10 min

Whose lives matter? An interview with Judith Butler

Queer theorist talks marriage, sex work & Israeli Apartheid Week

Judith Butler speaks to reporters before her talk at the University of Toronto, March 9. Credit: Marcus McCann

About 1,000 people – patient, if excited – form a damp line that loops down a hallway, hangs a right, traces a big U around the foyer and snakes off around one of the building’s curved walls.

Marshals with name tags – some barely out of their teens – are just as excited as the crowd. The name on everyone’s lips? Judith Butler. No one is quite able to play it cool.

In the end, many will be disappointed. Behan Auditorium sits fewer than 300, and even with a large overflow room, there simply isn’t enough space for everyone.

Two hours earlier, as Butler arrives at the lecture hall, a queue is already forming. In a second concrete auditorium off to the side — what will become the overflow room — Butler paces the room a couple of times before sitting down in a chair in the front row.

Meanwhile, organizers, marshals and the sound guy nip in and out around us. Each time the door opens, the crowd on the other side has gotten louder.

She groans.

Judith Butler can’t possibly suffer from stage fright, can she?

A little, she says, although it disappears – or at least dissipates – once the lecture begins.

As a crew member adjusts our audio levels, I slip in a couple of gossipy questions. Does Judith Butler have any guilty reading pleasures?

No, she says, “reading is a very serious thing for me. I can read novels, but I have to force myself not to write about them.”

It’s one of the perils of academic life. No lesbian pulp?

“No! I never liked them. They were never about me or my desires, so…”

She shakes her head.

I try another. Does Judith Butler ever look at her score on

No, she says. She grimaces. Then she laughs.

Butler is on a sabbatical from her teaching gig at Berkeley in California. During her time away from teaching, she’s living in New York.

She hardly needs an introduction. She’s the author and editor of a stack of books. She became a household name – at least in geeky, queer households – for Gender Trouble, a 1990 classic of theory in which she argues that gender is performance, rather than part of our essential being.

Butler’s theory of gender-as-performance remains her best-known contribution to academia, but for the last decade, her attention has gradually shifted from gender to the politics of war. Now she’s struggling with questions like Whose deaths matter? and Why are some deaths grievable but others not?

During a ranging one-on-one with Xtra, Butler talks about the challenges facing the gay movement — including its increasing reliance on state recognition as a tool of change — and draws parallels between queer liberation and Palestinian human rights work. She insists the two are related. Consider, for example, the push to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which pits formal, legal equality against anti-war and pacifist struggles.

Here’s a part of that conversation:

Queer people have always been involved, but it seems in the last decade, certainly, there has been an uptick in queers who are taking issue with Israeli foreign policy.

Judith Butler: Let’s think about it. For me, the term queer, from its early days, was an idea of alliance. It wasn’t, for me, an issue of identity. I am queer, or I identify as queer. Queer was a way of accepting that there are complex identifications, and that gender and sexuality were not always easily described by identity categories. And I liked what Eve Sedgwick had to say, early on, that anyone who was against homophobia was welcome to the club.

But, I think, from early on, certainly from the early ’90s, that there were a number of populations that were suffering in the AIDS crisis in the United States, and it was imperative to make alliances across minority populations. And I think the queer struggle for visibility and for AIDS education and AIDS prevention really started to be involved with questions of economic justice and political equality more broadly.

But, let me just say, it’s not a question of Israel’s foreign policy. The state of Israel has… 20 percent of its population is Palestinian. And they have what I would call damaged rights. They don’t have full equality under the legal structure of Israel. And then the occupied territory has a kind of uncertain status. Is it independent? Is it Israel? Certainly, Israel controls it militarily, and Israel retains the right to accept or reject any elections that take place there. So there’s no political autonomy; that’s what “occupied” means. So it’s not exactly foreign policy. It’s neither domestic nor foreign policy. I don’t know how to describe it.

