being undone · coming out · family · feminism · politics

Identity Trouble

Have y’all read this? It’s long, but oh-so-good: Jordana Rosenberg’s captivating essay-cum-personal memoir on making sense of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble as a young lesbian whose conservative mother cannot accept her sexuality. It’s a tale of abandonment, grief, confusion, and self-doubt, and anything I say about it here cannot really do it justice. Beyond the sheer pathos and engagability of her story, I think it admirable that Rosenberg deploys the notoriously jargony pages of Butler’s prose as an element in her life-narrative and struggle, thus challenging the artificial divide between critical and personal we as scholars tend to maintain. Further, she opens a space for “unknowing” as a crucial political and academic act, urging her students and her readers to embrace texts and situations that we don’t understand, which would allow us to internalize the value of risk, of humility, of un-understanding the world. Only once we learn to extend ourselves into unfamiliar situations will we learn to truly become ourselves and enact political transformation. The idea of empowerment as rooted in our own epistemological undoing is, I think, highly radical.

Rosenberg got me thinking about the issue of how open we should be to our parents, family, nonacademic relations, people we love: not just regarding our sexuality, but also regarding such potentially objectionable things as feminism, atheism, leftism, advocacy for reproductive rights, whatever. In making this kind of comparison between Rosenberg’s coming out and other kinds of coming out, I in no way mean to imply that the different forms are equal: sexual politics hold a particular transgressive valence for most conservative folk, and emerging LGBTQ people often meet with more violence than emerging feminists. Personally, I will never be disowned for my political beliefs, though I might still be faced with the pain of wounding people I love and possible subsequent alienation. Outing oneself is something we tend to applaud and support at all costs, and I am often ashamed to admit that I have not expressed to eveeyone the extent of how much my beliefs and convictions have evolved in the last few years. Interestingly, however, Rosenberg expresses an at least initial sense of regret after having come out to her mother: she claims that she “decided the whole project of coming out had been bankrupt – that [she] had been misled by identity politics into a contraction of the political field to the microuniverse of the bourgeois family.” She never mentions whether the clashing of these two very different worlds in the name of identity politics is something she ultimately supports, but her lifelong struggle with communicating with and forgiving her mother may give us some indication of how she felt. We are not left with a sense of redemption and self-discovery here; her story seems to answer the question of “Does it get better?” with a resounding “….not really.”

Perhaps, then, honesty is not always the best policy–especially involving cases that might incur irreparable damage upon your relationships and your future, and lead family members into believing you may be a lost cause, or into fearing for your soul. For me, it is an ongoing challenge to negotiate my identity as scholar and daughter, and deciding when it might be appropriate for my various selves to be made available to my various worlds at various times. So to the broader question: how do we ethically maintain our pursuit of feminist politics within the academy while minimizing emotional damage and trauma incurred upon people we love (who actually may believe we’re going to hell if they knew the extent of it! Can you imagine believing that about someone??)? How do we cultivate our identities as ethical scholars and loving daughters? What selves and what bodies should we exhibit to the different communities of which we are a part?

These questions do not have easy answers, just as Gender Trouble commits itself to refusing (or troubling) easy answers as well. As Rosenberg observes, Gender Trouble “has to be hard” because 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. 

And so we are back to an issue I’ve blogged about before: the issue of committing ourselves to difficult language and struggling through our complicated networks of desires, relationships, and responsibilities. Reading Gender Trouble for the first time has to be hard–and so does composing our intersecting identities as scholars, daughters, wives, partners, mothers, teachers, and feminists. I’m trying, and good lord I might be failing in all sorts of ways, but that is all part of the impossible quest to discover the evasive and forever deferred “I.”

And I wonder if other readers have similar struggles.

4 thoughts on “Identity Trouble

  1. Yes, the value of Butler's language is that it does the work her thinking does: it refuses to permit us to see the world in the way we had (always) already enflamed it. It is radically destabilizing and alienating, because the ideas she's articulated radically destabilize our ways of knowing and being in and about our bodies/subjectivities/identities/performances. You can't do that in everyday language, at least not at first.

    And. I become increasingly aware of some of the privilege I carry to be “out” in certain ways about certain things, and put myself and my relationships at risk in one way or another, or to “pass” and leave all feathers unruffled. I become aware that this choice is one I make for my own convenience and comfort sometimes, but at others it is a real blessing to just blend in. A blessing not equally available to all, and so a privilege I should try to use a bit more thoughtfully.


  2. The never-ending process of “composing our intersecting identities as scholars, daughters, wives, partners, mothers, teachers, and feminists” rings a whole lot of chimes (and I'll add atheist, post-humanist, and vegan to that list), and is something I think about and work on/with all the time. When, where, and how can we be – or even ARE we – truly “ourselves,” and where do honesty, authenticity, integrity, and all that other good stuff intersect with swampy territory like unexamined privilege (educational, socio-economic, racial, gender, etc., etc.)? When do “good manners” shade into potentially dangerous apathy or hypocritical silence? These are big, open, and ongoing questions we need to be constantly asking ourselves and negotiating. The answers may not be fixed, but the important thing is that we never stop asking the questions.


  3. Thank you both for your thoughtful responses, and I'm glad this post resonated and got us thinking about unquestioned privilege, in particular–something I haven't thought too much about. It's all about asking the questions, interrogating ourselves, remaining critically aware and open. And wondering things like why did I write about five drafts of this post, each one more cautious and impersonal than the last? I am privileged in that the geographical distance between me and some of my more conservative loved ones means I can operate quite easily under the uncertain cover of concealment, but I am starting to think about how much SHOULD be concealed, and how comfortable I should leave my weekly phone conversations. (Right now I am concealing things in this comment..)


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