Who's Afraid of Gender?

An exclusive excerpt from the iconic scholar's new book.
Judith Butler, 2016.Photo: Collier Schorr
“If you’re in a coalition and you’re comfortable, you know it’s not a broad enough coalition." —Bernice Johnson Reagon

No one is imagining the future very well. And when we try, it feels like a nightmare. The specter of fascism is often invoked on the Left, yet we are no longer sure whether that is the right name. On the one hand, the term is bandied about too easily. On the other hand, we would be wrong to think that all its possible forms have already existed and that we can call something “fascist” only if it conforms to established models. Imagining the future is not precisely a prediction. Imagining does not take place only in the mind. It requires an object, a medium, a sensuous form of expression. Imagining the future is more like the release of a potential through a sensuous medium, where the medium is not a simple vehicle for an already formed idea, but an idea that takes hold and assumes shape, sound, and texture, releasing a potential of its own.

No one really wants to imagine the future except those who foresee their businesses expanding and their capital accumulating, who see the future as the horizon of their own increasing power. To think that way is to not care whether that form of accumulation comes at the expense of the earth, other lives, or life in all its forms. And yet, in our acts and practices, we do implicitly reproduce an idea of the future, whether or not we know precisely what it is. We live this way now, assuming that living this way is the way to live, and once that repeated practice becomes a way of life, it comes to look like the way things simply are, or ought to be. But when the way of life that is reproduced destroys all ways of life, including its own, one has to ask how the pursuit of destruction is carried out by practices that are considered to be the way things just are, or have to be.

Climate destruction is the most terrifying example. It teaches us, however, not only that many now live with a fear of destruction that their way of life has helped to produce. It teaches us also that many have no idea how to live with that fear of destruction, which is a fear not only about the future in which events can happen at all but also about what is happening now, and what has been happening for some time. We look, we look away; we know, we fail to know. We live in the anxiety produced by knowing that we are not knowing what we secretly should and do know.

And what about war, like the actual ones waged in Ukraine and Gaza: Do those of us who live outside those regions know that destruction? What does it mean not to know it, even to know that it is unfathomable, exceeding the reach of knowledge? Or the decimation of peoples in the Amazon who are dying and predicted to die off, by virtue of corporate extractivism? And what about this pandemic still churning along at reduced rates, and the ones to come, which have so many people living with a sense of ambient death that they know neither how to mark nor how to mourn? And consider neoliberalism and the decimation of social and public services, the increasingly precarious character of work, the withdrawal of health care, retirement, rights to be protected against eviction: all of this underscores the increasing dispensability of lives, their induced precarity.

At this writing, over eighty million people globally are forcibly displaced from their homes, and approximately one in eight live in slums. The devastations of capitalism would take many books to catalog, and yet the sense of destruction, the destruction of what is most valuable, is with us all the time, either as an accomplished reality, an ongoing process, or a terrifying prospect. Many of us live with this sense that our lives, too, are dispensable, or could become so at a moment’s notice or eventually, that we could find, or already have found, ourselves with unpayable debts, bound to banks for life, securing their profits without being able to afford shelter. And what about all of us who do not know whether the future will provide affordable or accessible health care or any prospect of stable work that would secure the conditions of life for ourselves and those with whom we are interdependent?

Maybe all this seems far from gender. But when gender is figured as a threat to humanity, civilization, “man,” and nature, when gender is likened to a nuclear catastrophe, the Ebola virus, or full-blown demonic power, then it is this escalating fear of destruction to which political actors appeal. They see the escalating fear and know that they can make use of it for their own purposes, so they escalate it even more. There is the ready and continuous fear of destruction, the source of which is difficult to name, which is solicited and spiked to fortify both religious authorities and state powers—or their strengthening alliance, as we see in Putin’s Russia, the Republican Party in the United States, and various countries in Eastern Europe, East Asia, and Africa. The displacement of this fear of destruction from its identifiable conditions of production—climate disaster, systemic racism, capitalism, carceral powers, extractivism, patriarchal social and state forms—results in the production of “cultural” figures or phantasms invested with the power to destroy the earth and the fundamental structures of human societies.

