Butler, Feminism, Gender Trouble, heteronormativity, Heterosexual Matrix, Performativity, Queer Theory, Sex & Gender

What Is Queer Theory?

What exactly is queer theory? Queer theory is hard to define! Tiina Rosenberg, queer scientist and Associate Professor in Theater Studies at Stockholm University writes:

[Our translation] In short, queer theory shifts gender discrimination from being about the exclusion of women by patriarchy to the exclusion of non-heterosexual by heterosexual norms.

(Rosenberg i Munk Rösing 2001)

[Original quote] “I kort begreb kan man sige, at queer-teorien forskyder kønsdiskrimination fra at handle om patriarkatets udelukkelse af kvinden til at handle om den heteroseksuelle norms udelukkelse af ikke-heteroseksuelle”

We have chosen to use Judith Butler who has paid the way for queer theory to be our main queer theorist since we find her understanding to be one of the most accurate and useful approaches to gender and sexuality – both how they affect each other, as well as what the categories ‘gender/sex’ contain.

Judith Butler

Butlers book Gender Trouble (1990) helped put queer studies on the agenda (within gender and feminist studies). Her critical analysis of feminist thinkers such as Julia Kristeva and Monique Wittig as well as Michel Foucault, Jacque Lacan and Sigmund Freud has helped shape her own philosophy (more than an actual theory) which is an attempt to de-neutralise existing discourses within gender and sexuality.

[Our translation] But which connection between gender and sexuality am I trying to emphasize? I am not trying to claim that one specific sexual practice produces specific genders but merely the fact that by controlling gender within the conditions of normative heterosexuality it is sometimes used as a way to secure heterosexuality.

(Butler: XXI)

[Original quote]
“Men hvilken sammenhæng mellem køn og seksualitet forsøger jeg at fremhæve? Jeg vil bestemt ikke hævde, at former for seksuel praksis producerer bestemte køn, men kun at kontrollen af køn under den normative heteroseksualitets betingelser undertiden bruges som et middel til at sikre heteroseksualiteten.”

Butler presents the idea of ‘biological gender’ (sex) as oppose to ‘social gender’ (gender) and the connection as well as the differences between these – with the fundamental understanding of gender as a performance.

In addition, she talks about the relation between the understanding of gender and sexual desire: A heterosexual ‘woman’ and a heterosexual ‘man’ make up ‘the Heterosexual Matrix’.

‘Woman’ as a Category

“Strictly speaking, “women” cannot be said to exist”

(Kristeva in Butler 2008: 1)

Inspired by Michel Foucault, Butler points to problematic, dominating tendencies when it comes to women (in society, language as well as politics), since all women are placed in just one shared category. Existing discourses which society is subjected to produces gendered (masculine and dominating) subjects, that excludes the category ‘women’ by placing all women in one category both politically and culturally, thereby creating just one identity. Butler criticizes this:

If one “is” a woman, that is surely not all one is; the term fails to be exhaustive (…) because gender is not always constituted coherently or consistently in different historical contexts (…)

(Butler: 4)

Another point of critic is the lack of: “(…) racial, class, ethnic, sexual, and regional modalities of discursively constituted identities” (Butler: 4).

Butler is, as mentioned, inspired by De Beauvoir who sees gender as more than something that is biological determined: you are not born a woman, you become a woman (which is not to say, that there are absolutely no biological differences between women and men), and because of this, one cannot assume that there is only one women’s category.

Sex & Gender


By deconstructing binary understandings and truisms of gender and sexuality that are dominant in our current society, Butler questions some of the naturalized truths which determine the general understanding of gender. She argues that gender is culturally determined and that the biological body is connected to the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ because society is subjected to cultural compulsion that teaches us how we should think about these (Butler: 8).

Historically, there has been a clear distinction between gender and sex. Gender was seen as ‘destiny’ and sex as a cultural construction, which is to say it is changeable. Thus, Butler doesn’t think you can separate sex and gender since they depend on each other:

Gender ought not to be conceived merely as the cultural inscription of meaning on a pregiven sex (a juridical conception); gender must also designate the very apparatus of production whereby the sexes themselves are established. As a result, gender is not to culture as sex is to nature (…)

(Butler: 10)

With this in mind, the physical (biological) body is nothing but an ‘instrument’, a ‘construction’, without meaning until it has been ‘assigned’ a gender at (or even before) birth (boy or girl), predetermined by culture and existing discourses. This means that a person born with what is acknowledged as a biological ‘male’ body is also able to embody the female category the same way women born in a body acknowledged as ‘female’ can (De Beauvoir in Butler: 11).

Butler points out, that it is not just about choosing freely when it comes to one’s understanding of gender since gender identity is influenced by existing, powerful discourses.

