On May 12th, 2013, I am skulking around the basement of the Hunter College branch of Shakespeare and Company bookstore, working up the nerve to ask the salesperson for a copy of Gender Trouble from behind the textbooks counter.
There should be no anxiety in this purchase, but – for reasons that will shortly become clear – I am at the moment deeply regressed. My 19 year old self would jam the book in my backpack and ride the subways all day while creepily reading at attractive women. It is like a live version of a personal ad: almost-no-longer-closeted-bookish-college-student-seeks-similar-for-existential-crisis/sex.
I’m close to doing this right now.
But it’s not 1990; it’s 2013. I am 41 years old, spending the month of May cleaning out my recently deceased parents’ apartment on East 69th street, and it is nearly 23 years to the month since I first read this book.
In May of 1990 I was completing my first year as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University. Having invited myself to the apartment of my young Gender Studies professor for tea and cookies, I proceeded to unleash an assortment of urgent questions. Like many an entitled Wesleyan student, my questions ranged merrily from intellectually precocious to unnerving and inappropriate: was it hard to get into graduate school? – she looked panicked – did she like teaching at Wesleyan and did she think she would get tenure? – she looked panicked – could I write my seminar paper on the lesbian porn graffiti scrawled on the walls of the tunnels under the dorms? – she looked bored – was it possible to live a happy life as a lesbian? – she looked deeply panicked – what was the “future” of theory? In answer to this last question – or maybe in answer to all of them – she handed me a copy of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble.
I was alarmed to see that the book featured a large photograph of two miserable young girls on the front. Both looked dire, but one had been especially woefully appareled in a frilly dress. This person looked like this was the last picture ever taken of her before she impaled her dress-clad self on an upturned pitchfork. We had learned the word “signification” that year in my Gender Studies class. It is an understatement to say that I felt concerned about what this forlorn photograph was signifying.
But this was the future of theory. And, with the future of theory nestled in my backpack on the bus home for the summer, I felt I would soon be ready to tackle my next important political mission: coming out to my family. I was weak with fear, but my regular BILEGA meetings at Wesleyan had emphasized the necessity of drilling the fact of my sexual desires into the heads of my parents as if they were some world-historical politburo.
Some weeks later, at the dinner table with my mother, I heard myself make the announcement.
“I think I might be gay,” I said, overly-cheerily.
“I mean –” I reflected on my elaborate stalking of C***** R***** in her work-study job at the Women’s Center Library “— I’m definitely gay.”
I don’t know what I expected. Perhaps I imagined that my mother and I would proceed to investigate and unravel this data together. Joint reading group of Gender Trouble, anyone? Or perhaps I thought that revealing my feelings might make them somehow less odd, would confirm them in their facticity, take their measure and move on.
My mother whizzed into the kitchen, bent low, her mouth condensed into a hard slit.
“I’m nauseous,” she said, over and over, heaving gobs of her Dynatrim™ diet shake into the sink.
“Nauseated,” I corrected meekly.
My mother was somehow capable of throwing up while staring at me with an expression of appalled non-recognition all at the same time. She resembled Brooke Adams in the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers once she’s been possessed by the space-invader plant people. Or, like a combination of a possessed Brooke Adams and the Dowager Countess if she by accident walked in on Lady Sybil being fucked by the chauffeur on an heirloom rug. This was an expression (minus the throwing up) that her face would hold for decades, indeed, for nearly the remainder of all the years that I would know her and be seen by her – a face twisted by the sheer horror of looking upon an impossible, alien being that is yet animate and, worse, had been spawned by her own womb.
I was already dead to her, I could tell. Then, uncannily, she paused for a second, glanced over at me hovering anxiously in the threshold to the kitchen, and declared, “You’re dead to me.”
The epic battle for delivering communiqués in the midst of her emergency homophobic barfing session did not stop there; she proceeded to further unpack this claim – “No,” she clarified, “It would be better if you were dead” – and went back to throwing up.
My hysterical assertions over the course of the next few weeks (ok, years) that I was “still me” were of little use. “No you’re not,” my mother would say, glaring at me over the straw of her Tab.
