Conversation with a Professor

This was in a lower division LGBT Studies class. We were discussing “Redefining Realness” by Janet Mock.


I really connected personally with the line “When I look back at my childhood, I often say I always knew I was a girl since the age of three or four, a time when I began cataloging memories. ”

Not because I felt the same way, but because I recall having a realization a the same age  that I was gay. At the time I knew there to be two options: straight or gay. I also knew that I had an interest in a guy, therefore obviously I was gay. It took half a decade before I acted on this conclusion. I’ve always wondered how my life and identity would have played out if I had a better understanding at the time of the broader range of options and the fact that these identities are socially constructed rather than reflecting some truth about people.

This is a deeply queer discourse. Queer Theorists like Foucault and Butler argue that identities are a prison that limit us to fit their boundaries while preventing exploration outside the boxes we choose to  put ourselves in.  Most people accept a limited range of options and choose to live within the artificial boundaries they are handed, rather than exploring their full selves. I can’t help but see this in my own experience and that of the author.


Do you see your identity purely as a social construction, or does it (also) reflect some essential truth about you? It seems like you’ve constructed another binary here, but I’m wondering how that accords with your lived experience? Is it possible that our identities exist along a spectrum of constructivism and essentialism? Apologies if you find these questions naive or unintelligible, but I ask them in earnest and out of a deep interest in the ontological and epistemological implications.


In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler argues that many of the discourses of identity try and fail to establish themselves as prediscursive. There is an implicit and explicit argument in many cases that these categories are essential or that the identity reflects a truth, rather than the truth reflecting an identity. I like this quote from Chapter 1 of Gender Trouble;

The prevailing assumption of the ontological integrity of the subject before the law might be understood as the contemporary trace of the state of nature hypothesis, that foundationalist fable constitutive of the juridical structures of classical liberalism. The performative invocation of a nonhistorical “before” becomes the foundational premise that guarantees a presocial ontology of persons who freely consent to be governed and, thereby, constitute the legitimacy of the social contract.

Butler is arguing based on earlier work by De Beauvoir for anti-essentialism; that there is no true essence at the core of these identities. Obviously both Butler and De Beauvoir go into much deeper detail, but I think this excerpt is a good summary of the Queer perspective as put forward by Butler.