Precisely because that destruction is happening without its sources being named and checked, the fear and anxiety congeal without a proper vocabulary or analysis, and “gender” and “critical race theory” are produced and targeted as the causes of destruction. Gender is not just a matter of individual identity, but a category that describes the division of labor, the organization of states, the unequal distribution of power. Gender has never been “merely cultural” but has been cast that way by opponents who want to regard gender as a secondary concern or those who believe that cultural pathologies are responsible for social worlds breaking apart. Once identified as a cause of destruction, gender itself must be destroyed, and what follows is censorship, the de-departmentalization of gender studies and women’s studies, the stripping of rights of health care, increased pathologization, restricting spaces for public gathering, the repeal or rejection of laws that protect against discrimination, and the passing of laws that segregate, silence, and criminalize those who are trying to live their lives without fear. All those laws say: No, you will live your lives with fear, or perhaps you will not even count as a life at all.

Gender is not just a matter of individual identity, but a category that describes the division of labor, the organization of states, the unequal distribution of power.

Let us remember that the killing of women and trans, queer, bisexual, and intersex people is an actual form of destruction taking place in the world. The killing of Black women, the killing of Black queer and trans people, the killing of migrants, including queer and trans migrants—all these are destructive acts. As the numbers increase, it becomes increasingly apparent whose lives are considered dispensable, and whose lives are not. The inequality of the grievable makes itself known. Once gender, in its phantasmatic and abbreviated form, comes to include abortion rights, access to reproductive technology, sexual and gender health services, rights for trans people of any age, women’s freedom and equality, queers of color’s freedom struggles, single parenting, gay parenting, new kinship outside of heteronormative models, adoption rights, sex reassignment, gender-confirming surgery, sex education, books for young people, books for adults, and images of nudity, then it represents a wide range of political struggles that its opponents seek to shut down in their effort to restore a patriarchal order for the state, religion, and the family, an authoritarianism for the present. The only way forward is for all those targeted to gather themselves more effectively than their enemies have, to recognize their alliance, and to fight the phantasms prepared for them with a powerful and regenerative imaginary that can distinguish between the destruction of life and a collective life-affirmation defined by struggle and even irresolution.


It seems clear that fascist passions or political trends are those that seek to strip people of the basic rights they require to live, and to do so either without regard for their probable demise, or because fascism is an effective mode of annihilating those lives, or establishing their dispensability. By contrast, authoritarianism is usually understood as a form of state power, but authoritarians emerge from within democratic regimes, elected precisely by stoking fascist passions, escalating the fear of destruction by social movements that converts into a moral alibi to destroy other people’s lives. The authoritarian who seeks to stoke fascist passions knows too well that the fear of destruction already courses through those who have seen the destruction of the climate, the environment, labor unions, and prospects for financial security. When that fear is both inflamed and organized by the syntax of the phantasm, “destruction” is located externally, in foreign people or languages, in elite powers, both of which are packed into “gender,” which threatens to invade and destroy. The attack on gender engages age-old conspiratorial logics to prop up anti-democratic regimes. If the foreign sources are characterized as Jewish, then that is apparently all the more effective in converting the fear of destruction into fascist passion.

Perhaps arguments do not have the power to address the fear of destruction that motivates the anti–gender ideology movement. The movement taps into a sense of a world on its way to immolation, and incites that fear to rally support for its “moral” plan for destruction. There is hardly an instance of the anti-gender movement that does not claim to be saving the children—from harm. The movement finds, stokes, and organizes that fear wherever it can. The tactic is clever and effective, for few things could be more personal and singular than the fear for one’s bodily safety or that of one’s children or those who are most proximate.

