Gender debunked

“SM femme tranny dyke” Kate Bornstein talks about why gender isn't binary and the origins of transphobia

Topics: The Browser,

Gender debunked
This interview first appeared in The Browser, as part of the FiveBooks series. Previous contributors include Paul Krugman, Woody Allen and Ian McEwan. For a daily selection of new article suggestions and FiveBooks interviews, check out The Browser or follow @TheBrowser on Twitter.

Author, gender theorist and self-described “SM femme tranny dyke” Kate Bornstein tells us why gender isn’t binary, and recommends books that give long-suppressed voice to the transgender community.

The BrowserYour memoir “A Queer and Pleasant Danger” tells the true story of how you evolved from a nice boy into a lovely lady.

When I grew up I thought the only option was man or woman, but with a little bit of googling you can find about 150 genders. In 1986 I went for sexual reassignment surgery – SRS – from Dr [Stanley] Biber, who you can see wonderfully portrayed in the classic “South Park” episode “Mrs Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina.”

In your blog you describe yourself as an “SM femme tranny dyke.” Could you describe what that means, and give a broader glossary of essential transgender terms to those of us who may be unfamiliar with them?

Let’s start with why I describe myself as an SM femme tranny dyke. “SM” is short for sadomasochism. That means I play erotically with pleasure and pain. I’m an M, a masochist. I’m the one who gets beat up, cut on and pierced. I’ve got piercings in body parts I wasn’t born with. I like that kind of stuff. “Femme” means I’m more on the girly side of the spectrum. I can’t do girly like Lady Gaga or RuPaul, the queen of queens. At times, I call myself a diesel femme, like Sarah Connor in “The Terminator” or Starbuck in “Battlestar Galactica.”

But the point is, I get to choose. That’s the point of all these words. There’s nothing monolithic in the world of queerdom. So for me to try to give you meanings is difficult. Please take them as what I think they mean.

Finally let’s get to the word “tranny.” That’s the most politically problematic self-definition. I get hit for using it. A vocal contingent of trans people insist that the word “tranny” is a slur on the order of the “N” word applied to black Americans. It gets used as a hate term. People will yell “fuckin’ tranny” and throw a beer can at you from a passing car. My people get spat on, and accompanying that spit is the word “tranny.” But I own that word. I’m trying to give it a good name.

Let’s talk pronouns. Your collaborator the transgender author S Bear Bergman purportedly prefers to be referred to as “ze” or “hir.” Please make Bergman’s case for moving beyond him and her, and tell us whether you agree.

S Bear Bergman is one of the most cutting-edge trans writers today. He’s got his finger on the pulse of the direction of trans and he’s a brilliant writer, a great storyteller. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry.

“Ze” and “hir” were first invented back when the Internet was a bunch of MIT geeks who were playing massive multiplayer dungeon games, and their characters were nongendered. They had to think up pronouns and they came up with ze and hir. I used them in a novel called “Nearly Roadkill” with my co-author Caitlin Sullivan. They’ve caught on. I used them again in “My Gender Workbook.” Now many people bravely use ze and hir as pronouns. They might actually get accepted into the English language as useful gender-free pronouns.

Now I use “they” and “them” in a singular context, because if you look back in the history of the English language, they and them really did have a singular form. And it’s easier to say for me than ze and hir, which anger people who don’t want to underscore that their gender is radical. I think the English language will settle down into they and them.

“Gender Outlaw,” your 1994 manifesto questioning binary distinctions based on gender and sexuality, seems to be a bible to many and has been incorporated into the curriculum of more than 120 colleges. I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about it before moving on to the books of others. What is a “gender outlaw” and what are the core arguments you make?

I’ve never heard it called a manifesto before. I suppose in its own way it is. A lot of people had been looking at gender from a postmodern point of view, and sociologists were examining gender from an ethnomethodological point of view. Postmodernism is no more than the notion that things have more than one meaning at the same time. Ethnomethodology studies a part of culture that never gets questioned. My manifesto was a direct result of those two. I wanted to say there’s more than just man or woman. I know I’m not a man. I know I’m not a woman. So there! The rest of the book asked questions like: What is a man? What is a woman? Why do you have to be only one or the other? It was a fun book to write. I weaved some of my story into it and I quoted a lot of smart people.

“Mother Camp,” an ethnographic account of female impersonators based on reporting by the cultural anthropologist Esther Newton, seems like a good place to start on your book selection. Please tell us about it.

Esther Newton looked at drag queens, and an underground gay phenomenon that had been going on for an awful long time. It’s called camp. Let me tell you what a camp is. Camp is laughing to the point where we don’t have to cry about it. If you could imagine Stephen Colbert, instead of skewering politics by pretending to be a right-wing fanatic, skewering gender by pretending to be a femme fatale. It’s a self-reflective sense of humor – look what I can’t be, but look what I can make fabulous. Esther exposed camp and for the first time gave some dignity to drag. I think she should be forever thanked for that.

