In Judith Butler's essay "Imitation and Gender Insubordination," she writes of her experience preparing to present at the 1989 Conference on Homosexuality at Yale University:
[...] I found myself telling my friends beforehand that I was off to Yale to be a lesbian, which of course didn't mean that I wasn't one before, but that somehow then, as I spoke in that context, I was one in some more thorough and totalizing way, at least for the time being.
This is a particularly insightful observation as it reflects a rather important aspect of Butler's argument regarding the performativity of gender. For Butler, sexuality itself is an unstable construct. Her confusion over her self-identification here is comical, but also very representative of the nature of gender relations. The statement that she is going to Yale "to be a lesbian" is humorous to be sure, but the idea itself is quite rich for dissection. "To be a lesbian" is to play repeatedly the performative role of the lesbian as prescribed by heteronormative values: "it is through the repeated play of this sexuality that the 'I' is insistently reconstituted as a lesbian 'I'."
By positioning herself socially as a lesbian within the context of the conference, Butler "becomes" a lesbian. This public manifestation of identity is often what forms private identity. In this age of disclosure, the concept of the personal as political can also be extended to that of the personal as public.
This is not to say that Butler had not previously identified as a lesbian or that she had not previously experienced same-sex desire, but rather that the identity of "lesbian" is one she assumes through the performative act of "being" a lesbian. When she does her laundry or washes the dishes, does she remain a lesbian, or does she only become one when she dons the mantle of "lesbian"? One might argue that being a lesbian is an essential characteristic of one's sexuality, but Butler seems to view lesbianism - and all sexuality - as a set of social constructs that are acknowledged and represented, generally unknowingly ("second nature"), through performative acts of gender. Thus, only through certain acts is one defined as a lesbian.
But where does this social construction of the lesbian originate? According to Butler, the argument "...that there might be a specificity to lesbian sexuality has seemed a necessary counterpoint to the claim that lesbian sexuality is just heterosexuality once removed, or that it is derived, or that it doesn't exist." These notions are not necessarily contradictory to her belief in sexuality as a construct. This specific lesbian sexuality that she identifies can exist as a "copy" or "derivative" as long as one acknowledges the notion that all sexuality is essentially a "copy" without an original.