But as one fear is allayed for some, another is escalated for those who are targeted: the fear of being injured, killed, pathologized, or incarcerated seizes trans and queer kids, adolescents in search of health care, and young people, including girls, in need of reproductive health services, who are hurt by this movement that claims to be “saving the children.” Equally painful is the fear that women feel on the streets as they seek simply to live their lives and move freely without fear. To realize how many women and LGBTQIA+ people are seized with fear on the street, in the workplace, or in their homes is to begin to know how pervasive and corrosive that fear can be. It matters how many Black and brown people undergo that fear in proximity to the police or the storeowner who regards them with suspicion, how many young Black people in the United States, for instance, have their breath choked out of them by police who know in advance that they will be exonerated. It is a singular fear for one’s life, and at the same time, it is also someone else’s, the fear that someone else felt before they died, the one a parent felt when they sent their kid for groceries at the corner store. What if political movements were forged from all those who fear discrimination and violence in public and private spaces, who demand to live and love freely without fear of violence? Perhaps then “the fear of destruction” could be identified in a way that shows how its fascist exploitation is so egregiously wrong.


When gender politics remain restricted to the liberal sphere of individual rights, it cannot address the basic rights to housing, food, non-toxic environments, unpayable debt, and health care that should belong to any struggle for social and economic justice. When countries and regions are coerced into accepting a version of rights that leaves their basic needs unaddressed, it is no wonder that skepticism emerges about those very rights. And when those rights are framed in terms that do not translate well into local cultures, then the critique of cultural imperialism is not without justification. For the critique of financial coercion and cultural imperialism to become an integral part of a transnational gender politics, we will need to remind people why and how they desire to live, reclaiming life for the Left, finding life in the relations that sustain us, the alliances formed among all those who seek to realize equality and freedom within a livable world, an enduring and regenerative earth. This means living with our profound differences without succumbing to the destructive forms we must oppose.

The only way out of this bind is to ally the struggle for gender freedoms and rights with the critique of capitalism, to formulate the freedoms for which we struggle as collective ones, and 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. Such an agenda would develop an understanding of the formation of the individual within a social world, the individual body as bearing the trace of the social in its relations with others, both actual and implied—a body at once porous and interdependent. It would mean accepting that, as human creatures, we persist only to the extent that we are bound up with one another. When we say I want to be free or I want you to be free, we are speaking about these distinct selves but also about social freedoms that should be accorded to everyone as long as no real harm is done. And for that caveat to work, we have to expose the fear-mongering that would recast fundamental freedoms as harms, and make freedom into a new and vital object of desire. To live according to such a maxim means that we must distinguish between actual harms and those that grip the imagination as imminent possibilities, manufactured by those in the business of inciting hatred. But we cannot learn how not to cause harm if freedom itself is regarded as a harm, or if we become convinced that struggles for equality, freedom, and justice are hurting the world. Let us show instead that the world, the earth, depends upon our freedoms, and that freedom makes no sense when it fails to be collective, no matter how difficult staying in emancipatory collectivities might be.


For those who think that gender is a secondary oppression or that feminists should get in line behind the presumptively masculine Left, it is time to rethink the coordinates of the contemporary political map. Gender is not a secondary issue for Orbán, Putin, or Meloni, but a key rallying point in the defense of national values and even national security. For feminists who think that trans rights or LGBTQIA+ mobilizations are a distraction or a menace, they should, quite frankly, realize that all of our struggles are now linked as we seek to overcome the powers seeking to deprive us of basic conditions of livability. There can be no successful struggle against the forces denying women basic rights without recognizing everyone who is a woman, without acknowledging that these same forces are closing down borders in the name of racist and nationalist ideals, and targeting lesbian, gay, gender nonconforming, and trans youth, especially youth of color.

We may think that the anti–gender ideology movement is wrong, but why maintain that it is fascist as well? As I insisted at the outset of this book, fascism names the passions, but authoritarianism the emerging, if not accomplished, political reality. On The Michael Knowles Show online, which attracts hundreds of thousands of listeners, Knowles, a right-wing commentator and featured speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference in the United States, stated the following:

If transgenderism [sic] is false, as it is, then we should not indulge it, especially since that indulgence requires taking away the rights and customs of so many people. If it is false, then for the good of society, and especially for the good of the poor people who have fallen prey to this confusion, transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely. The whole preposterous ideology—at every level.