In the immediate aftermath of this failed exchange, I did the only thing I could do: take to my room and fester. I had to figure out what had gone wrong. Soon I had decided the whole project of coming out had been bankrupt – that I had been misled by identity politics into a contraction of the political field to the microuniverse of the bourgeois family. The whole thing had been so petit bourgeois (I thought to myself, petit bourgeoisely) – an embarrassing political miscalculation.
Well, I couldn’t undo it now. My mother thought I was dead, and was making herculean efforts not to so much as cast her eyes upon me lest she be afflicted with acute nausea again. To say that things were not comfortable in our small apartment would be an understatement. Moreover, I had made a degenerate petit bourgeois error on top of it. I hated myself. If I could have purged myself from my political cell of one, I would have done it.
I found a job waiting tables at the now long-gone Boostan Restaurant on MacDougal Street. One advantage of this job was that it was in “The Village” and thus I could leer at women in the hopes that they were lesbians, while wagering that my mute, lunatic staring would broadcast “lesbian” back at them. Being a lot more proficient at lesbianism now than I was then, I can safely say that I am quite sure it did.
Another advantage was that Boostan attracted an extremely meager business, leaving me the opportunity to begin Gender Trouble without the nagging presence of customers to distract me.
This was good, because I was very busy with my project to comprehend Gender Trouble. Within moments of opening the book, however, I realized I had no idea what Butler was saying. I mean, truly no idea. Each sentence made less sense than the last. To begin with, I did not understand what the word “ontology” meant, and I was not sure that “Lacan” was the name of a person.
It was not that I was simply struggling to grasp fully the stakes of the text. Rather, I was deeply mystified. Reading Gender Trouble was like sticking my head into a paper bag that someone was stepping on, and then trying to make the noise into something meaningful. Some sliver of something made sense to me about the melancholic introjection of the lost parental same-sex object, but this understanding kept trailing off into a worry about whether the implications of this were that I would at some point transform into a fast-talking yenta with huge hair. And when I got to the part about female homosexuality and psychosis, I felt my prospects for life – let alone understanding the book – were grim.
But I underlined every sentence. Every single sentence.
I had no way of differentiating the value of one sentence over another, and although I had started out with the intention of simply underlining the sentences that crystallized the argument, because I did not understand the argument, I underlined every sentence of the book.
I underlined every sentence with a ruler and multicolored sharpened pencils meant to differentiate categories of claims from one another. I wrote a key in the inside front cover: green for claims about sexuality; red for claims about gender; blue for claims about the body. Soon, single sentences has accrued underlinings in multiple colors stacked tidily on top of one another. I am not a neat person. But about this book I was extremely, helplessly, unwittingly disciplined.
I read it cover to cover, painstakingly slowly and without understanding more than a phrase or two in all. Why did I do it? I suppose I thought Gender Trouble could save me. I could tell, at least, that the book appeared to have something to do with the intelligibility of subjects, the intelligibility of desire, and of gender. And while I had no idea what that something was, this problem of intelligibility was mirrored in the experience of reading the book itself. In fact, given my own experiences with gender and sexuality, it felt appropriate to me that a book about gender and sexuality was a punishing hieroglyphic. In life, I was a stammering, hesitant animal. At least this book had words. And I could underline them.
My late parents’ apartment is clogged with photographs of our family. There are photographs on every single available surface that is not already occupied by a bowl of dust-covered glass grapes or a leathery houseplant coated with street grit floated fourteen stories up. There are photographs of me everywhere, but not a single one from after I cut the long, blond gentile-looking locks my mother so prized, and not a single one in which I am not either alone or with an animal – me, in a one piece bathing suit on a beach towel at 16, twisted into an anxious, body-hiding knot and hugging the family dog; me reading “bedtime stories” to my beloved parakeet, Chester; a solo portrait of me stuffed into a high-necked Bat Mitzvah dress looking suicidal; me scrawnily astride a horse and not even trying not to look terrified; me and a parrot at the Parrot Jungle in Florida. Nothing from the 2000’s to the present. It would appear to any visitor that either my parents had improbably spawned a child in their late 50s, or that I had died in my teens. Possibly from an animal-borne disease.
