This is the second feature in a series that aims to elevate some of the transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals who have played a significant role in the ongoing fight for trans and queer liberation. Head here to read the first feature with CeCe McDonald.
Kate Bornstein is a historic figure in the queer and trans community, whose work as an artist in the service of activism spans many decades. From books like Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us to My Gender Workbook to Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws their work is considered to be the basis for much of the discipline of gender theory as it is known today and for aiding numerous queer and trans people in the process of learning to live as their authentic selves.
A foundational voice to many of the conversations currently surrounding gender and sexuality, her perspective is crucial to a nuanced understanding of the evolution of language when it comes to queerness and trans identity -- as well as identity in general. In this interview with The Huffington Post, she opens up about her experiences as a groundbreaking gender non-binary individual over the decades, her upcoming book and what she hopes their legacy will ultimately be.
Editor's Note: Kate Bornstein uses the pronouns "she/her" and "they/their" interchangeably and, therefore, the interview below does as well.
The Huffington Post: How do you feel about this specific cultural moment that we’re living in? What are your thoughts surrounding the way that trans visibility is playing out in the mainstream?
Kate Bornstein: Trans visibility is not playing out in the mainstream. Transgender visibility is playing out wonderfully, marvelously, amazingly, mind-blowingly – but that’s maybe 20% of all trans people who believe that they’re really men or really women and this is what I have to do in order to achieve authentic identity. There are a whole lot more people who don’t do trans that way, and they’re just as invisible as ever -- the same way they were invisible in the early gay rights movement, the same way they were invisible in early feminist movements. The same people have been invisibilized in every sexuality and gender movement we’ve been able to document, and those are variations on sissy men and butch women, who I would call the most unloved outlaws. But people who tend to blend things, who tend to mix things up – like Miley Cyrus who is wonderful, I just love her. You’ve got her standing up for gender fluidity and redefining it and making it something that’s OK for kids to be. In terms of what is all of this transgender visibility doing, it’s a double edged sword just like everything is. It’s teriffic for people who’ve always known they were a man or a woman but didn’t have the body that matched it, but it’s not so good for people who don’t think that way – it’s actually setting an impossible standard.
The same people have been invisibilized in every sexuality and gender movement we’ve been able to document, and those are variations on sissy men and butch women, who I would call the most unloved outlaws.
You were doing groundbreaking work decades before "transgender" was even a term that most people understood. When you think about your work over the years, who is the audience you've had in mind? Has it been more for the community or the mainstream?
Kate Bornstein: All of these terms have changed over the years. [In the past], there was no such thing as a trans community – there was transgender, which used to be the umbrella term and now "trans" is the umbrella term. Transgender now takes the place of what we used to call transsexual. Transgender people are men and women -- real men, real women -- who’ve transitioned at some point in their lives in terms of gender. But there are lots of other kinds of trans.
When I wrote Gender Outlaw, I was familiar with feminist academia and I thought they would read it and definitely some trannies would read it – and yes, we used the word tranny and I still do – but that was really all I thought. The book hit a raw nerve. For one of the first times there was something saying gender really didn’t depend on your body and gender could be fluid -- and that there were more than two genders. Those were the nerves that it hit. I was trying to be really, really nice in Gender Outlaw -- it was edgy but I didn’t want to push it too far. I felt I’d pulled some punches. And when I wrote The Gender Workbook, that was the book I was going to write where I didn’t pull any punches. That’s pretty much the case, and I wanted it to be for people who really wanted to look at their gender identities consciously. Back then we didn’t talk about gender expression – that wasn’t the term either. So there’s a whole other dimension today that wasn’t available to us back then! Not only can you fiddle with your identity, you can fiddle with your expression of it -- and that's so cool!
Do you feel like your audience has changed and evolved over the years with the narrative?
Yes, pretty much now my audience is anyone who has a gender and wants to do something about it. Back then it was very much academics and specifically transgender people. But what we’re calling cisgender today -- which is a fucked up word, I hate it -- includes a lot of conscious people who are going, “Oh my gosh I’ve got to look at my gender identity! And even though it matched what it said on my birth certificate, if that’s even a measure of anything, I want to refine this. I want to be more conscious of it." That’s the people who are reading gender theory today.
This distinction that you’re drawing between "trans" and "transgender" -- do you feel like there’s a specific cultural moment where that distinction became more important?
Totally. The specific moment when transgender vs trans became important was when TIME magazine said transgender has reached a tipping point. It has – trans has not, unless you consider transgender part of the trans world, which we’re now coming to understand it is – it’s the most respectable part of the trans world and trans community. So of course it would be the first point of contact with mainstream. “They’re men and women just like everybody else!”
Like respectability politics?
