"I know I'm not a man . . . and I've come to the conclusion that I'm probably not a woman, either. . . . . The trouble is, we're living in a world that insists we be one or the other." With these words, Kate Bornstein ushers readers on a funny, fearless, and wonderfully scenic journey across the terrains of gender and identity. On one level, Gender Outlaw details Bornstein's transformation from heterosexual male to lesbian woman, from a one-time IBM salesperson to a playwright and performance artist. But this particular coming-of-age story is also a provocative investigation into our notions of male and female, from a self-described nonbinary transfeminine diesel femme dyke who never stops questioning our cultural assumptions. Gender Outlaw was decades ahead of its time when it was first published in 1994. Now, some twenty-odd years later, this book stands as both a classic and a still-revolutionary work--one that continues to push us gently but profoundly to the furthest borders of the gender frontier.
Originally published in 1994, the book contains some dated language (notably her use of the adjective “transgendered”—the “ed” ending is omitted in most current usage); her ideas and insights, however, remain relevant and urgent. Despite the passage of over twenty years since it was written, Gender Outlaw is still required reading for anyone who needs a clear and informative introduction to the trans community and the concept of gender identity.
Gender Outlaw is an exploration of gender (especially in the United States) as from the perspective of a person who was born male and had a sex reassignment surgery in adulthood, only to later discover that being female didn't quite fit or work either. Kate came to the conclusion that gender is not a strict binary as we've often been taught or coerced into believing, but that it is a vibrant continuum.
If I had read this book earlier in my life, it would have totally blown my mind and it would have been a very, very good thing form me. As it is, having already been exposed to various genders and sexualities, I was not taken aback--in fact, I found some of my own thinking reaffirmed. The book is a very accessible introduction to the discussion of gender. I can see how this book and this discussion would be offensive to some people, but Kate is adamant that this is only one person's point of view and that not everyone adheres or agree with it, trans or otherwise.
The prose isn't linear--it bounces between three sections: the main text, side notes and commentary, and quotations from other sources. Each of these sections has its own formatting and font. At first it seemed fragmentary, but ultimately the pieces created a cohesive whole. I got this same feeling from Kate's performance. In fact, the performance that I saw was very reminiscent of the book and several pieces came directly from it (or perhaps it was the other way around, I'm not sure.) The script of Kate's play, Hidden: A Gender, has been included as well as an additional afterword written for the paperback edition.
Originally published in 1994, Gender Outlaw still has a lot to offer, especially to those who have had little exposure to transgender issues. While transpeople and their lives have become more visible in recent years, there is still ground to be gained in this area. Not all will agree with Kate's position regarding gender (and some will vehemently disagree), but I think that this book provides an excellent place to begin that conversation. I find all of Kate's work to be honest, and despite the serious topics, filled with a fair amount of lightheartedness which make them extremely effective.
Experiments in Reading
Gender Outlaw argues for the abolition of(rather than a different approach to) gender. That position is anti-scientific, and anachronistic. Gender is a thing. All scientific classification, whether phylum and species, or gender, or place in hierarchy or any one of a number of other breakdowns, is an artificial construct. These artificial constructs are necessary to help us understand how the natural world works, and to move forward. It is that simple. It is essential to make the distinction to, among other things, understand procreation, differing muscle mass and skeletal development, different hormone production, the ways in which disease or disorder present. The fact that some people don't procreate, or have hormonal imbalances, or have body frames which differ from most other of their gender does not invalidate the classification.
What we need to be talking about is the cultural baggage we bring to the discussion of gender. I can be a woman and be a princess, or a football player, or research chemist. I can be a woman and want to have sex with women, or men, or both, or neither. I can be a woman and wear dresses, or jeans, or biker jackets. I can be a woman and wax myself from the scalp down, let my body hair flow, or use science to encourage additional hair growth. If you want to change your gender identity, that is fine (pre-, post-, or non-operative) that is a brave personal choice, and I wish you success and joy. But it begs the question, why can't people live as men or women and have feelings, desires, and outward appearances which reflect best in breed characteristics of those on the other side of the gender continuum? We don't need to (and ought not) do away with gender, we need to do away with defined gender roles. So. With a central thesis based on no more than the authors wish list I can't say I thought this was a good book, but I do think it was an important book, and I recommend it to anyone looking for a modern historical look at Trans thought.