Xtra: Perhaps that’s the kind of ambiguity you would have celebrated in your work, historically.

JB: Well, I would like to get the whole thing clarified, actually. I’d love to see a kind of political governance there that would guarantee equal rights regardless of religion or ethnicity or background. So yes, I do hold out for a different polity altogether.

The relationship between queers and the state has always been a strained one, and I wonder if in the struggle of dealing with Israeli policy, I wonder if queers are already cynical of the state, writ large.

JB: Yeah, well, you know, I think there are different states. There are different kinds of states, and in the US and several different European states and I think here in Canada as well, the gay and lesbian movement has been really focused on getting recognition by the state and having equal entitlements that would not only be recognized but guaranteed by the state.

So my sense is that the gay and lesbian movement has moved, has embraced the state as the centre of politics, much more than in earlier years, where it was maybe more of a cultural movement or a political movement that was taking place in civil society, not necessarily in relation to the state.

The idea of queer has never really easily lined up with lesbian and gay legal rights. Although we’re glad to have legal protections, the question is whether legal protections are the aim of political movement. My sense is that “queer” had a more critical relationship to those issues, much more fearful of normalization by the state.

Xtra: In your essay on gay marriage in Undoing Gender, you point out that recognition of gay marriage segregates the population. And also in that essay, you’re trying to come to a way of defending the movement against homophobes, the people on the rightwing who are opposed to gay marriage, without yourself endorsing it. It seems like an uneasy balance you’re trying to stake.

Yeah. Well, I think there are many homophobic arguments against gay marriage that have to be opposed. And then there’s a separate question, which is should gay marriage be at the centre of a movement that is meant to enfranchise or empower sexualities? And that’s where I want to say, Look, it’s not at the top of my agenda. And I’m not sure it should be at the top of the agenda. How did it come to be at the top of the agenda? But I don’t think it’s inconsistent to take those two positions.

I just thought it was brave, and maybe not a point that people have given a lot of thought to. In particular, you were talking about people who have maybe more complicated loving arrangements of more than two, or single people, and how it affects people of colour…

JB: I think, in the US at least, the right-to-marriage movement has focused on property and wanting acceptance as normalized bourgeois people and monogamy, and the idea of couplehood. So we think about the complex ways in which sexual and intimate relationships take place; they don’t always conform to that. And I think there are other forms of kinship that are not based on the family. I’ve made that clear in my work. But I also think there are modes of sexuality that aren’t centred on marriage-like arrangements, and that that’s been part of a radical sexual movement for a really long time, calling into question how we arrange sexuality, and what arrangements are best, and what works and what doesn’t, and what are the norms or ideals around which we organize our sexual lives. It seems really important to keep those questions open.

If that’s true, then the movement around Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell must be even more clearly about state recognition…

JB: I have a piece on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in my book Excitable Speech. But it was really about the debates about it. Of course, the point of repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is to make sure that gay and lesbian people can come out in the military and not lose their positions or suffer discrimination or harassment.

But you know, this is where I have to say, it’s really important to take a kind of queer perspective on these things, because of course, I’m against harassment and discrimination and there should be no such policy, but we also need a queer critique of the military. If we’re just going to struggle for the rights of people to be out in the military, then we’re not asking what the military is doing and what we think the military ought to be doing.

It seems to me that queer people – if we can speak that way – know what it is to be dishonoured and not to have their lives considered valuable, not to have the opportunity to publicly grieve the losses we have endured. And that links up with questions of war, really.

So my work shifted, I think, from sexuality and gender to the politics of war, but they’re really linked by the question of whose lives count. And when we think about targeted populations and civilians who lose their lives in America’s wars, I think that queer people should have solidarity with those populations whose lives are not considered liveable. That’s a kind of alliance that I would understand as a queer alliance.