Before my parents began their approaches toward death, I had not seen them with any regularity for many years. After decades of vicious fighting, shortly after I began work at the University of Massachusetts in 2005, my mother proclaimed that we would be better off with a “phone relationship.” Despite not having known that such a category existed, I concurred, wishing as much to spare my benevolent, gentle father the strain of my mother’s frustration and anger, as to spare myself the anxiety of her gaze-of-horror. In April 2010, my father died suddenly. As I was his health care proxy, I was called to his hospital room to issue final determinations. My first thought – even before, my dear father is dead or dying – was, oh shit I am going to have to see my mother. I remember driving down from Massachusetts to Stonybrook, worrying equally about what it would be like to remove my father from the ventilator, and the ferocious kvetchfest my mother would unleash about my clothes, hair, and general overwhelming lesbionicness.
When I walk into the hospital room, my fears (about my mother) dissipate. There is blood everywhere, and my mother is in a state of shock, so the look of horror she usually reserves for just me is being applied to everything and everyone. The doctors, nurses, passers-by are all getting the you-are-an-appalling-dykey-blight-upon-humanity-someone-shoot-me-now look. She is scanning the room in a mad panic. Then she sees me. Miraculously, she doesn’t seem any more upset by me than she is by anyone else. She begs me to “help.”
Help meant arranging to take my father – who, even to someone unschooled in faces of death, was clearly pretty graphically dead – off life support. This I did. I could not stop thinking then – and I have not stopped thinking since – that if I hadn’t delayed an hour before leaving Massachusetts – changing in and out of various pairs of jeans, desperate to look less butch, before ultimately abandoning that project – he might have still been alive when I got there, would have heard me say goodbye.
I drive my mother home at 5 in the morning, my father’s clothes in a plastic supermarket bag on her lap.
We don’t sleep; instead, zombie-like, we follow each other around the apartment that morning like dogs – first I hers, then she mine. Having seltzers, calling people, laying on the couch blankly. We don’t leave each other’s sides. At some point I find myself sitting on the floor, sobbing to my mother for the first time in decades, blabbering something about how I’d never meant to be such a disappointment to her. This was a woman with whom I’d had a “phone relationship” for years, who looked at me like I was Hitler, who had told me I was too ugly to be her spawn, whose only reaction when I got into graduate school was to point out: even if you get a job you will still not be able to afford 2-ply toilet paper.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I splutter pathetically. What in the hell was happening?
I know what you’re thinking: why the fuck did I need her absolution. For being gay? At 39? I barely cared about my gayness anymore anyway. I had other concerns. I was an adult person. I have a life (I thought to myself, hysterically) – political commitments to social justice movements, a world of scholarship and activism. But then she hugged me. And told me the dissolution of our relationship wasn’t my fault; it was hers. Her fault. She hugged me. Reader: It felt so good.
Six months later my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Without thinking twice, I became her caretaker, taking a (paid) leave of absence from my job (under the Family Care Leave Act, which our union at UMass skillfully helped me negotiate), and moving back in with her for that semester while she underwent surgery and began chemotherapy, and staying with her for long stretches of time even beyond that, commuting up to work in Massachusetts from the apartment on East 69th street. Why did I do this? The answers are too obvious to bore the reader with. Suffice to say that there was Oedipus at play. From the day my father – the object of our joint affections – died, my mother never looked at me as if I were inhuman again. Somehow my gayness – my butchness, my illegibility – was now immaterial. This much, anyone who has understood Gender Trouble might easily have predicted.
In December 2012, she died. And now I am being evicted from the rent-stabilized apartment on East 69th street. On May12th, I sign the agreement at the lawyer’s office – the one that states I have 30 days to clean out the apartment or be subject to legal proceedings – then walk home uptown to the apartment. Well, almost home. I take a last-minute detour west to Lexington Avenue and downstairs to the textbook section of the Hunter College Shakespeare and Company, where I ask for a copy of Gender Trouble. I’m on autopilot. I need this book.
I have read portions of Gender Trouble many times since 1990. Several times as an undergraduate, again in graduate school, and then again in the course of writing an essay on Bodies That Matter while finishing my dissertation. I read sections when I teach it. But I have never read it straight through since 1990. On May12th, however, I know that is what I have to do.
