Gender Outlaws by Mandy van Deven
In the 15 years since Kate Bornstein’s groundbreaking
Not only has it begun to see the inclusion of trans and genderqueer people in popular films and television series, but their experiences and needs are also being addressed in academic discourse and on legislative agendas.
British Columbia Member of Parliament Bill Siskay is working to include the protection of trans people in Canada’s Human Rights Act and Criminal Code, and the U.S. State Department recently eased its requirements for altering genderidentification on U.S. passports, no longer mandating gender-affirming surgery prior to a change in gender status.
Given the increasing visibility of this subject, it seemed like perfect timing for an update to Gender Outlaw. And so Bornstein teamed up with fellow author and performance artist S. Bear Bergman to compile an anthology of new transgender voices in the newly released Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, published by Seal Press.
The collection of personal stories and comic drawings is an exploration of trans activism, as well as a call to action. In Gender Outlaws, Bergman and Bornstein have compiled an accessible resource that captures the many ways trans people are challenging the status quo with creativity, intellect, sincerity.
HERIZONS: Your book Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation is an outgrowth of a similarly titled book authored by Kate Bornstein in 1995. How do you view this version in relation to the original?
S. BEAR BERGMAN The original Gender Outlaws was really the first book that talked in ways anyone could grasp about what a big mess culturally constructed and enforced gender is—and how it’s possible to be a dissident. That idea has been growing, becoming more and more accessible and visible, and it has influenced people’s lives, relationships and genders in a very real way. I don’t think Kate would credit her work this way, but I know it’s true.
HERIZONS: In the book’s introduction, Bornstein talks about these essays reflecting a “cultural version of epigenetics.” Can you explain the meaning of that idea?
KATE BORNSTEIN: Epigenetic changes occur by reason of a major disaster: pestilence, war, famine and death. It takes one or more of the four horse-riders of the Apocalypse to cause a species or a culture to undergo a verifiably major evolutionary shift. For us, it was AIDS in the ’80s that pretty much decimated our gay male and drag cultures. Young trans women, trans men and genderqueer trans things, as yet undefined have risen from those ashes.
Over the last 20 years, the cultural face of transgender has shifted from middle-aged man in a dress trying to be a real woman, to hot young female-to-male folks who are defining their male gender as they go along. Two primary points of reference in this shift have been feminist theory and postmodern theory. Then we ended up with queer theory—which itself is rapidly being outstripped by genderqueer theory. Oh, what a ride it’s been! And in this book our authors represent a surprisingly large percentage of this newly emerging generation of gendernauts.
HERIZONS: In a couple of places, being a gender outlaw is discussed as a position of enlightenment. Do you see the destruction of the gender binary as a sort of evolutionary path to liberation?
KATE BORNSTEIN: Yes, primarily as a template for the deconstruction of other culturally enforced, oppressive binaries. Binaries are useful to the same degree that binary computer code is useful to programming: garbage in, garbage out. But the value of breaking the gender binary will be to usewhat we’ve learned to help break down the false binaries masking hierarchal vectors of oppression—namely age, race, class, religion, looks, ability, language, citizenship, family and reproductive status and sexuality. We did something really smart with gender and we did it while having a whole lot of fun.Now it’s our job to help do that with all those other isms.
S. BEAR BERGMAN: I find myself a little resistant to this question because I’m afraid it contains a continuum in which people who feel comfortable within the binary are somehow less enlightened. And I don’t think that’s true. But I do think enforcing the binary is less enlightened, and most of the institutions and ideologies that are served by it aren’t things I support.
Binaries are fantastic for quickly categorizing people and things, for separating people from their true natures, making outliers feel disenfranchised, creating ideal conditions for privilege to thrive unchecked and supporting the spread of capitalism. Best ally ever. Super-great.
HERIZONS: Are we still in the defining stage, which is to say the undefining stage, of a gender binary-less existence and activism?
KATE BORNSTEIN: A teeny-tiny percentage of people on the planet are talking about binary-less gender existence. An even smaller number than that are doing activism in the name of binary-less gender. Gender theory, art, practice and politics beyond the binary are cracks in the door, moonbeams through a prison-cell window, a couple of leaks in the dike. The next generation of gender outlaws has accomplished the cultural equivalent of splitting the atom, and no one in major media is paying attention to that part … not even on The Rachel Maddow Show.
HERIZONS: What can feminism learn from trans politics?
S. BEAR BERGMAN: That feels like a super-complex question. I wish that trans politics and feminism could go away on one of those Outward Bound-style trips together, you know, where you have to rely on your teammates or face the elements alone. I mean, we’re there in real life, but I don’t think we notice it.We need the microcosm experience because the wilderness of a culture that privileges gender normativity, maleness, heterosexuality, Christianity, middle class-ness and so on is already starving us and freezing our extremities off. And we are feeling the pain.We just don’t have the tools yet, I fear.
