PRINT April 1995


Kate Bornstein's Gender Outlaw

WHEN ROUTLEDGE ASKED me to provide a comment for the back cover of Gender Outlaw they neglected to tell me who the other commentators were. I stupidly assumed that they saw the book as cultural theory and so provided them with a happy but suitably high-theoretical quote. What did I know? My quote, in all its academic stuffiness, would have looked weird indeed next to Annie Sprinkle’s, which they did use and which, thank Ghu, used “orgasm” twice in the same paragraph.

Why was I so happy? Merely because we are privileged to witness a rare watershed, the first mainstream book by a transgendered person to tackle issues of performance, gender, and sexuality from a specifically transgendered positionality. As such, it has the potential to explode many of the tired stereotypes of transgender. Its promise is its ability to reach beyond preaching to the already converted and to the gender bigots who will never be converted. Kate Bornstein is writing about “the rest of us”—those who do not accept the facticity of naturalized gender as part of nature, and who are ready to question at the root the way identity is formed in post-Enlightenment Western culture. This project begins perhaps with gender as the common coin of the body’s cultural intelligibility, but eventually must extend that inquiry to every facet of subject construction. Thus Bornstein’s book is the barest tip of the iceberg. Much of the iceberg is made up of a growing and increasingly visible number of transgendered authors, students, and scholars who, in contravention to the outworn image of transsexuals as people overcome with mindless longing to possess the “body” of the “opposite sex,” have gone out to play in traffic—the traffic in the boundaries of gender, sexuality, and desire, in the unlicensed borderlands of personal identity. Their play reveals the radical artifice of gender, and by their visibility they foreground the busy and far-from-empty territory between the minuscule poles of gender and sexuality that our culture determinedly labels “man” and “woman.” This forbidden zone, in all its forms, has been subjected to the most massively effective magic our civilization knows: the magic of bigotry, of organized religion, of ignorance and fear—which, like the magic of racism, is strong enough to make forbidden territory literally disappear. Except, of course, to those who live within it.

Bornstein’s approach is personal and idiosyncratic. She writes her life in its rich ambiguity and contradiction, providing photographs of her bar mitzvah when she was a nice Jewish boy in New York, expressing her early doubts about her gender identity and later her fears and hard questions. She emerges from this frank and complex account as a cyborg for our time—an assemblage of lives, remorselessly reflexive, critically aware of social performance and self-performance, prepared to strike their sets and move on to new territory whenever appropriate. Hers is the nonlinear, mobile, and situated subjectivity that Gregory Ulmer implies as the product of the project of Chorography, where traditional method collides with hypertext and explodes into new configurations. “Speaking, my accent still echoes this chameleon quality—you can hear in me traces of New Jersey, New York, Toronto, Alabama, California, Philadelphia, and London by way of Saskatoon.” Likewise with the cultural and conceptual loci that have written themselves into her body and that speak through her and upon her in their rich and terrible diversity. It is a journey that evinces in Bornstein a gentle humor and relatively quiet reflection—that is, for a raging performance artist.

As part of her work, Bornstein catalogues the arsenal of possible weapons in what she considers (perhaps, and it’s a complex perhaps) to be the war to end all gender. She dismisses the once-radical use of androgyny as a tool in this war as no more than a reification of binarism: “Androgyny assumes that there’s male stuff on one side of a spectrum, and female stuff on another . . . and somewhere in the middle of this straight line, there’s an ideal blend of ‘male’ and ‘female.’ However, by saying there’s a ‘middle,’ androgyny really keeps the opposites in place. . . . Androgyny could be seen as a trope of the bipolar gender system, as it further establishes the idea of two-and-only-two-genders.” She identifies the pervasive misunderstanding of the nature of the “war” between the “sexes” and reframes it as the class struggle that better explains its peculiar nature: “Gender struggles have historically failed to reach their goals, whereas class conflicts have historically had some degree of success. . . . It’s time to call the persistent clash of genders what it really is: a class conflict within a dangerously invisible and pervasive cult-like class system. Gender is indeed a group, a club, a church—but it operates as a class system, pervasively, throughout the culture.” From this understanding of transsexuals as an oppressed minority and gender as veiled class, it is a simple transition to the logical next step: “The dynamic of transsexualism today is the dynamic of an oppressed people faced with no alternative to forced assimilation into a culture that would rather see them dead. The response to this oppression is the rise of individual transsexuals who resist this. The successful methods by which the resistance will occur is unpredictable, even to the gender rebels themselves.” From this declaration it is merely a short step to the necessary outcome of such a progressus: for transsexuals to identify themselves as a class within the ongoing discourses of class and race, and to act as such, in solidarity and common purpose.

Bornstein presents a possible plan for producing the circumstances in which such a class might emerge. The first step is perhaps the most frightening: coming out not to the public, but privately to one’s own kind, which for transsexuals is infinitely more threatening. The next is to overcome the pervasive imperative to public silence: “Transsexuals presenting themselves for therapy in this culture are channeled through a system which labels them as having a disease for which the therapy is to lie, hide, or otherwise remain silent.” To hide, parenthetically, from each other—since gender-identity clinics routinely discourage transsexuals from meeting each other and encourage them to disappear into the “normal” population as quickly as possible. To pave the way for the breaking of public silence, it is necessary to create space for a specifically transgendered positionality within a mesh of discourses that afford little if any room. Transsexual identity is, almost by definition, that which is spoken by others; Bornstein points out what all transsexuals know, that “virtually all the books about gender and transsexuality to date have been written by non-transsexuals who, no matter how well-intentioned, are each trying to figure out how to make us fit into their world view.”

For this critic, the greatest hope for transforming the battleground of gender, as Bornstein knows and shows, is conscious, situated performance. The theater within which this performance is deployed is the body, and while there may be local observers, the intended audience is culture itself. Bornstein is acutely aware of this, and she has stakes in how that knowledge is deployed. She sees the purpose of the transgendered performance as disruption of the smooth and tightly knit surface of identity discourse, thereby creating an opening for transformation. She does not hesitate to engage with performance in all its forms, including the volatile problem of the complex interplay between gender and power. In her work one of the most useful counterpoises to traditional analyses of power is S/M; and she locates the discourses of transgender and S/M neatly within a larger performative framework, observing that “transgender is simply identity more consciously performed on the infrequently used playing field of gender, [while] S/M is simply a relationship more consciously performed within the forbidden arena of power.” In fine, she maps performance onto an episteme not unlike that of quantum mechanics: power and gender, identity and relationship, are aspects of the same inexpungible pleroma, alternately real and virtual responses to social attractors, and manifesting only in specific representational frames in engagement with specific observers. Those who have followed the thread of S/M discourse as it has unraveled through the years may find this recuperation within a larger discussion of power relationships a breath of fresh air after such ’70s classics as the embarrassing Against Sadomasochism.

Pulling those threads in two hundred pages is a tall order, but Bornstein makes admirable headway. With its gentle humor, invocation of the performative, and gnarly confrontation of difficult and dangerous issues in a mainstream venue, Gender Outlaw is the first of its kind; but, as the burgeoning numbers of transgendereds who are in the process of finding their own clear and strong voices know with increasing assurance, certainly not the last.