The research this book is based on dates to the mid-’60s, prior to the gay liberation movement, which many would say began with the New York Stonewall riots of 1969.

What is dated about “Mother Camp” and what is as true as ever?

I read it in 1979 when the feminists of the day were accusing drag queens of hating women and making fun of them. Early feminists were down on drag queens, and that’s the point of it. That went on for a long time. What changed and what stayed the same? Everything changed but the heart stayed the same. You ask what’s relevant about “Mother Camp”? My answer is: The heart of it.

What does this book communicate about the arbitrary nature of gender roles?

It’s the whole concept of pro-choice applied to gender.

“Stone Butch Blues,” a first novel by transgender activist Leslie Feinberg, although written in the ’90s is set in the ’60s. One blurb calls it “the queer great American novel.” Please give us a précis of the plot and tell us why you’ve recommended it.

“Stone Butch Blues” is the trans classic. Everybody who reads it takes away something different. It’s one of those magical books that has an entrance point for every queer person. And that’s an amazing accomplishment for a book. It’s something I aspire to.

This is a loosely autobiographical tale. Some parts of it are based on Les Feinberg’s life. It’s about a character named Jess Goldberg, a working-class Jew who doesn’t understand why she has to be a womanly woman. She’s not attracted to men. This is the early days, in the ’60s. That was a scary ass time. It’s the queer book of Job, a heart-wrenching book. There are scenes where Jess gets her head pushed into a toilet. Bring the Kleenex. It’s an intense emotional journey of a young woman who has no idea how to express herself as a strong stone butch.

I’ll define the terms for you. Stone is someone who loves sex but doesn’t want to be touched – they want to be the one that gets you off. Butch is the radical representation of masculinity without the patriarchal trimmings. It ranges the scale from dandy through overalls and T-shirts to drag king, so there’s a whole spectrum of butch.

What is a drag king?

You don’t know? Drag kings now outnumber drag queens. Drag kings are women who get up onstage, the way drag queens do, to lip sync for their lives in satirical, political, smart, sexy numbers. After the AIDS epidemic wiped out so many of the queens, the kings kind of took their place onstage and people started watching them. Queens are just now beginning to blossom again. As RuPaul’s “Drag Race” – one of my favorite shows on television – attests there have always been wonderful queens, but kings are an important part now of drag culture. Kings, like queens, are royalty in queer culture – they’re the bravest ones.

Feinberg sketched the history of gender outlaws in a later book, “Transgender Warriors.” What does the history of transgenderism teach us?

“Transgender Warriors” goes back to Joan of Arc and shows how we’ve been on the front lines of the intersection of sexuality, gender, class, race and religion forever. The import of “Transgender Warriors” is that it shows how integrated gender crossing has been with other aspects of the margins of the culture.

What does remembering Joan of Arc tell us about gender outlaws?

That you’re not a freak for wanting to be one. Period. Why else do we remember heroes from our past? It gives you strength, it gives you the courage to face another day and to walk with the always present fear of somebody pointing and laughing, or worse.

What’s the worst? You’ve lived as a gender outlaw for 40 years, what is the worst and how frequently does it happen?

One of the most recent examples of the worst is the case of CC McDonald in Washington State, a trans woman of color who was brutally attacked and in self-defense ended up killing one of her attackers. She was sentenced and found guilty of second-degree murder. It seems that the justice system turned aside her plea of self-defense, when it obviously was. It can get that bad.

In my own case I’ve been raped twice. Walking through the streets of Paris in the 1990s, which was an extremely bi-gender city, people threw things out of cars at me, like bottles. I was refused a hotel room, even though I had made a reservation – the guy took one look at me and said I’m not going to rent you a room. It’s pretty hard.

Your next recommendation is not one book but 10 volumes of collected comics. Tell us why “The Sandman” series by Neil Gaiman ended up on your list?

Crossing gender is not phenomenal in Neil Gaiman’s universe – it just happens. In his cosmology desire has no gender, which is a profound statement in and of itself. There are trans characters in the books, including one based on a common friend of ours, Roz Kaveney, a poet and trans activist. “The Sandman” doesn’t exactly make trans normal, but he makes it something that’s expected.

By singling out “The Sandman” for its positive representation of a transgender woman, you remind us that representations of gender outlaws in popular culture are most commonly cruelly punishing. Do you agree? Which caricatures do the most damage?

The one that comes to mind is the serial killer from “Silence of the Lambs.” By golly, that really hurt to see a psychotic serial killer cast as a transsexual in a big picture. The character, Jame Gumb, was a parody of everything you were afraid of becoming when you started your own transgender journey. That’s transphobia.