HERIZONS: Do you think the Internet aids trans and gender nonconforming people’s ability to discover and settle in to their identities?
S. BEAR BERGMAN: A lot of trans-related information—even medical information—is still anecdotal. Much of the research that’s at all useful is qualitative, not quantitative.
Trans people have more and better opportunities than ever before to try things out, seek help, get support, buy things privately, read things privately. I also think that the Internet has normalized so many more things in its wild, woolly way of having a place for everything. So many things feel like they have come out of the closet, if you will, as people get peer support, join Facebook groups and make themselves visible and known. It’s truly amazing.
KATE BORNSTEIN: I think it comes down to this: in cyberspace, we’re not tied down to any identity, desire or power that may be based in any number of cultural factors triggered by our physical bodies. In cyberspace, we are disembodied and that’s a big freedom. To that, add the possibility of anonymity. Anything we say or ask isn’t going to come back to our wives, or our husbands, or the kids, or our bosses or the bully down the block. We get to ignore all the taboos and explore our lives’ most fun mysteries: our sexualities and our gender expressions.
HERIZONS: “Tranny” is a hotly contested word that reflects a lot of trans people’s struggles, and it is generously peppered throughout this book in a seemingly intentional way. Why is language, especially the policing
of it, a common place where struggles of privilege get played out?
KATE BORNSTEIN: I’m a bad one to answer this because I’ve written extensively (and crankily) on the subject. A whole lot of people disagree with my using the word tranny. And these folks are even angrier about FTMs using the word tranny. Even GLAAD [Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation] got involved to protect the “poor, helpless trans community” from those who would dare use the word.
Horse pucky! Any objections to the use of the word tranny are based in classism and anti-sex sentimentality. And that’s all I’ve got to say on the subject.
S. BEAR BERGMAN: This is a really hard one for me. I’m clear about the following things: One, “tranny” is a complex and loaded word, and no one should ever call anyone else a tranny without that person’s agreement. Two, we did not police people’s language in the book. If they wanted to use that word, fine. If not, also fine. We likewise respected every other decision people made about transspecific language. Some people felt super-keen about using a space, for example, between trans and man/woman, to make clear that trans was a modifier, not a whole separate sex.We worked against standardizing.
Personally, I’ve gone through so many iterations on this, and every new argument I hear sways me again, because they’re all so heartfelt and serious. I think there are some good things about the word, to be honest. However, I’ve all but stopped using the word tranny myself, not because of the political arguments, but because I see that it hurts people. I don’t want to prioritize being right over being kind. In some respects, I wish I could rewrite parts of my intro with Kate now, ever how many months later, but that ship has sailed.
HERIZONS: The places of trans intersection with religion aren’t commonly explored, yet Zev Al-Walid beautifully discusses how his transition affected his identity as a Muslim in the contribution “Pilgrimage.” Was this a piece you specifically sought out?
S. BEAR BERGMAN: We tried to include a lot of intersections. Gender is so much about context that those intersections have to be made explicit in order for work to be taken seriously. And we were lucky to have several pieces that talk about religion or spirituality. We loved Zev’s piece because it is so lyrical and also so hopeful.
KATE BORNSTEIN: Religions depend for their power upon most everything binary because religion is most usually expressed as a system of morals based in an ironclad concept of good and evil.We are the evil. Look—one of the signs of the Apocalypse is gonna be that the walls come tumbling down.
And the people who fuck with gender are tearing down the walls. We’re crossing the borders. We’re the illegal aliens that the Tea Party, the Christian right and any fundamentalist religion should be worrying about. And whenever we fuck with gender in any way, we break the binary visibly.
And that’s sure to break the rules in most every religion. We get branded evil, and growing up with that sort of belief in ourselves makes it important to include introspection about the places where gender and religion intersect.
HERIZONS: As is the case with most social and cultural movements, the newest incarnation of trans activism faces many of the same issues transand gender nonconforming folks have always faced. How do you respond to people who see this as stagnation?
S. BEAR BERGMAN: We’re ripshit pissed right now! We have organizations to address our issues now and some legal standing to sue the people who perpetrate crimes against us. The battlegrounds may be the same, but increasingly we’re showing up much better prepared than our opponents.
KATE BORNSTEIN: Shifts in subculture move in waves through the meta-culture. It doesn’t happen all at once.The fact is, there are more and more colleges, houses of worship and public buildings that gender-neutral bathrooms. There are more and more doctors who are sensitive to trans people’s needs and care. It’s just moving slowly, that’s all. And in places where basic issues like bathrooms and health care are serious, there is some serious trans activism facing that down. No, trans activism is not stagnating.