I approach Gender Trouble, as I always do,with a fear that is a residuum of my initial tortured encounter with it. This time the fear is worse. Too much is resonant. I am living back on East 69th street. I have set myself the task of reading it all the way through for the first time since that first time. I have no idea how long this task will take. In 1990 it took me all summer. Do I need to set aside the rest of my sabbatical for this task? I wander around 3rd avenue with the book in a bag. I find myself in a newsstand on 72nd street buying supplies. I haven’t used a colored pencil in decades. Why am I buying colored pencils? Post-it notes. I am deliberating endlessly over pencil sharpeners. I realize I am terrified; that I am procrastinating.
The least useful way to describe why I am rereading Gender Trouble is this: I am thinking about recent shifts in how we think about what sexuality is. It turns out I will soon write an academic essay on these shifts. But while it will prove to be impossible to write that essay without rereading Gender Trouble, that is not whyI am rereading it.
You probably think that rereading Gender Trouble has something to do with saying goodbye to my parents – or goodbye to where we lived as a family, goodbye to the last place I felt part of this family before I came out, was driven into the arms of Gender Trouble, and ran away to San Francisco, then graduate school, and all the rest of it.
But this can’t be right because I said goodbye to my parents a very long time ago.
Since 1989 I have had [<excised number>] of lovers and partners, lived in at least 20 different apartments and houses, on two coasts, in eleven different cities and towns. My parents knew none of these partners, houses, cities, towns, apartments with me. My father knew my work and we shared books and writing. And they both knew the four dogs I have had since 1989. The dogs could get away with anything – throw up on their bed, stamp pawprints of feces on white carpeting in the livingroom, piss in the kitchen, and they would laugh it off and break out the carpet cleaner. But then, see above re: me and animals. We think all homophobes fear bestiality as the next step in a slippery slope of inappropriate affections. But consider that my mother would have loved to see me marry a dog. A male dog. Hopefully one who could afford 2-ply toilet paper.
Truly, I said goodbye to them 23 years ago when we ceased to know each other genuinely. How do you say goodbye to a parent you let go of 23 years ago? Caretaking my mother has been more of a hello (again) than a goodbye.
She appears to die several times before she dies. The hospice nurses are puzzled. Toward the end she was unconscious for almost a month and still not dead. She wakes up once to accuse me of leaving her alone the night before, then announces she wants borscht and salami sandwiches from the Second Avenue Deli. We share this meal. I feed it to her. It is the same meal we ate together that November when we had Thanksgiving just the two of us in her bedroom watching the Food Network (“her channel”). Is she conscious enough to know this? Is this a message? She has always loved Thanksgiving. I’m secretly concerned that if she is awake eating salami and borscht and sending me cryptic messages about Thanksgiving, this dying-process may go on forever. I have already alerted friends on facebook several times that she is dead, and then it turns out she is not dead. It’s very humiliating. I have stopped posting as a consequence. Now this, with the salami and borscht. I am very tired.
I duck into the other room and call my friend Jasbir, who is overseas. “She’s not dying,” I shriek. “This is taking forever, I can’t do this anymore.”
“What’s going on there,” she asks.
“She’s awake! She made me order from Second Avenue Deli. She’s fucking eating borscht!”
“Tell her you forgive her,” she says, “I promise you she will die.”
I hang up and go back into the bedroom. Back to the borscht-feeding. My mother, all 89 pounds of her, is swathed in diapers and is sickly white, her eyes following each spoonful of borscht as it approaches her mouth.
“Mom, I forgive you.” Her eyes track up to my face. “I forgive you, Mom, I forgive you. ” Either I am saying this repeatedly to make sure she hears me and thus dies swiftly or because it feels good to say. I touch her skeletal leg through the pilly blanket.
She kind of whisper-struggle-intonates, “This must be very hard for you,” and I lose it, raining tears into the borscht. “You are a better person than I am,” she says, then falls back into unconsciousness for another week, and dies.
Maybe I am rereading Gender Trouble as an escape from this, from the memory of this. I could be thinking about Gender Trouble so I don’t have to think about how thin her arms were at the end, how our arms have always resembled each other’s. And about how much I want to stick a needle full of testosterone in my ass and balloon into fleshliness to escape any lingering resemblance to this wraith.
But this is not why I reread Gender Trouble.
