Bornstein, Kate. (1994). Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us. New York, NY: Routledge.
This book is a combination memoir, transition diary, and political/artistic manifesto using multiple storytelling strategies. Kate Bornstein begins with Part 1, on style; she posits that fashion and identity are linked, and uses that to explore her fluid gender identity. Part 2, “Sorting Seeds,” explores her medical transition and cultural ideas about gender and sexual orientation. In Part 3, “Claiming Power,” she presents her concept of the gender outlaw: somebody living on the edge, someone who shakes up the status quo, equal parts terrorist, activist, and clown.
Bornstein moves into a direct analysis of gender in Part 4, “A Gender Interrogatory.” She explores privilege, agency, identity, truth-telling, and the role of allies. Part 5, “Creating a Third Space,” describes theater as opportunity for creating and articulating gender identity. This is followed by Bornstein’s original play titled “Hidden, A Gender” in Part 6. Finally Part 7, “The Punchline,” combines Bornstein’s poetry and memoir with found erotica to create a collage of her past and present gender exploration. The 1995 edition includes an afterword where she suggests revisions, answers new questions, and identifies new resources.
We had a spirited discussion about Gender Outlaw through email that we present below:
Zeo: So first things first: Bornstein is speaking in this book to two very different gender navigations – today we might say the difference between being trans and having a nonbinary gender identity, though Bornstein uses the terms transexual and transgendered respectively, which wasn’t exactly standard contemporary usage either (Cristan Williams has a good writeup on some of this here but it doesn’t go into nonbinary/genderqueer identities). I’m trans and binary identified. When I first read this I had a very mixed-gender presentation, but I had by then determined I identified as male and not genderqueer, so my takeaway was more about a physical navigation of gender. I’m curious what your takeaway was, as someone who is nonbinary identified. Did this book play any role in that identity development? Were there things that didn’t map to your experience or identity questions?
Caroline: When I first read Gender Outlaw, I was a baby dyke just starting to navigate questions of gender identity. I had never met a transgender person before, and none of my GLB friends talked about gender identity, other than the butch/femme dynamic. At the time I felt somewhat strange and confused about my gender and secondary sex characteristics; sometimes I was perfectly happy with my body, and other times I wore two sports bras to squash my chest as flat as possible. I didn’t really feel like a girl but I didn’t feel like a boy either. So when I came across Gender Outlaw I was frankly astonished that someone was giving voice to all the secret things I had been thinking about without any guidance to make my thoughts make sense. My gender identity didn’t suddenly become clear by any means, but I felt less alone and more empowered to explore and learn. In this way, I feel this book was very radical at the time and still occupies a special place in my memory/experience. Lots of folks consider this book to be a classic. Do you think this is deserved?
Zeo: I feel like it’s a classic in that it still has value, and I also feel that part of that value is the potential for challenging the things it got wrong. For example, Bornstein’s explanation of male privilege: the trope of trans women retaining elements of male privilege is simply not true – the recent suicide of Essay Anne Vanderbilt speaks to this. Capable women are suspicious and threatening. Capable trans women are scandalous and “chill”-inducing.
I want to expand because this trope is so pervasive and harmful. Bornstein is describing behaviors which are socially beaten into men and out of women, often physically. For example, “be a man” and “be loud and pushy” are usually the same, but when a woman is loud and pushy, it’s because she’s a “bitch”. If she’s a woman of visible ethnicity that gets used to undermine her femininity as well. But if she’s trans, her behavior used as proof that she’s not really a woman. Trans women of color tend to deal with all three of these at once. “Keeping” male privilege: beaten into being loud and strong when living as men, using that voice and strength to survive coming out and transitioning, some trans women then attempt to access community and get pushed back out because of these stereotypes that loud and pushy means vestigial male privilege. When everyone you trust abandons you, when anyone in your life keeps you at arm’s length, you have no feedback loop telling you “hey, don’t do that thing, it’s mean and that’s why that person wouldn’t help you” and you have to lean on known survival behaviors to get your needs met. If you were raised as male, most of those behaviors are likely self-destructive, socially alienating, and self-reinforcing. If you’re a man they at least have social rewards of proving manhood. I hope it’s obvious that proving manhood is what transmisogynists try to do to trans women, and not generally what trans women desire for themselves, although some may pursue that as a survival strategy. This myth exists to deny trans women’s legitimacy.