To what do you attribute the transphobia that pervades pop culture? What is transphobia about?

Transphobia is fear of anything that doesn’t match the either/or standard for gender regulation. It’s on a par with anti-Semitism, racism, classism, ageism and homophobia. Gender is ruled by the binary distinction between man and woman – anything other is really scary. What is that? Is that a him or a her or an it? How do I deal with it? I’ve never been taught.

“Whipping Girl,” by biologist and transgender activist Julia Serano, further explores the topic of transphobia.

This book is part memoir but much more. Please tell us about it.

This is the first analysis that strongly ties the male-to-female transgender experience to misogyny. It goes beyond the individual narrative into a political analysis from a transwoman point of view. Julia called me out for my failure to point out the fact that trans misogyny is evident, in that transsexual women most often bear the brunt of the mainstream – or meanstream – media’s obsession with and demonization of trans.

Transgender is a subject that has been fodder for feminist critique for half a century now, and Julia Serano speaks smartly to it. She’s one of the leaders of the next generation of trans theorists. It’s writers like Julia Serano, S Bear Bergman, Keith Cooper and Christine Smith who are carrying the torch forward.

Serano argues that discrimination toward trans women is steeped in femiphobia. What is her evidence and is she right?

How it hit me is that patriarchy and misogyny entail the persecution of anyone who is not a real man. That could mean somebody who’s a little bit girly, that could mean somebody who’s a lot girly, that could mean somebody who is homosexual and not at all girly. The point that Julia Serano makes so brilliantly is that misogyny in the culture is kind of like Windows on your computer – it’s everywhere.

Serano tries to clear up some misconceptions about gender outlaws. Based on her book and your experience, can you tell us which misconceptions are most prevalent and why they’re wrong.

Which misconceptions can you come up with?

I hope I came into this talk with an open mind.

Open minds contain misconceptions.

I’m going to throw something out. I think that there are plenty of people in society, even in gay society and the medical profession, who see transsexualism as a form of mental illness, an identity disorder. What do you say to that?

What do I say to that?


Poppycock. I am mentally ill, I’m certified PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and I have borderline personality disorder. My trans stuff is what keeps me sane.

Your last selection is “Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation,” a collection of forward-thinking essays edited by you and S Bear Bergman. Why did you put together this book and what will we learn by reading it?

I’m proud of that book. Seal Press had been after me for a couple of years to update “Gender Outlaw” after 15 years. I thought about it, because there are sections of “Gender Outlaws” that are dated. Then I thought: There’s a whole new generation of gender outlaws who could voice the progress of the transgender movement far more eloquently than I was equipped to. Each and every article in that collection of 50 to 52 writers is written in the voice of a person whose sexuality and gender I never dreamed of back when I wrote “Gender Outlaw.” Tranny is busting out all over. Each and every writer welcomes the worldview of each and every other. They’re not saying I’ve got the very best kind of gender expression. No, mine is one of many and I wish you the joy of finding your own. That’s the message in that book. I’m really proud of it for gender’s sake.

What legal and cultural changes do you hope for in the 21st century? What do you think is realistic?

I was recently a featured guest on MSNBC. It was a milestone in trans politics, the very first time that a respectable media outlet devoted an entire hour to trans issues.

The next big issue that I’d like to see queer leaders present to the world is stopping the violence against kids – and I mean any freaky kids, whether they’re queer or not. Stop beating them up, stop throwing them out of your house, stop murdering them and stop raping them. That’s something that a coalition, which goes well beyond LGBT, could be forged around. Let’s get a more inclusive politics, a politics of compassion rather than a politics of power.

Thank you.

I’d like to say one more thing.

Go ahead.

It was a terrible thing of you to do, to make me pick only five books. I’ve been hungry to read about gender ever since I was 11 years old and I found out people were writing about it. I’ve been reading pretty much everything about gender for the last 50 years, and I believe that attention must be paid to books that are saving lives right now.

The last quarter of a century has seen an explosion of amazing writing in this area. The first that comes to mind is “Butch Is a Noun” by S Bear Bergman. Then “Some of the Parts” by T Cooper. Anything by Patrick Califia Rice, such as “Sex Changes.” I would also recommend “The Marketplace” series by Laura Antoniou. She is the Mark Twain of BDSM – so much gender crossing goes on in her books. Then “The Princess” is a Web comic by Christine Smith.

And let’s not forget the classics. “Gender: An Enthnomethodological Approach” by Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna taught me that you could question the binary. “In Transit” from the ’60s, by British author Brigid Brophy, is about waking up in an airport terminal and not knowing your gender. Then, of course, “Tales of the City” by Armistead Maupin presents the gentlest picture of gender. And my favorite exploration of cross-dressing of all time is in “Huckleberry Finn.”

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