Butler’s frame of understanding is thereby based on interpellation, where gender identity as a social construction is displayed: a subject becomes part of a gender discourse at birth since it is assigned the label: boy or girl.

The Heterosexual Matrix and heteronormativity

Butler explains that “”Intelligible” genders are those which in some sense institute and maintain relations of coherence and continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice, and desire” (Butler: 23). This definition constitute the Heterosexual Matrix. The matrix is to be understood as a structure that creates norms in which one (because of one’s sex) has a heterosexual desire that produces a heterosexual practice. Since this heteronormative understanding is dictating how vi think about sex, gender, and desire, identities that differ from the norm (gays, bisexuals, and trans*) are tabooed. As a result, these identities are viewed as evolutionary failures. Since the understanding of gender is based on a heterosexual construction regulated by its reproductive sexuality, a false stabilization of gender emerges.

Butler points out that it is problematic (in more than one way) to equate gender and sex with desire in modern queer theory since a given sex does not necessarily presuppose a certain desire and vice versa. She elaborates by saying:

The second and related move within queer theory is to argue that gender is not reducible to hierarchical heterosexuality, that it takes different forms when contextualized by queer sexualities, indeed, that its binariness cannot be taken for granted outside the heterosexual frame, that gender itself is internally unstable, that transgendered lives are evidence of the breakdown of any lines of causal determinism between sexuality and gender

(Butler 2004: 54)


The many identities that are placed outside of the Heterosexual Matrix are proof that the matrix is constructed and constantly controlled and upheld by repetition, language, and representation. Butler thinks that it is necessary to recognize that rather than viewing gender/sex as a cause of sexual experience, behavior, and desire, it is important to acknowledge that the cause must be understood as an effect of the heteronormative discourse that creates certain subject positions. Which is to say, gender/sex is a label created performatively by hegemonic discourses.

It may seem, however, that there is a difference between the embodying or performing of gender norms and the performative use of discourse. Are these two different senses of “performativity”, or do the converge as modes of citationality in which the compulsory character of certain social imperatives becomes subject to a more promising deregulation? Gender norms operate by requiring the embodiment of certain ideals of femininity and masculinity, ones that almost always related to the idealization of the heterosexual bond

(Butler 1993: 231)

Butler views gender/sex as fluent. To become one’s gender/sex, one is forced to perform in order to live up to the social and public discourse on “intelligible” genders. Gender is thereby produced in order to create stabile, primary, and recognizable identities. These identities can be interpreted as performative, since being placed outside the norm has negative consequences. Those who does not perform their gender/sex in accordance with the norm are challenging the political construction and our way of understanding gender/sex (Butler: 192) (note: This is not to say, that gender/sex is merely a performance (Serano 2016: 336)).


Butler, Judith: Gender Trouble – Feminism and the subversion of identity

Butler, Judith (2004) Undoing Gender. Routledge. ISBN: 978-0415969239

Butler, Judith (1993): “Critically Queer” i Bodies That Matter – On The Discursive Limits of “Sex”. pp. 223-283. Routledge.

Ravn, Flemming (2014): HVAD ER HETERONORMATIVITET? Læs her

Munk Rösing, Lilian (2001): De skæve kønsidentiteter. Information. Læs her

Queer Theory, Trans theory

Trans* theory

In order to elaborate on Butler’s understanding of gender, we include Serano who points to the fact that there is a problem within feminism both when it comes to not understanding one’s cis-privileges and the devaluation of femininity. She thinks trans women are an important example of that. I line with Butler, she thinks (social) gender is constructed by the way others perceive and interpret one’s identity:

I can modify my own gender all I want, but it won’t change the fact that other people will continue to compulsively assign a gender to me and to view me through the distorted lenses of cissexual and heterosexual assumption

(Serano 2016: 193)

Trans* describes a variety of gender identities that are extremely different, and yet share one, simple common denominator: they don’t fit the traditional conception of a cisgender woman or man.

In the preface of the Peer Reviewed Journal Kvinder, Køn & Forskning (Eng: Women, Gender & Research which) ) from 2011, Danish gender scientists Tobias Raun, Maja Bissenbakker Frederiksen and Michael Nebeling Petersen describe how trans* studies are increasingly making up more and more of gender research. The reason for this is, that trans* studies contribute with critical and theoretical ideas on gender, and because the identity category ‘transgender’ historically, theoretically, and socially make up a figure that illustrate naturalized assumptions of gender.

Trans* studies and trans* theory arise out of lived experiences of stigmatizing and invisibility in society as well as within a psycho-medicinal health system, in gender research, and in the social general public (Raun et al. 2011: 3).

More poststructural theoreticians and queer theoreticians have been part of creating a focus on trans* people (and ‘drags’) as perfect examples of the idea of gender identity as a performance (as seen with Butler). As seen here, trans* people are not just read negatively as the embodiment of a binary gender system, but also positively (ibid.: 6).