It’s worth keeping in mind that our contemporary discussions of privilege may be seen the way we’re seeing Bornstein’s comment from twenty years ago. This book is part of a constant discussion and development.
At heart, though, this book is a memoir of a salesperson; it’s Bornstein trying to exert control over her story. Approached that way, it starts to be timeless. As an instruction book – you said manifesto in the introduction, and I think you’re correct, but Bornstein still has some how-to going on – I think it works better as a survey of some common and emerging language and arguments at the time of its publication, and it has some ideas that remain as provocative now as they were then. It provides so much material for someone just beginning to explore gender, and it’s so readable, and that’s still rare – I think that’s part of its lasting value.
Caroline: I really would have liked to see some discussion about the intersections of privilege and marginalization there- how certain aspects of male learned behavior (I’m thinking mostly about the nurturing environment) may impact her future life even after she gave up other aspects of that “privilege”. I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that Bornstein is “trying to exert control over her story.” The way we narrate our lives is all about agency and interpretation, and every narration is unique because it depends so much on memory (which is ephemeral). Perceptions of later life events can alter that memory and how we perceive that past event given new information. Every history is false, in a way- but at the same time, every history is true. Storytelling is powerful. So I feel quite strongly that Bornstein should tell her story however she wants. I also feel that the language she uses can be harmful to others, and that heady mixture of celebrity and charm and wordcraft can be read as This Is What Being Transgender Is For Everyone. I’m a big fan of personal experience narratives- as long as it’s understood that they aren’t universal, and I think this book rides that boundary pretty close sometimes.
Zeo: Yeah, certain narratives can supersede others, and I think that’s especially the case when a narrative is presented as universal. You get at language and harmfulness, and a lot of what dates the book is issues of language. Any items you’d like to look at here?
Caroline: We’ve talked many times about how identity terms are slippery. They change over time, they mean different things to different people. There are well-researched encyclopedias that contradict one another. I identify on the trans* spectrum and yet I feel hopelessly unable to define with any certainty the differences between many gender identity terms. I can barely define my own gender, and it seems to change over time anyhow. So I think the value of the language in this book is that Bornstein is defining herself, and sharing her history, experiences, and understanding of her own gender. I do wonder what this book would be like if Bornstein wrote it today. Would she even write it today? I suppose it would be a completely different book, since as we add more life experiences we look at previous experiences differently. Every story changes over time. I wonder how she interprets earlier experiences and beliefs now? From reading more recent books and blog posts, it seems that she would likely still use problematic language and exoticize/appropriate indigenous cultures, but I wonder how she would tell her transition story. I wonder what she’d put in her bibliography too.
Zeo: Ooh, great question. I felt like the way she told her story had evolved from the writing of the play to the writing of this book – as though writing the play finally freed the thing that she had to write first before anything else could occur. I think a lot of marginalized people who create have this experience, that before all else we must figure out how to tell our own stories.
Caroline: I wish we all had more time for creative works, since I think you’re right that it takes time and patience to explore strategies for storytelling.
Zeo: Getting back to language: I’d call much of the terminology in the book at least somewhat dated and use-at-your-own-risk, although most of it is still often used. For example, she uses “hermaphrodite”, which is a dated term that is generally considered to be used either out of reclamation, ignorance, or as an intended derogatory, and outside of those areas “intersex” is pretty commonly considered the term to use. I’ve followed her a bit over the years and I don’t think her language stuff really got much past this book; see for example her defending the use of tranny as a “loving compromise” term rather than an assault term; in the comments, she’s still talking about trans people as shamans, even though she acknowledged in the afterward to this book that that is a problem. I respect her constant focus about making gender exploration possible and survivable, and I respect and recognize the work that she’s done to get gender minority voices heard – including trans women and people of color – but I recognize that she’s also condoned and incorporated behaviors which make spaces that are supposed to be trans-friendly instead be very hostile to trans women and people of color. I think her approach is that what she gets out of claiming the term as an owned identity (see her followup) is more important to her than whatever she or others might lose related to the term.
Caroline: Ugh, that’s pretty gross. And again, it’s her right to reclaim derogatory language, and I have done the same with other language. But she can’t reclaim slurs for everyone.