So that explains why I would – as someone who elaborated a queer theory – be very concerned with the situation in Palestine, where rights are abrogated and there is no real political self-determination for the Palestinian people, and where violence is waged against Palestinians, and where the loss of those lives is not regarded as equally valuable, as equally lost. You know, they are in some sense a disparaged population, so when parts of that population are destroyed, we don’t see the same outrage as when, say, people in New York are destroyed.

So I’ve become more concerned with writing that certain populations are grievable and certain ones are not. But that goes back to my AIDS activism, and it links what I have to say about queer politics and what I have to say about Palestine.

Speaking of bodies that are grievable or not grievable, in Canada, there’s been a bit of a resurgence in anti-prostitution feminism, and I wanted to get your thoughts on why there might be a resurgence right now.

Well, tell me a little bit more about what you’re thinking about. I’m aware of some, but I want to make sure.

Sure. There was a hotly contested debate here on the University of Toronto campus between the Coalition Against Trafficking Women and folks from Maggie’s, which is a support and advocacy group by and for sex workers. And in Vancouver, a group of lesbian feminists who just released a statement calling for the abolition of prostitution. I’m guessing that links up to other debates happening.

JB: Yes. I’m more aware of these debates in the UK than I am of the debates in Canada. But I do think that we have to ask whether all prostitution is coerced. I think it’s one thing to be against coerced sexuality — I’m against coerced sexuality. I’m against coercion. I’m against rape — and it’s another thing to decide that prostitution is by definition coercive sexuality. That’s where we need to be careful because there are many women who enter into sex work who are actually making a living wage and who need greater protection and good medical care and some kind of retirement guarantees. And I think we would be making an error if we understood a movement for those employment conditions as somehow promoting coerced sexuality.

I’m not convinced that all prostitution is coerced. It’s a choice that people make under certain economic conditions. And I can think of a lot of forms of labour that women are in that they may not like very much, that they will wish that they had another set of options, but I’m not sure that prostitution is the worst of them. And I guess I would call it sex work rather than prostitution.

My sense in the UK, though, is that it was an anti-immigrant argument, that they were arguing there that it was immigrant women from North Africa and the Philippines who were being brought in to be sexual slaves. An anti-prostitution argument was an anti-sexual slavery argument, which worked in the service of limiting immigration, so that the UK could have a moral reason for setting quotas up against immigration. So I would need to know more about the Canadian situation before I could really come to a good conclusion about it.

Xtra: When you decided not to accept the award at the Christopher St Day celebrations, the speech that you gave – in German, I should say – was that gays and lesbian people were being used as a way to fuel anti-immigration positions in Europe. So it sounds like there’s yet another parallel between sex work and the gay and lesbian movement.

JB: Yes. Well, it was actually some of the leaders of that parade who espoused very strong anti-immigration positions. So I’m not really sure they were being used. They were really putting it forth. Because they were calling for a greater police monitoring of minority populations in Berlin and seeming to identify that the threat of homophobia in Germany as coming from new immigrants, that I could not accept that prize. It struck me as Islamophobic, and of course, that wasn’t considering the various ways in which homophobia is reproduced at various major German institutions, educational institutions, religious institutions.

Not to say that there aren’t immigrants who have strong views about homosexuality or even have been offensive in their approach to homosexuality or gay people. But there is also a very large queer community of colour in Berlin, and they were acting as if queers were white and their enemies were not. So, I couldn’t really accept that map of power.

It is true, though, that we have to be careful when we see something like the state of Israel claiming to be a haven for gay people and that Palestine is not. I think that the Brand Israel campaign has come to deflect. It’s trying to say, “We’re free. We’re a place where you can enjoy freedom and mobility.” But the state of Israel has restricted freedom and mobility for 1.5 million people on the West Bank alone. So if we go and think, “Oh, Israel is free,” we have to rethink what is freedom? And who is free and who is not? And are we capitalizing on this freedom to deflect from an un-freedom that others suffer?

And I do think that we need to be in alliances that are dedicated to broader goals of social justice. I don’t think we should be taking our freedom at the expense of others.