Raun (et al.) point out, that some of these readings by trans* theoreticians have been criticized for their lack of theorizing ‘transgenderism’ as an actual embodiment and actually lived subject category that is subjected to both juridical and social discrimination. It has thereby become increasingly important to many trans* theoreticians to focus on ”(…) det komplekse forhold mellem kropslige erfaringer og sociale/institutionelle diskursiveringer af subjektivitet og køn” (Raun et al.: 6).                 Our translation: the complex relation between bodily and social/institutionally discursivations of subjectivity and gender.

Breaking with trans* as a ‘non-identity’

What is most worrisome, however, is how the diagnosis [GID: Gender Identity Disorder] [Transkønnethed] works as its own social pressure, causing distress (…) to be called unreal, and to have that call, as it were, institutionalized as a form of differential treatment, is to become the other against which the human is made. It is the inhuman, the beyond human, the less human, the border that secures the human in nits ostensible reality. To be called a copy, to be called unreal, is thus one way in which one can be oppressed

(Butler 2004: 99, 217)

Graduate in sociology and educator at Sexuality, Gender- & Trans* Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Sonny Nordmarken, emphasises this in his article “Becoming Ever More Monstrous: Feeling Transgender In-Betweenness”, in which he writes that trans* identities are seen as non-existing as opposed to cisgendered people:

(…) they are assumed to “actually” be something else—something that can be known by viewing their bodies. Biological essentialism thus discredits trans identity. Trans people must therefore continually re-assert their identities. As a trans person, I occupy a particularly between kind of betweenness

(Nordmarken 2014: 40)

Nordmarken elaborates the issue concerning moving from this ‘in-betweenness’ to a more recognisable gender identity, when society at large still refuse to recognize this ‘move’, which is exactly the reason why trans* people remain obscure:

As a transgender being, my gendered shifting moves me into more betweenness. I am queerly between: I occupy multiple positions at once, and different positions at different positions at different times, depending on how people read me – in regard to age and ability as well as gender. I am socially subjugated as transgender, even as I am beginning to experience in a new way what White male privilege is

(Nordmarken 2014: 38)

Because of this form of ‘non-identity’, both due to the ‘diagnosing’ from society and a lack of representation in general, Raun (et al.) emphasizes that there is a need for a trans* vocabulary.

This is further underlined by Butler, who explains that in order to be allowed to start a transition, trans* people must learn how to present themselves within a discourse they have no influence over. This means that they must give up their freedom by sacrificing the right to use language properly. Put differently, they must give up a form of freedom in order to achieve another freedom by subjecting themselves to: (…) a discourse that denies the language you might want to use to describe who you are, how you get here, and what you want from this life” (Butler 2004: 91).

Raun (et al.) points out that trans* is a determination that covers a person who crosses the border of what is understood as a ‘normal’, binary gender since they move across the gender categories ‘man’ and ‘woman’ (Raun et al. 2011: 9). Furthermore, he wants to break with the misunderstanding that they are born in ‘the wrong body’:

En transkvinde er en person, der er udpeget som dreng ved fødslen, men som identificerer sig som og præsenterer sig som kvinde. En transmand er en person, der er udpeget som pige, men identificerer sig og præsenterer sig som mand

(Raun et al. 2011: 9)

[Our translation] A trans woman is a person, who has been labeled ‘boy’ at birth, but identifies as and presents herself as a woman. A trans man is a person, who has been labeled‘girl’ at birth but identify as and presents himself as a man (ibid.)

This can be conceptualised by using Seranos term ‘subconscious sex’: the biological gender one is born with that does not depend on genitals. She explains this further by pointing to studies of the brain (brain-hardwiring hypothesis), the area BSTc, where the structure of trans women’s look like ‘understandable’ women’s. This means that everybody is born with an inherent understanding in the brain of what biological gender one’s body should be. In regard to this, she underlines how everybody is born with a subconscious gender, but it is only a few that has to deal with this, since most people are in line with their assigned gender (cisgendered people), as opposed to trans* people (Serano 2016: 81).

Serano also talks about the importance of focusing on ‘gender entitlement’: “(…) the arrogant conviction that one’s own beliefs, perceptions, and assumptions regarding gender and sexuality are more valid than those of other people” (Serano 2016: 89), which is necessary to be aware of in order to create a stronger sense of unity within the queer community so that those who identify within the binary gender system (as either ‘man’ or ‘woman’) are not excluded from this community (ibid.: 359).

In order for those who suffer under this limited understanding of gender and how this category should control the way one is in the world to become free, it is important to be aware of cis-privileges and give equal status to all forms of gender identification. By understanding the gender category it is also possible to gain a better understanding of what women liberation means, since it is not just about understanding biological gender, but also social gender.