Zeo: It gets back to agency as well as how to speak for one’s own self as opposed to for a community, and I just think in this way she’s very, very human. And I don’t think this is about a consistent approach of arguing for a sense of humor and letting hurts slide either. For example, in the book she celebrates The Crying Game for acknowledging vomiting as a reaction to learning someone is trans. This was pretty traumatizing for me to see Fergus’s response legitimized as valid in the movie, and not something I have it in me to celebrate. But on the other hand Bornstein condemned SNL’s character Pat for being the butt of jokes for being an unattractive, simpering nerd, and I read Pat differently: Pat is short and fat and curly-haired and talks funny and is weird and definitely doesn’t look like David Bowie, so Pat looked more like me – and Pat survives! And has a lover! And every time someone tries to provoke Pat into exposure, Pat’s response is basically, haha, I’m not playing by your rules! I think most cis people find gender varying levels of frustrating, and Pat was unusual in that the ‘joke’ was that none of the tools cis people usually use to impose that frustration onto gender minorities worked. But, then, I didn’t watch those sketches with cis people around. So I think this gets us back to that thing we’ve talked about, being alone and finding survival methods in strange places, and reaching out to each other and finding that some of our survival techniques are based on compromising the survival of others. She does say she’s only speaking for herself, but then she turns around and says “we” a whole lot in some particular ways, so I think she is often setting a goal of speaking for herself rather than achieving it.
Caroline: Yes, that confused me too. “The Crying Game” is a VERY challenging movie and I was honestly shocked that Bornstein was so glib about trans panic. I haven’t seen the SNL “Pat” sketches, so I have nothing to add there- but I do like to idea of injecting humor and honesty into gender representations. I think Bornstein’s allowed to like or dislike whatever she wants, but I don’t like that she used her platform to convince folks that trans panic is legitimate.
Zeo: Bornstein talks toward the end of the book about the value of theater which makes itself obsolete, and she follows that with a printing of her play Hidden: A Gender. Do you feel the play is obsolete or has obsolete parts, and if so, do you think the play has played a role (hah) in its own obsolescence?
Caroline: I really appreciate art that is ephemeral and vanishes or changes with each iteration. Theater is particularly interesting in this way because each performance is its very own artifact. But a book can do the same thing because the reader plays a role in the interpretation. Each reader is a unique agent and so the reading experience is unique each time. And the same goes for one reader experiencing a text at different times in their life. Some books have more of a “shelf life” (ha!) than others, though. I think that there are some things about this text that are less… useful?… today than perhaps they were when it was published. But then again, young people are still discovering this book and some of them find it incredibly affirming. Do you think the play would be an important cultural event if it were staged today, or would it be a historical artifact?
Zeo: In a few points in the book Bornstein quotes erotic literature about men forced to crossdress as women. This was literature in which she found a presence and history and possibility long before coming out as trans, and she came out as trans almost thirty years ago. And if you look at the Transgender section of Literotica, for example, the literature hasn’t changed other than gaining some new terminology. So while the book and the play were written for anyone, I think they were written to people who could only find possibility in that literature, and the volume of that literature tells me that that’s a lot of people! Which tells me that it might not be an important cultural event in New York City or Portland, but it might still be important in Albany, whether the one in New York or Oregon.
What is definitely dated or at least awkward is the very direct WE ARE FOURTH WALLING ABOUT GENDER NOW thing. And the play doesn’t really need the Herculine Barbin story. The trope of trans people appropriating intersex experiences as proof of our existence has significantly served to turn intersex people into vehicles of trans politics without actually including intersex politics as part of that effort, other than maybe acknowledgement that intersex genital mutilation is a bad idea. This trope needs to fall into the past.
Caroline: Yep, agreed. And this could be said about any appropriation of another group’s marginalization history to legitimize one’s own. This is not a useful strategy for community building.
Zeo: Bornstein attempts to develop an alternative spiritual approach to Judeo-Christian religions, one that engaged nonbinary experience and expression. In that effort she participates in things like “shaman” appropriation, something she sort of acknowledges in the afterword to the 1995 publishing. But I think she was combining some points that weren’t really that dependent on spirituality with the concept of archetypes, which can play a significant role in building a spirituality. I loved her idea that art around identity allows for the possibility of flexibility in identity, where an identity-based group survives on the inflexibility of identity. But it was frustrating to sift it out from the dismissal of Judeo-Christian religious approaches as irredeemable, while Bornstein found no issue with reinventing the spiritual practices of others.
Caroline: Picking up this book years later, I’m able to see the more troublesome aspects: the problematic language, fetishizing of non-white people, and so forth. Funny, when I first read it, I don’t think I even noticed these things. I was so blown away by the notion of non-binary gender identity that I was unable to analyze or even really notice anything else. This reading, I did note that Bornstein mentioned that cultural exploitation is inevitable and not unique to trans* people, and followed that thought by discussing the modern “freak show” spectacle of the television talk show. I think that Bornstein was taking back the word “freak” and playing with this idea, which I can appreciate. However, her own exploitation of the dusky other was rather more problematic, since this was no radical taking back but instead appropriation or exotification. I do understand that art and spirituality both can often involve appropriation, and this is very personal and part of exploration and growth- but I do wish that Bornstein had framed her discussion of shamanism etc. in a way that acknowledged cultural ownership and cultural uniqueness. As a person with a religious/spiritual identity, how do you feel about these portions of the text?
Zeo: I don’t agree with the idea that Judeo-Christian religions are locked into enforcing gender or sexuality. I get that critical numbers of people have been significantly hurt in the name of religion, and I believe it’s necessary to challenge any system that encourages and endorses systemic harm, but challenge does not always mean get rid of. There’s this idea that in adopting these other spiritual approaches, it’s adopting something better – when in reality it’s often simply adopting a smaller selection of interesting and relevant bits and transforming them to make them personally accessible and in a way that still allows you access to a community of practitioners. When you’re holding up a fantasy of religious practices of indigenous Americans while actual two-spirit people are facing transphobic marginalization because of colonizing activity in the name of Judeo-Christian religions, I don’t think you’re really leaving those religions behind. A lot of trans and gender non-conforming practitioners of Judeo-Christian religions have been working phenomenally hard on making those spaces welcoming to gender minorities for years, and that’s a valid approach too.
Caroline: Important to note that trans* and gender non-conforming folks are part of Judeo-Christian religions, too. Gender minorities are not a monolith, and neither are religious folks.
Zeo: The book is called Gender Outlaw, and Bornstein is framing all sexual and gender minorities as gender outlaws, which has two obvious problems – many sexual and gender minorities are big advocates of the gender binary, and many aren’t, but aren’t interested in being “outlaws”. I understand Ryka Aoki has a piece about this latter point in Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation. In another book, Bornstein refers to a crossdressing friend of hers who crossdresses specifically for the taboo aspect, and who stated that if crossdressing stopped being taboo they’d have to find a new taboo to play with. This speaks to some big rifts in gender minority communities. Any thoughts?
Caroline: I haven’t read Next Generation, but this piques my interest. I have totally been in arguments with friends in the community about the gender binary and outlaw status. I personally love the concept of outlaw, but you’re right, lots of folks don’t want to be an outlaw- and that’s just fine! The trouble is when one side or the other tries to put an identity on others. We’re a community, sure- but we’re not all the same. It’s been a learning curve for me to claim my own identity without labeling others. The anecdote about the crossdresser who engages in crossdressing as a taboo activity is interesting. I applaud them! But I bet some folks are super mad about that. Is it some weird connection to respectability politics or a need for sameness in order to better band together, maybe?
Zeo: Seems like it’s often a sort of inversion of respectability politics, it’s saying that acting like the dominant culture in any way is participating in your own self-destruction. It’s saying we can name a problem or coexist with it, but we can’t do both at the same time.
For example when I was presenting as mixed-gender, many cis people valued my alternative presentation, but that didn’t actually mean wanting the world to be better for me. One friend spoke often about how great it was that I was sticking up for myself and presenting the way I did, and then at one point made an offhand comment about how guys don’t have breasts, and when I said “um, hey!” she responded “I don’t mean you of course, you’re different!” We often like to imagine ourselves as outlaws because we like the idea of resisting a dominant system, not because we want to be outlawed by that system, and so it’s easy to imagine your outlaw companions are outlaws by choice – and we’re back at agency. If your idea of what makes an outlaw requires the social norms that define outlaws not changing, that’s usually just being conservative, maintaining the existing social order.
Contradictions like these form the heart of this book, and we think that speaks to how this book is read best: with others, loved ones and strangers, with discussion and deconstruction and dispute.