Gender Trouble – in case anyone out there needs this advice – cannot help you bury your mother. I mean, not in an immediate sense. If your mother was raised on Flatbush Avenue in the 50s and all she wanted was to assimilate successfully and raise blonde girls who married doctors, it will definitely kill your mother when, emboldened by Gender Trouble, you announce you are a giant lez. But to actually bury your mother you need friends – living people.
My best friend from college comes over 15 minutes after my mother dies. I’m already extremely buzzed by the time Adrienne gets to the door. “Have you ever seen a dead body?” I slur. Adrienne says no. “Well come on in. A dead body – ” I invite, with a weird drunk flourish, dragging Adrienne by the hand into my mother’s room; the Food Network still on (I won’t turn it off for months afterwards), the wallpaper my mother thought looked like an English country home peeling from the filthy walls, my mother extremely, truly dead, her mouth strapped shut with an Hermes scarf I tied around her head (someone had said that if you let the mouth stay open they can’t shut it once rigor mortis sets in) – “—is really normal,” I announce, absurdly.
Adrienne takes one look at this scene and reaches for the bottle. Soon we are sprawled on the bed with my mother’s body drinking together from the Stoli trying to figure out what underwear to pick out for the funeral home to bury my mother in. Adrienne gets up, rummages around, and finds some silky leopard print panties. We debate whether or not my mother would want the Riverside Chapel to think she was a slut. We agree that she would definitely want to be thought of as sexy but maybe not a slut, and embark on trying to find sexy-but-not-slutty burial underwear for her.
I look at Adrienne, who, mercifully for her, is tipsy now too. “See,” I say, “it is really normal.” I wave in the general direction of my mother’s body. My mother is quiet now; dead. She’s dead and she doesn’t hate me; I’m not disappointing her; she isn’t horrified by me. She’s dead. And I can feel my body relax for the first time in – ever. And I also know, lying there next to her body, and Adrienne knows, looking at me, how much I have missed her for decades, how somehow I did need to be near her after all. “It is really normal, Jordy,” she agrees drunkenly, putting the leopard pair back in the drawer.
Compared to the love of an old friend and getting drunk while going through my mother’s panty drawer, Gender Trouble would have been a poor substitute.
But months later, as I am cleaning out the apartment, I need Gender Trouble. Need it with a confusing desperation. I cannot leave this apartment before rereading it. And I need to reread it in one straight shot.
Now maybe this was the testosterone’s doing (I challenge anyone with access to it not to shoot themselves full of testosterone while caretaking; it happens to make things much easier), but it does not take me long. I read Gender Trouble in 24 hours. I read it through straight, with no breaks except for sleep. And I understand it. I am amazed. There are no words to capture the astonishment I feel upon deploying with (relative) ease what has been a decades long process of sedimentation of theoretical literacies. I have read Gender Trouble straight through and (basically) understood it. This seems like a miracle to me.
Before returning to Gender Trouble, I thought that reading the book would answer some academic questions I was having about gender and sexuality studies at the present moment. My particular interest – don’t worry I won’t go on about this – had something to do with why gender and sexuality studies seems to be so concerned with the object world these days. I can’t explain this at great length here but suffice to say that all kinds of things seem to be queer these days – including dust, dna, certain kinds of worms and maybe also time itself? – and there is a part of me that still doesn’t understand how that is possible because in order to be gay don’t you kind of have to love/hate your mother? Before re-opening Gender Trouble, my questions about gender are a string of very wordy lamentations.
But 24 hours with Gender Trouble has refined the screaming in my head to a very clear proposition that has nothing to do with anything I was thinking before I opened the book: there are some things that are hard for no reason and there are some things that are hard for a reason.
Gender Trouble is hard for a reason. It is hard because things that seem simple – that seem to be commonsensical – are actually hiding something: that the naturalness of gender is a language that is composed of a whole host of occlusions. Gender is at the heart of how we make sense of the world, it is bound up with language, and there is something about queer sexuality that makes clear that the sense we make of the world is hinged on an apparatus of discipline, power, and a lot of things you can’t see until your worldview is messed with somehow and then either you can see them, or you become the screen through which other people see them. (And sometimes, when they see them, they freak out.)