Not necessarily -- that’s just the facts. They are simply men and women just like everybody else. They’re not likely scheming late into the night how can I best be respectable. They're going, how can I express myself as the authentic man I know myself to be? For some people that reads as respectability, for others – you know, we have demonized “straight” for a long time in LGBT land. But with with the addition of Q on the LGBT – this is another answer to your question about when did this conversation become so pointed – as soon as we added Q to LGBT, we gave ourselves one hell of a conundrum. Q is one identity that is not L,G, B, or T, so we have Q and LGBT -- everything that isn’t queer is straight. So, LGBT identities are now emerging as “straight” identities. Which isn’t a problem – it’s a lovely thing. Some people really get off on that.There is nobody who is 100% straight, who is 100% queer. There are queers I know who really like to walk through the world kind of straight. But similarly, not everyone who is straight is narrow. Straight just means the more conservative an identity or expression of sexuality or gender. Straight says things like “What I do in my bedroom is none of your damn business!” That’s a good thing to say, but it’s not a queer thing to say. A queer thing to say is “Let’s do it in the road!”
There’s nobody who is 100% straight, nobody who is 100 % queer.
So, I think it’s time now for LGBT to own the fact that it’s pretty much a straight movement. By adding the Q, they’ve kind of admitted that. They’ve said that "OK we’re gonna add another letter because there are people that are family that are not us." And it would be tempting to say that Q is better than straight or that straight is better than queer – that is the temptation that comes with every binary. But I think that what it’s time to do is to knit that wound within LGBT and go – OK, some of us are straight, get over it. It doesn’t mean that we’re heterosexual, it means that we like to live the way a whole lot of people like to live. And by the same token, it’s high time the world starts owning its queer family. The people who go out on the front lines of sexuality and gender and stretch the boundries for all of us. It’s high time we stop demonizing them, especially within the LGBT community.
I’m actually working on a new book that addresses a lot of this.
Oh! Is there a title for that yet?
It’s called Trans Just For The Fun Of It – it’s either a comma or an exclamation point after “Trans,” I’m not sure. A lot of it has to do with owning the queer and the straight within all of us – we’ve shown that gender as a binary can be busted up. And we’re now reaping the rewards of busting it up – there is no small reason why Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have basically outlawed postmodern gender theory. A lot of people think the Pope is against transgender – he’s not. He’s against postmodern gender theory specifically because it would break down the natural order of men and women. And he’s right! That’s exactly what it’s doing. But now we have to take responsibility for, OK wait a minute. If gender is a binary and that binary is false, might other binaries be as false and we go – oh what about transgender and cisgender as a binary? What about queer and straight as a binary? OK, how about this one, what about democratic and republican as a binary? We are, as a socially progressive people, becoming more compassionate. And in order to articulate that compassion, it becomes necessary to break down what was before a monotholic idea into its more component parts. We’ve done this – it’s obvious in the LGBTQIA etc movement, it started out as the Gay Rights movement. And then lesbians demanded recognition and it became the GL or LG. And then bisexuals demanded and it became LGB. And then after a long, long fight of adding the T – which really fucked everything up because before that it was all about sexuality – T rightly made it about sexuality and gender because the two are separate but overlapping spheres of regulation. Gender and sexuality have a whole lot to do with each other and we belong in a civil rights movement together.
We are, as a socially progressive people, becoming more compassionate. And in order to articulate that compassion, it becomes necessary to break down what was before a monotholic idea into its more component parts.
So are you proposing some kind of intervention into language for how we talk about these ways of being in the world?
Yeah, but what I say doesn’t matter. It’s going to be what falls comfortably on the minds of people who have access to media. It’s not going to be ultimately up to me. I can point out – and I am as much as I can – the contradictions in language that exist. As to how it’s gonna fall out, I don’t know. But it will, because we can’t keep on adding letters ad infinitum.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I’d like people to think and remember me as a fool. That’s what I’ve always aimed to be -- I’ve always thought that if I ever got into politics my favorite job would be court jester. Seriously! People call me an activist -- do I want to be remembered as an activist lets say? No! I’ve never been a successful activist. I’ve only been an artist in service to activism. And that’s how I’d like to be remembered. That would be cool.
Looking back now, I’m glad I wrote Gender Outlaw, glad I wrote The Gender Workbook -- but I think I’m most proud of Hello Cruel World, which broadened for me the field of who needs more representation, who has been so fucking marginalized – the title says it all! It’s teens, freaks and other outlaws. And this gets back to what I was saying about sissy men and butch women. They’re the ones at most danger for sexuality and gender -- or those perceived as sissy men and butch women. I like that there’s now a foot in the door and these teens freaks and other outlaws, some of them, are now talking about making themselves a life worth living. And they’re not thinking anymore -- there’s a bunch of people who used to think “I’m a terrible person for changing my gender” or “I’m a terrible person because I’m fucking same-sex people” and people are now understanding that, no, trans is not mean to anybody. Queering up your sexuality isn’t mean to anybody. It’s different and I’m glad that I’ve put a foot in that door so that it’s not slammed so much on people anymore.
Check Huffington Post Gay Voices regularly for further conversations with other significant and historic trans and gender-nonconforming figures. Missed last week's interview with CeCe McDonald? Head here.