It's questionable as to whether Rishi Sunak has ever heard of Judith Butler Matia Rengel Via Unsplash

On 4th October 2023, Rishi Sunak addressed his party at the annual Conservative party conference. “A man is a man and a woman is a woman,” he said, “that’s just common sense”. During a similar speech, one party member was removed by police for questioning the now sacked home secretary Suella Braverman when she attacked “gender ideology”.

I wonder what they would say if I asked the prime minister, or his former home secretary, what they actually mean by “gender ideology”. Would they cite Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler, or Teresa de Lauretis, to name but a few? More importantly, could they point to a single conversation with a trans or non-binary person?

“We can take what we have learnt and the critical attitudes we have fostered into educational and workplace environments”

Reading the works of critical theorists like Butler can often seem miles away from these issues, as if it is a passive version of the activism that is needed right now to counteract the destructive ignorance of the government. Yet, I think that these seemingly different worlds can be connected – and students can be the missing link. Most of us won’t stay in an academic institution forever. We can take what we have learnt and the critical attitudes we have fostered into educational and workplace environments.

Despite being dense and often inaccessible, the ideas of academic theory carry forward a tradition of asking the difficult questions that affect every interaction that we make. For example, take Butler’s theory of gender performativity. In a nutshell, it means that every one of our actions acts out our gender like it is a performance, except we don’t have a script, we’ve just been taught how we should act. Whether or not you agree, they are interesting concepts to think about in the context of our daily lives (once you can get past the indecipherable academic-speak, that is).

Queer theory already has so much to offer us. By definition, it is meant to avoid definition, so it can largely become whatever you want it to be. Beginning in the context of gender and sex binaries, queer theory has sought to dismantle normative assumptions of heterosexuality, as well as being applied to studies of race, class and disability. A year ago, I wouldn’t have believed you if you said I would be voluntarily reading bits of philosophy that seem to stick an ‘-ism’ on to the end of everything. It gets better, I promise. Critical theories are called critical for a reason, when they stop to examine the world around us – meaning that they can be applied to life as well as literature.

These academics are often directly linked to activism, especially the generation who fought through the AIDS epidemic, creating a distinct plurality of voices within academic and activist circles. It turns out that the woke leftists do let people disagree with them – they just make them cite their sources.

Equally, the theories are not designed to insinuate that everything we do is out of our control, or that we are destined to always uphold the cisgender patriarchy. It just gives us a starting point when it comes to re-evaluating our choices and our actions, so we can try and see what we really want. Just because gender is socially constructed, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be affirming for people too. Yes Rishi, you can still be a man, we’re not attacking you. These realisations can just make people think about their relationship to gender and sexuality.

“It turns out that the woke leftists do let people disagree with them – they just make them cite their sources.”

This is what education should be all about: giving people the space to think critically. At the hands of the current government, they want to put us back into little pink and blue boxes. To make matters worse, they are also just throwing around vague terms like “gender ideology” so that they can trick voters into believing there is a real problem, while distracting them from real problems.

The words of Sunak and Braverman are more than just words. As we speak, the government is planning to ban trans people from being admitted to NHS hospital wards that correspond with their identities, in spite of the fact there have been no complaints. They have yet to introduce a conversion therapy ban that includes trans people. If they seem to be years away from teaching young people in schools that the gender binary doesn’t have to define them, then it is left to us to make up the difference.


Mountain View

What on earth is a ‘girl desk’?

The writers that I have read are keen to stress that “queer” can move beyond an umbrella term for non-normative sexualities (although can still be vital in that respect, if you feel in between one label and another). It is more than just a noun; it is a verb too. We can “queer” our attitude to life by questioning the assumptions that we make about each other, and ourselves.

It would cost the government nothing to respect someone’s pronouns, use inclusive language or acknowledge that genitals are not what make someone who they are. It is going to cost us everything if we don’t try and raise awareness of the need for queer inclusivity, and campaign to make inclusive attitudes a key part of our education. The good news is that we can start right now, in the books that we read and the approaches that we take that question norms inside and outside of the library.