Gender Trouble enacts an anti-common sense. You have to subject yourself to the difficulty of its language in order to begin to unstitch the only-seemingly coherent logic of gender, order, and discourse that you have grown accustomed to, that has been made natural to you – no, through which you, your gender, has been made to seem natural. Gender Trouble has to be hard. Reading it for the first time subjects you to the sheer hardness of the language of gender in all its un-occluded complexity. In the Preface to the 1999 edition, Butler explains it this way: “you never receive me apart from the grammar that establishes my availability to you.” “I am not trying to be difficult,” she says, “but only to draw attention to a difficulty without which no ‘I’ can appear.”
When I read all of Gender Trouble again for the first time in 23 years, I am amazed by the unceasing, elliptical motion of Gender Trouble’s critique: the splendid weaponization of Foucault, the fevered subjection of the Freudian psyche to the demands of a genealogical matrix. When I read it again, I have reverence for history – for the conjunctural conditions that had to align for this book to exist – and for the sheer force of the argument and the will to make it: the unrelenting intervention into the presumptions of feminism; the unmasking of Foucault as a closet Hegelian. I am trained now in theoretical lexica – trained enough to understand with a kind of awe the combination of clarity of vision and the contingency of historical energies that went into the event of Gender Trouble’s appearance in the world. But I am too literate in these lexica now to experience the singular event of Gender Trouble again in reading it. There is the difficulty with which we appear, and the not-unrelated difficulty of making that first difficulty apparent. And this latter difficulty is one that you can only experience once: while reading Gender Trouble for the first time and not understanding it.
I was talking to my friend Camille the other day about the first time she read Gender Trouble. Did you feel it was going to save you? I asked. Camille nodded. Did you understand it?, I pressed. Not the first time, no. Not a word.
Why did we think Gender Trouble would save us? What did we think it would save us from? Did we read it to make sense of gender, or to have our sense that gender made no sense – (alternately put: that the sense that it made was intimately related to a set of elisions we lived, difficult-ly, in our bodies) – confirmed.
There are many days when I wish I could go back and read Gender Trouble for the first time, again. May 12th-13th 2013 was one of those days. You can’t go back, of course, but I suppose I had to try.
Originally, I wanted to write this essay for students – to tell them it is ok not to understand Gender Trouble. That reading and not understanding, and keeping on reading is one of the singular pleasures and engagements of the life of the mind (and, I guess, the body too). It is so not because it is fun to be confused, but because being lost in this particular way is related to having – or developing – a political life: to the extension of ourselves into the world and to the forming and care for the collectivities that we will need to survive this world, and that, perhaps more importantly, we want to survive us into a different future. Actually, about this kind of thing, Lacan once said something of importance: “Do not give up on your desire.” That doesn’t mean striving toward knowable ends – commodities, marriages – but just the opposite. It means having some kind of commitment to that which fissures the otherwise seamless appearance of sense. Reading Gender Trouble without understanding it is about making a vow to the fissures that constitute embodiment, us, and our world. This vow is not the same thing as being able to describe the seemingly intractable contradictions of gender norms and the disasters of disaster capitalism, although it’s good to be able to describe these contradictions with acuity and to understand the history of how we got here. But reading without understanding is something different. It has something to do with not giving up on your desire.
Reading back over what I’m writing here, however, I am not sure that I wrote it for students. Or only for them. Maybe I am writing it for teachers, readers, ex-students. We who have to be the adults.
Many of us have read Gender Trouble – or sections of it –countless times. We return to it. Maybe this is the fidelity of which Badiou speaks: something happens, an “event,” and it cracks open a seam in the reproduction of the status quo. The labor of remaining truthful to this seam, and to forcing open the seam to the point of political transformation might become your life’s work. And it is, perhaps, related to the endless reading of a text – a text that is an event. If I were writing this for students, I would say, if you do this – if you read Gender Trouble as many times as we have – you will come to understand it too, and be able to communicate its argument to others.
But you have something before you that we can never have again. You have the first time reading Gender Trouble, the living of a fidelity you cannot understand in the first reading. You are not meant to understand it now. You will understand Gender Trouble later. I promise you this. But you will never again not-be-giving-up on your desire the way you didn’t give up the first time you read it.