrative.

Like a patient teacher, Butler guides readers through lazy interpretations of science, the bad arguments, and the way leftist language is appropriated and misused by the right. But more than that, they also write in a clear and lucid way about all these issues—cutting through the rhetoric often used to obfuscate the far right’s aims against the LGBTQIA+ community.

Those with dog-eared copies of Butler’s previous, more academic-focused books will find this one an easier read. To wit: “When gender is thus figured as foreign invader or the invasion itself,” writes Butler, “those battling gender reveal that they are in the business of nation building and border control.” Or when a gender critical TERF says they’re just speaking simple truths, Butler challenges the lie: “A critique of something is not simply a way of opposing something and being done with it or calling for its abolition,” they write.

One is reminded at times of Jules Gill-Peterson’s recent book A History of Trans Misogyny as they both cover similar ground: the rise of TERFs in the UK and the way trans identities are erased by the Catholic Church. But the two texts, even as they share political affinities, stake different claims and engage in differing methods of argument. Where Gill-Peterson aims to explode the trans label to free up room for different kinds of trans femininity (street queens, hijra, and others) and looks to the Global South for liberation, Butler looks inside the way the word “gender” is used to mean different things to different people and stakeholders, and wants to explain their motives, particularly at the intersection of gender and other identities. To one person, it’s an identity with liberatory potential, but to another it can also perform as a dog-whistle for queer rights as a whole.

One point both Butler and Gill-Peterson agree on is the importance of intersectionality and the history of subjugating other cultures into a Western mode of thought and nomenclature. For example, Butler notes of hijras: “It makes no sense to fit this group of people who have been present for hundreds of years into contemporary gender typologies, especially when the legacy of their criminalization still haunts and marginalizes them.” Similarly, Gill-Peterson writes: “The example of hijras in British India reminds that the conflation of gender and sexuality through the stamp of femininity moved throughout the world via colonialism.”

Butler is also helpful when explaining the present political moment and how it’s related to this wave of anti-LGBTQIA+ politics. As they point out, one of the hallmarks of fascism is the way it harkens back to a time and place that never actually existed. When people on the right say that being trans is a fad and that nobody had heard of it decades ago, they’re hoping people have short memories. According to Butler, politicians like Trump encourage resentments of their cis-patriarchal base to whip them up into a frenzy. “Trump attempted to appeal to the anxieties and fears of those who want sex to supplant gender, who want a world in which the first sex assignment is the only one.”

And thus “gender” is a loaded word in these demagogues’ hands. As Butler aptly points out, they claim to speak plainly but carefully conceal their intents. They appeal to science but only the parts that agree with them. As they note of Trump: “He seemed to be taking the side of science although the move certainly was meant to galvanize his Christian base.”

However, one aspect that Butler doesn’t explore in depth is the way culture has changed how young people think about conformity, gender, and sexuality. When I was in high school two decades ago, a gay-straight alliance was unthinkable. Maybe this plays into why so many older TERFs take exception to young trans-masculine people: where they might see young tomboys making a mistake to fit in with a popular trend, others see young people pushing back at a label that never applied to them.

Overall, Who’s Afraid of Gender is a book needed in our present moment. Butler guides readers past the rhetoric and flame wars, exposing how the right speaks of trans people using fascistic language and weaponizes them to wedge open deeper cultural issues, stripping minorities of their rights: the Obergefell decision in the United States, the Gender Recognition Act in the UK, and the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe. Hopefully Butler’s book will not feel so relevant in a few years’ time.

Roz Milner is a freelance writer and critic who lives just north of Toronto. Her writing has appeared in the Toronto Star, Lambda Literary, PRISM International, Broken Pencil, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a book of short fiction.

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