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Kate Bornstein, 1998

Deconstructing Gender: Talking with Kate Bornstein

By Owen Keehnen

Kate Bornstein, a transsexual S&M feminist, performance artist, playwright, NEA casualty, and talk show veteran became a celebrated theorist a few years ago with the publication of her 1994 book Gender Outlaw. Now the gender outlaw has struck again.

My Gender Workbook is a smart, sassy, and interactive journey of rethinking the limits and breaking down the restraints of the binary man/woman gender system. It contains some fascinating and heady stuff, but Bornstein manages to make gender theory fun with quizzes, quips, and a good dosage of infectious charm. The book asks a lot of questions, explores a lot of territory, and provides solid groundwork for reconsidering something generally taken for granted. It's an eye-opening read for anyone who's ever felt limited by his or her sex or sexuality.

Keehnen: What was your intent when you began to write The Gender Workbook?

Bornstein: I'd become something of a "gender expert" over the year since the publication of Gender Outlaw. It's something I don't like, being in the position of being an expert at anything, especially anything so close to the spiritual bone as gender! So I wanted to write a goodbye-to-gender-theory book: sort of an everything-I-know-about-gender-now-I-wanna-go-play sort of book. So I was in a playful mood when I wrote it . . . or tried to be. As soon as I got into all the questions I'd asked myself about gender (which is all the book is, really), I dug way deep, and writing it became quite a painful process. Playful and painful. One of my favorite combinations!

Keehnen: What is the primary restraint that rigid gender identification places upon us?

Bornstein: It probably robs us of our ability to see past ingrained gender expectations and get close to each other. It probably also keeps us from dreaming our own dreams, or at least makes us modify our dreams so they don't conflict with our locked-in genders. It probably freezes us into some identity that doesn't let us express ourselves as freely and completely as we could. It probably shoves us into a hatred of ourselves and our bodies for some internally perceived failure to live up to the most impossible either/or gender standards set by most every culture. Now . . . as to which of those nasty things is more primary a restraint than another, I'd have to say it's up to the individual.

Keehnen: Fair enough. Is life outside gender any easier?

Bornstein: Easier than what? Easier than lock-stepping my way through life, being blindly obedient to gendered laws and gendered rules I learned when I was a kid and didn't know any better? Yup, way easier than "that"! Easier than being nicely gendered with all the attendant relative safety and security and freedom from humiliation and bodily harm and rape that often comes with stepping outside the boundaries of gender? Nope . . . being without gender isn't easier than that.

The point is that gender is like everything else: first you simply stretch it. You don't go out and whack off parts of your body as the first step! You don't even go buy a whole new wardrobe. Maybe all you do is look back at your life and find the points where you didn't do what you wanted to do because "Boys don't do that" or "They won't think you're a nice girl if you do that." Find those things you wanted to do, and then do them anyway. That would be a nice way to start stretching your gender. Then you'd get an idea for yourself as to how easy it might be: it might be a whole lot easier and safer than you think. Really!

Keehnen: If gender is a matter of degree rather than the either/or binary, which makes us feel inadequate or less than real men or real women, what's the reason? Why has society come to define it so rigidly?

Bornstein: On a personal level, it's probably because living with a rigid gender identity is safer and easier. I mean, who of us really wants to look at all the bad things we've become, all the opportunities we've missed, just because we didn't want to break some weird rule of gender like "real men love women" or "real women love men." Yikes! What if a whole lot more people disobeyed that one? And that's just one rule! On a cultural level, it's probably held in place because fixed politicized identities within a bi-polar structure are a whole lot easier to manipulate and control than fluid identities that share a common value system based on some sort of loving principles.

Keehnen: And marketing/advertising?

Bornstein: (Laughing) See above. Between the marketing folks and the political spin-doctors we're way defined.

Keehnen: I find it fascinating that it's all a matter of external definition--the physician's call at birth, the socialization process, the further definition of gay or straight as defined by whom we love. With something so entrenched, what would be the first step towards dismantling the binary system?

Bornstein: I think the first step would be chapter one of my workbook. Honest. I laid it out in a way that might just work to point out how the gender system might lie at the bottom of the concerns of more than one or two "special interest groups." To my way of seeing things, it's oppressing nearly every one of us in some way. The first cultural step would be for more and more people to give up identity politics in favor of some coalition politics based on common gender oppression. Riki Wilchins has something like that going on in her book Read My Lips from Cleis Press.

Keehnen: There's so much for discussion in The Gender Workbook. If you were conducting a workshop on stepping outside of gender, what would be the first question you would pose to your students?

Bornstein: Which of the following most nearly matches the way you feel about yourself?

a) I'm a real man.
b) I'm a real woman.
c) I'm not a real man or a real woman, but I'd like to be.
d) Me? I'm something else entirely.

Keehnen: Going along with that, what's the first step towards creating a gender-free life?

Bornstein: Oh, tsk, tsk, hon! You want me to give away the whole first chapter, don't you? Very well, I think the first step is to get in touch with just how willing or not you are to explore this. We all have our reasons for not wanting to look at gender, ranging from "It doesn't affect me in the slightest" to "Omigod . . . that's too terrifying" and everything in between. I really, really, really tried to take all that into account in laying out the workbook, so that anyone can get into this stuff at whatever level is comfortable. Hopefully, it will be fun for people to do.

Keehnen: Have you found gay men and lesbians more or less receptive on the issue than you imagined?

Bornstein: I think it gets down to not so much lesbian and gay as it does to straight or queer. Let's look at that one instead, okay? I mean I'm meeting more and more cool queer het people . . . especially amongst the 14 to, say, 34-year-olds. (I can't wait to see the world those folks make!) And sad to say (or not sad, depending on your point of view), there are more and more what might be called straight lesbians and straight gay men. It seems they were right when they said, "We're just like the straight folks except for who we sleep with." Well, I'm not. And a lot more folks aren't like that. And I think that who we sleep with has less and less to do with being queer. It's more of a value system, isn't it? And folks who are queer, or who wanna be, are way in synch with the stuff I'm saying, if for no other reason than I'm in synch with them on a lot of issues. That's why I wrote the book as a workbook: I wanted to be gentle on my readers, whether they were straight or queer. See, I don't like that dichotomy either.

Keehnen: Since gender association makes assumptions and undermines the divinity of the individual, how is it different from sexism and/or is it a form of that?

Bornstein: Hmm . . . Do you know what the world's largest living organism is? It's not a whale . . . in fact; it makes a whale look like a minnow. Give up? It's an aspen forest. Uh huh . . . the whole forest is one organism with a common root system. So what looks like a lot of trees is simply a lot of individual expressions of a common root. What looks like sexism or homophobia or sex negativity or pornophobia (I just made that one up, I think) or fear of sadomasochism or any kinky kinda sex or men in dresses or women in suits or laughing at fat men or scorning fat women or telling people they're too young or too old to be real men or women . . . it's all part of the same system, isn't it?

Keehnen: Well said. That makes a lot of sense. Does a fluid take on gender undermine the gender identity politics of gay and lesbian and even women's rights?

Bornstein: No, no, no, no . . . in fact, if it weren't for those movements, the whole transgender movement wouldn't have gotten off the ground. The radical edges of the culture have been peeling back gender oppression for hundreds if not thousands of years. Peeling back that oppression like layers of an onion. