So much has changed — in Kate Bornstein’s world as well as everyone else’s — since the 1994 release of Gender Outlaw, her book exploring the wilderness of gender theory that served as many people’s first point of contact with transgender issues, or even their first exposure to the existence of transgender people altogether.
In a freshly revised edition, Bornstein (now 68, and just as playful and outspoken as ever) has broadened her view of gender to incorporate many other perspectives, inviting readers to unpack and explore their own elaborately-constructed identities, substituting humor and firsthand experience for anything resembling judgment. Just as anywhere else, the world of gender theory turns out to be a place where words can be extremely powerful. In the following interview, Bornstein dives headlong into terms many people are still trying to wrap their heads around, like “non-binary” and “genderqueer.” And really, why does LGBTQ need that Q so badly?
And then there’s the challenge of finding a better title for the Chinese edition of Gender Outlaw than the unfortunate direct translation, Sex Criminal — but to see how that one played out, you’ll have to read the book.
SIGNATURE: Being LGBTQ tends to thrust someone into a role as an educator whether or not they like it, or are prepared for it. How has your comfort with this role changed over the years?
KATE BORNSTEIN: I was one of the very few people talking about trans issues who had the privilege of being published. This was twenty-five years ago, it was basically me and Les Feinberg, otherwise there were scholars talking about academic books. Les and I were the first two trans people to really hit the market, and was I comfortable with it? As long as I could joke about it, yeah. I don’t like anger. I don’t like being angry, I don’t like people being angry at me. So as long as I can write with a laugh I’m happy with it, so it hasn’t bothered me.
Over the years I wrote two books about gender specifically: there was Gender Outlaw and then My Gender Workbook, both of which have now been revised. Then I edited an anthology with S. Bear Bergman called Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation. But in between there, around 2001, I basically stopped my education from the point of view of LGBTQ issues, and focused on suicide prevention with a book from Seven Stories Press called Hello Cruel World. And that remained my focus. But now that I’m an old fart, what’s my role? I don’t have anything really new to say — what I have is a great way to contextualize stuff.
This revision was a result of so many people having said so many smart things about gender in the world since then. My first edition of Gender Outlaw laid out a binary of its own — it said non-binary gender is good, binary gender is bad. I still think gender is problematic, period. However, for all those people for whom “I’m a woman/I’m a man” is important, and eases their suffering, great!
Unfortunately, I hadn’t allowed for that. I was one of the very few people saying “No, I’m neither/nor!” I needed to say that very loudly — and I think I said that at the expense of other people. This edition, I’m very proud to say, welcomes and validates that expression of gender, if that’s what people want. I still understand myself to be non-binary — not man, not woman — and I make that clear in the book, but there’s room for all kinds of expressions of gender. I just didn’t think so twenty-five years ago, I was all full of myself.
SIG: Gender Outlaw provides the reader with many templates for breaking down their traditional thought on gender and sexuality. It’s sort of like deprogramming, but without the goal of reprogramming them toward a specific purpose. In that sense, the book isn’t really for any particular kind of person. How do you think the audience for it has changed since you first wrote it?
KB: When I first wrote it, I imagined a few transgender people and maybe a few academics would read it, but it got much wider coverage than that. I was foolish enough to put my email address in the first edition…and I got marriage proposals!
It’s not about just gender — the whole idea of a binary itself is a construct. Black and white, rich and poor: these are constructs. They enable us to initially parse a subject. But then to cling to them and try to enforce them? Not so good. And the idea that things have different meanings depending on your point of view, the context you’re looking at them in — that’s now been taught in schools for over thirty years.
Sociologists, gender theorists, academics like Judith Butler and Judith Halberstam, and people whose name wasn’t Judith — they all really exploded this notion that you’ve got to be one thing or another. The people who first studied that thirty years ago are now coming into positions of cultural authority, power, expertise, to the point where a couple years ago, there was a survey of a thousand millennials — in this country only, covering the full spectrum of geography, race, class, etc. — and 60% of respondents understood gender to be a spectrum. That’s fucking cool! So, the audience has definitely changed.
Not to mention, I was on reality fucking TV with Caitlyn Jenner. So those readers are getting interested in gender as well. Especially now that He Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken is President-elect, and we’ve entered a new chapter of America with a lot of people pointing at trans bathroom issues as a factor that pushed politics over a tipping point into populism, nationalism, almost everyone is looking more deeply into the subject.
SIG: Due to the political climate, it seems a young LGBTQ person will find themselves just as uncomfortably visible, and under just as much pressure as before, if not moreso. The discussion around their gender or sexuality is extremely politicized. Do these young people really have any better chance now than they did twenty years ago?
KB: I grew up in the fifties, honey! We couldn’t mention it. Could not. It took me until I was thirty or so to start talking about it, and now kids are coming out when they’re five — which was the age I first understood myself to be gender nonconforming. There wasn’t even a word for that, or even for non-binary gender back then. But yes: it’s three steps forward, two steps back. That’s the way of the world, even in LGBTQ politics.
Here’s the thing about this election to keep in mind: this is what we’ve been practicing our activism for. We’re good at this! Is it going to be hard? Yes. Is it going to be painful? I’m so, so, so sorry, but yes: it’s going to be hard and painful. People will die. They’ll even die at their own hands, and that makes me very angry. What we need to remember is to do whatever it takes to forge coalitions with other marginalized groups to resist the bullies, and to avoid hatred ourselves. We cannot hate.
As long as we keep all this in mind, of course we’re going to keep moving forward. It’s not going to be as easy as it was ten years ago — it won’t be as easy as it was twenty years ago, of course it won’t be. But will it be easier than it was thirty years ago? Fuck yes!
SIG: Working in the field of gender means constant re-examination and learning from others. What’s the most recent thing you learned from someone else that really challenged you?
KB: A year ago and a month ago — to the day, actually — I got on a bus with Caitlyn Jenner and six transwomen. All my public life as a trans person, transwomen have been both my Achilles heel and my arch-enemies. I’ve been denounced over and over again. With some good reason! And what I found so challenging on the bus is that these were lovely women — they were women. And I thought, alright, their truth of gender is valid. It’s as valid as my truth of gender, even though we have different truths.
This is almost paradoxical. I still maintain my truth, which is that gender is a free-for-all and a playground. The big challenge for me was to welcome into my heart — and I learned this from Jennifer Finney Boylan more than anyone else — that gender can be seen in more ways than mine. I was doing my own version of “my way or the highway.” Oof, I’m so glad I had the chance to rewrite this book, and avoid that pitfall.
SIG: One hears so much talk about the T splintering off from LGBTQ, but in this book you write: “The way I see it now, the gay and lesbian community is as much oppressed for gender transgressions as for sexual distinction.” Surely that is what still unites us, even though various people will experience this in different ways, to different degrees?
KB: Interestingly, that line is completely unchanged. I read it and thought “Yep, that hasn’t changed a bit.” Because it’s a gender imperative. Heterosexuality is an imperative of gender. You can’t be a real man and love men, you can’t be a real woman and love women. Not in the mainstream world. That’s changing, but now look at all the pushback we’re getting from that.
LGBT — that’s an uncomfortable alliance. As much for the B as it is for the T, because bisexuality is still seen as “just a phase.” Fuck that, it’s not just a phase. What we still haven’t paid attention to is asexuality, and that’s a real kicker. That’s coming up next on the next march of progress.
But what I think is the most problematic for LGBTQ is the Q. If we have LGBT, we have to add a Q for queer. “Queer” is a de facto part of what binary? If “queer” is half of a binary, what’s the other half? Can you tell me?
KB: Sure, or straight, yes. Queer and straight. Normal and abnormal. So what happened to LGBT that it had to add a Q? LGBT has finally become what they’ve been saying all along, what privileged LGBT people with the means to guide its politics have been saying since 1969: “We’re just like you.” And now, by specifically allowing for the Q, they’re saying: “Hey, we’re straight, just like you.”
Because more often now, “straight” does not just mean “not homosexual.” It is the right wing, the conservative wing of sexuality and gender, whereas “queer” is the left wing of sexuality and gender. The right wing of sexuality and gender says: “Hey, I’m not going to tell you what’s between my legs, and you have no business asking. And I’m not going to tell you what goes on in my bedroom, I deserve that privacy.” Every one of us has a degree of that — there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s valid and true, and that’s what LGBT stands for.
Q, on the other hand, says: “Hey, I just had my surgery, wanna see?” or “Let’s do it in the fuckin’ road!” Both points of view are valid, and that’s the uneasy alliance: Q, which is by its very nature unpredictable, is allying with LGBT, which by its very nature is predictable. Men loving men, women loving women, men and women loving men and women, men and women who have transitioned out of another gender, that’s all very predictable! But with Q? Anything fucking goes. And all of us have some degree of queer, and some degree of straight.
My personal degree of straight is my gender expression. I don’t look “queer” to people — I look like a delightfully feisty little old lady. I love walking through the world like that. I’ve always loved walking through the word looking cis. That’s been my great joy. My gender expression is straight. My gender identity is queer, non-binary.
The beauty of adding the Q to LGBT is we’re finally going to welcome unpredictability to the politics of sexuality and gender.
SIG: What you’re describing is very exciting, particularly to curious people who can appreciate all this potential for self-expression. However, it still contains so many stumbling blocks for those who consider themselves to be just…”regular” people.
KB: [Laughs] I know what you mean, but isn’t it weird that we have to fight for words in terms of describing that?
SIG: So is non-binary gender a concept you think the general public can ever be led to embrace, or will it always be considered “elsewhere”?
KB: This is in flux, and of course it will be embraced. The march of time has shown itself worldwide to be toward more love, more inclusion, more cooperation. That’s just what happens. With setbacks like our last election, and Brexit, and the unrest in Europe. But surely, yes. Look at what’s going on with transgender, ever since TIME came out in May of 2014 and said “We’ve reached a tipping point.” A trans woman of color on the fucking cover of TIME! And Laverne Cox — my god, what a wondrous moment for her and all of us. That redefined transgender.
When I was first writing about it in Gender Outlaw, transgender was an umbrella term, totally and completely. This is another big change. There were transsexuals, transvestites, street fairies, there were drag queens, there were drag kings, there were butch women and sissy men, and they all banded together under “transgender.”
Nowadays, transgender is defined by and large in the mainstream world — the “regular” world, as you phrased it — as men or women who have transitioned out of another gender. They’re men and women, and they’ve transitioned. That’s fine! That’s a valid identity, and an important identity to acknowledge in our world. Everyone else I mentioned — drag queens, drag kings, dandies, transvestites, cross-dressers etc. — they really fall under that Q.
Remember, we could laugh and giggle about transsexuals up until basically 2014 — we were laughing, and asking people what their genitals were like, and all that. Now we can’t, and what’s replaced transsexual as an umbrella term is “trans” — I like that, it’s fine. “Non-binary” and “genderqueer” are the straight and queer versions of someone’s who’s messing around with not being a man or a woman. And now, non-binary and genderqueer have replaced transsexual as who it seems safe to laugh at. You can laugh at Miley Cyrus, bless her fucking heart. You know? You can laugh at Jaden Smith for wearing a dress. That’s not transgender as we know it now, but it’s still some sort of trans! And this is actually a big change in the world.
So I think the next huge change in terms of sexuality and gender in terms of welcoming unpredictability is the embracing of non-binary. Remember, non-binary is a straight identity. People who appear to be cisgender — that is, they were assigned a gender at birth and they look like the gender they were assigned — are now identifying as non-binary, and others are refusing to acknowledge that they are. What they’re not, maybe, is genderqueer.
Queer, and straight. Faggot, gay man. Dyke, lesbian. Pansexual, bisexual. Tranny, transgender. Genderqueer, nonbinary. As soon as we can start welcoming the unpredictability, that’s going to change everything.
SIG: On that note, let’s talk pronouns. Adjusting one’s language on a person-by-person basis can be another difficult stumbling block for people. What do you want everyone to keep in mind as they begin traversing these waters?
KB: People on both sides and all sides of the pronoun struggle — and it is a struggle — need to keep patience and compassion in mind. When I first came out, I was furious if people referred to me as “he.” Furious! My mother, my brother…I went off on my brother, and we didn’t speak for seven years. That’s not good.
How long did it take the person who’s coming out to come to terms with their understanding of themselves and their gender? We need to give at least that long to those who’ve known us and are coming to terms with our change. The fact is, we have all been raised with defining characteristics of what’s a man and what’s a woman. What’s male, what’s female. When we look at someone who has a square jaw and large hands, we start thinking male right away. That’s conditioning. That’s habit. It is not thoughtfulness, it’s not compassion, it’s just habit, and it’s a very hard one to break.
So, someone slips with our pronoun? We smile and say no. No, no no. And when someone asks what our pronoun is, they’re really asking for more than just that. They’re asking “What the fuck are you?” We have to remember that our expression may not be telling them everything about ourselves. If they’re asking, it obviously isn’t! We’ve got to accept that, and give the person the benefit of the doubt, and if they slip, just say: “Oh baby, no. I’m certainly not he. You can call me they, you can call me she, that’s fine.”
I know there are times when someone will call a non-binary person something like “she,” and they’ll get very angry: “No no no, I’m they. I’m nonbinary!” Well, you look like a woman, so come on. Give the person the benefit of the doubt. You can simply say “I know I look like that, but actually I’m non-binary, and I prefer you to think of me as neither male nor female. This is just how I enjoy expressing myself.”
Take the time. Education is not pedantic. Education must come with love. Is it our responsibility to educate people? Yes. I know the big deal is to say “Oh no, it’s not my responsibility to educate people.” Yes. It. Is.
Anyway, that’s what I think about it. [Laughs.]
SIG: Even as a gay man, I find that nearly everything I do now would have been unthinkable to me at some point in the past. Are you still surprising yourself?
KB: Oh yeah. Where I’ve been surprising myself is becoming a lot more welcoming of myself as boy. Not man — man is all tied up with misogyny, sexism, macho. That’s how it rings to me. I know there are feminist men, I know there are effeminate men, I know there are sissy men, but when I hear man applied to me, I think: nope.
But boy? Oh, sure! I love hanging out with boys. I feel comfortable with boys and girls of all kinds of biological components — boy and girl are just the playful identities of man and woman. I’ve always said “I’m not man, not woman,” but I am boy and girl. And what surprises me is how much I’ve been enjoying the boy part of how I dress — by and large, it’s just like how I dressed back in the ’60s. Skinny bellbottoms, loose fucking tops, headband, beads.
SIG: One last question: what are you working on now?
KB: I’m working on a new book, and the title is my best one yet. It’s called Trans: Just For The Fun Of It. And I’m examining transgender and gender itself, and sexuality, by means of a Venn diagram. “Postmodern Theory” is one circle. “Zen” is another circle. “Quantum Mechanics” is the third — and all of them overlap at “Slapstick.”