Judith Butler is one of the most famous modern feminists. Her book „Gender trouble“ offered a completely new way of understanding gender issues. Butlers theory of deconstructing gender categories was fundamental for the formation of the queer theory.
In the last years Butler focused more on a political theory about violence and war. On June 18th she gave a speech on queer alliances and antimilitarism at the Berliner Volksbühne in order to receive the prize for civil engagement of the CSD. She declined that prize the next day arguing that the CSD was too commercial and racist because it would locate homophobia especially amongst ethnic minorities.
The following interview bases on these events. The fifth question refers to a statement Butler made at a Teach-In at Berkley in 2006. You can read this statement here. There’s also a video on the bottom of the page, where you can watch and listen to her statement.
TQU: Would you say that queer people are more obligated to get politically involved than others because they`re being discriminated against in every day life?
JB: I would say that they are no more and no less obligated than others. Perhaps there is a common obligation to protect the rights of minorities, and this means not only to protect that rights of those minority categories to which I belong, but to all minorities who suffer disenfranchisement.
I believe this obligation should be honored by those in the majority as well. Let us remember that some of us are majority in some respects and minority in others, and that an obligation to equality does not emerge from a minority status or from a majority status, but from some abiding political commitment to democracy.
TQU: Some queers fight against discrimination, some only enjoy queer lifestyle like parties, a certain kind of styling and behaviour. Do you think the last ones also act politically because they show themselves as queers in public?
JB: In some ways, to appear in public when there are dangers to doing so is a courageous act, and it is, in a way, to “lay claim” to public space. Sometimes we make this claim by simply appearing, and other times we translate the right to appear into a concrete legal and political discourse. But the right to appear is fundamental to all democratic participation, and so something is being articulated by appearing in public especially when there are those who would try and restrict who can appear and how they can appear, or when the threat of violence is made against those who appear, or when police fail to protect those minorities against violence.
TQU: How do you see the german queer scene in comparison to the american one?
JB: I am not sure I know the difference or if there is a single one. I did notice that in Germany some people seemed to use queer as an identity, but it has always been my impression and commitment to understand “queer” as a kind of action, an intervention into power, one that has to take place in alliance with others. I don’t understand “queer” to describe what a person is, but only how a person acts, more specifically, how a person acts in concert with others.
TQU: How many compromises can queer people make in order to build powerful alliances?
JB: I have two answers to this question. The first is that we probably make an error if we think that “queer people” are constituted as a single and discrete minority, since many of those people who are engaged in queer politics belong to “other” minorities at the same time. Indeed, the reason why many people reject identity politics and turn toward queer politics is that it allows multiple differences to come into play, which is why “acting in alliance” is a better characteristic of queer than simple identity.
Since we have to think about overlapping communities, which include queers from Turkey, North Africa, and Arab cultures across the Middle East, then maybe the question is, what sacrifices do we ask of minority queers when we insist that “queer” is a single and exclusive determination and that other affiliations and modes of belonging have to be effaced or sidelined in order to conform to this category.
Still, there are times when we encounter racism within queer communities, and homophobia within racial and religious communities. So the question then emerges, how do any of us negotiate this issue? Again, let us remember that queers of color negotiate this all the time, and that those negotiations are the best examples we have of how to go about trying to connect these issues, and forge a coalition that is anti-homopobia and anti-racist.
I think acting in coalitions means finding a way to struggle with other groups where some disagreements and antagonisms remain in play. I am not sure all disagreements need to be solved before we agree to enter a coalition. Some of us are “coalitional subjects” without any choice, and other times we work with people with whom we disagree because certain notions of political equality and justice bring us together. My view is that a coalition has to know what its political aims are, but also how to live with certain antagonisms that are not resolved easily or quickly. A certain patience is needed, And sometimes it is only after people have worked with one another that those antagonisms become less defining or important.
TQU: A few years ago you said that the hamas and hizbollah would be progressive social movements. Do you still have that opinion?
JB: I never said that. I was asked whether, as a matter of description, Hamas and Hezbollah are part of the global left. I said I thought (a) that they are left movements and that (b) like all left movements, there are some that I support and there are some that I do not. I was simply describing where they are on the continuum of positions, but I never called them progressive social movements and I never voiced any support for them.
TQU: How do you reconcile their islamistic thinking that includes homophobic and patriachal as well as militaristic thinking with your queer theory?
JB: Since there seems to be a misunderstanding about my position, I think this question is mistaken. I do not seek to reconcile such movements. My only concern is to underscore the importance of not engaging in islamophobic thinking and acting. Islam is a complex and important set of religious and moral positions that can in no way be reduced to the political parties that claim to be representing Islam at the present moment. My sense is that we need to think clearly and study carefully these traditions and political organizations. Let us also be clear that there are several muslim queer organizations, and that those organizations are very rarely represented in the mainstream public discourse on queer politics.
TQU: How did you come to the decision to dismiss the prize from the berliner csd?
JB: I arrived in Berlin with the full intention of accepting the prize, but I was approached by several groups in Berlin and many others throughout Europe who advised me that it would be a mistake to accept the prize under the present conditions. I asked several people to give me evidence that the CSD was complicit with racist politics, and I studied that material closely. Finally, I was compelled by the evidence to refuse the prize since several sponsors and organizers of the group had promoted racist policies towards new immigrants and arab minorities. As a Jewish person, it is never easy for me to come to Germany, I confess. But it is not possible for me to accept any form of racism without objecting. We make an error, in my view, if we fail to fight anti-semitism or if we fail to fight homophobia, but there are other forms of hatred, some against racial and religious minorities, which deserve our equally strong objection. For me, this is the meaning of the claim of equality.