The language of eradication belongs to fascism, and today it is directed not only against trans people but against all those who have been clustered under the signs of “gender” and “critical race theory” and “wokism.” The ready definitions for fascism tend to rely on the study of its twentieth-century form, so new vocabularies are required to understand new iterations of fascism that have emerged in the last decades. Given the shifting character of economies and the contemporary ways of extending militarized forms of power to the police, prison, and the patrolling of national borders, we are faced with a combination of neoliberalism and intensified forms of security that rationalize the destruction of lives and livelihoods.

When gender politics remain restricted to the liberal sphere of individual rights, it cannot address the basic rights to housing, food, non-toxic environments, unpayable debt, and health care that should belong to any struggle for social and economic justice.

Contemporary authoritarians may not consider themselves to be fascists, but they rely on fascist technique and stoking fascist passions to stay in power. The new authoritarians rail against social movements, including feminism, multiculturalism, and LGBTQIA+ rights and freedoms, against civil rights and the protection of the rights of migrants and refugees, all of which are cast as internal enemies threatening the nation, or as external ones about to break down the door and threaten the phantasmatic purity of the nation.

Perhaps it is in the exhilarations of shameless sadism that one finds fascist potentials in the present. All of the contemporary authoritarians promise a “liberation” from a leftist superego that would affirm trans lives, “woke” culture, and feminist and anti-racist struggles. This shameless attack on progressive social movements unleashed a “liberation” from moral accountability and an entitlement to privilege and power that, in turn, demonstrated its triumph by destroying the basic rights of migrants, queer people, women, Black and brown people, and the Indigenous. These authoritarians seek to bolster their public support by destroying any sense of common political belonging in favor of nationalist, racist, patriarchal, and religious forms of sociopolitical supremacy, subordination, and dispossession. The posture and practice of impunity and shamelessness that we find in the figures of Trump, Bolsonaro, Orbán, Meloni, and Erdoğan, for example, are distinctly different from so-called charismatic fascists of the twentieth century. The contemporary fascist trends—ones that engage in death-dealing and rights-stripping in the name of defending the family, the state, and other patriarchal institutions—support ever-strengthening forms of authoritarianism.

That is why it makes no sense for “gender-critical” feminists to ally with reactionary powers in targeting trans, non-binary, and genderqueer people. Despite our differences, we have to create a struggle across differences that keeps the source of oppression in focus, testing our theories about the other by listening and reading, remaining open to having one’s traditional suppositions challenged, and finding ways to build alliances that allow our antagonisms not to replicate the destructive cycles we oppose. We cannot oppose discrimination against ourselves only to support it for others. We cannot oppose systematic forms of hatred against one group by allying with those who would intensify that hatred in multiple directions. We cannot censor each other’s positions just because we do not want to hear them. It is no time for any of the targets of this movement to be petty and divisive, for to defend gender studies and the importance of gender to any concept of justice, freedom, and equality is to ally with the fight against censorship and fascism.

Admittedly, we are not seeing fascist states on the order of Nazi Germany, but even that history advises us not to look away from the fascist potentials that are increasingly actualized in several regions of the world through the anti–gender ideology movement. Since fascism emerges over time, we need to know the steps by which it emerges and to identify fascist potentials when they appear. None of this implies that fascist potentials will materialize as fascist regimes, but if readiness to resist is imperative, which it is, then we have to identify those potentials and act against their escalating momentum. We can stop that momentum, but only by intervening as an alliance that does not destroy its own bonds. For that would be to reiterate the logic that we oppose, or that we should oppose.

Rather, releasing radical democratic potentials from our own expanding alliances can show we are on the side of livable life, love in all its difficulties, and freedom, making those ideals so compelling that no one can look away, making desire desirable again in such a way that people want to live, and want others to live, in the world we envision, where gender and desire belong to what we mean by freedom and equality. What if we make freedom into the air we together breathe? After all, that is the air that belongs to us all, sustaining our lives, unless, of course, the toxins—and there are many—pervade the atmosphere. ♦

Excerpted from Who's Afraid of Gender? by Judith Butler. Published in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, March 2024. Copyright © 2024 by Judith Butler. All rights reserved.

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