The model of linguistic “performativity,” whose general applicability to the field of gender has been popularized most notably by the work of Judith Butler, has been tremendously influential within transgender studies preciesely because it offers a non- or post-referential epistemological framework that can be useful for promoting transgender social justice agendas. The notion of performativity, which is derived from speech act theory and owes an inetellectual debt to the philosophical/linguistic work of J. L. Austin in How to Do Things With Words, is sometimes confused with the notion of performance, but this is something else entirely. Butler in particular, especially in her early work in Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter, has been criticized in some transgender scholarship and community discourse for suggesting the gender is a “mere” performance, on the model of drag, and therefore somehow not “real.” She is criticized, somewhat misguidedly, for supposedly believing that gender can be changed or rescripted at will, put on or taken off like a costume, according to one’s pleasure or whim. At stake in these critical engagements is the self-understanding of many transgender people, who consider their sense of gendered self not to be subject to their instrumental will, not divestible, not a form of play. Rather, they see their gendered sense of self as ontologically inescapable and inalienable, their specific mode of being.
Speech act theory holds that language is not just, as the structuralists would have it, an abstract system of negative differences; rather, language is always accomplished by and through particular speech acts, the intent of which is communicative. Speech is social. It necessarily involves specific speakers and audiences, and can never be entirely divorced from extralinguistic contexts. A performative is one type of speech act. In contrast to a constative speech act- which involves the transmission of information about a condition or state of affairs, with which its correspondence is demonstrably true or false (e.g. “the apple is red”)- a performative “constates” nothing. It is a form of utterance that does not describe or report, and thus cannot be true or false. It is, or is part of, the doing of the action itself. Examples of performative speech acts would include vowing (“I do.”), marrying (“I now pronounce you man and wife.”), or being bar mitzvahed (“Today I am a man.”) To say that gender is a performative act is to say that it does not need a material referent to be meaningful, is directed at others in an attempt to communicate, is not subject to falsification or verification, and is accomplished by “doing” something rather than “being” something. A woman, performatively speaking, is one who says she is- and who then does what woman means. The biologically sexed body guarantees nothing; it is necessarily there, a ground for the act of speaking, but it has no deterministic relationship to performative gender.”
-Susan Stryker in her introduction to The Transgender Studies Reader, page 10
Relevantly, here is probably the best comic Ellie and I made back when we were making Stupid Babies comics. You will probably have to click it: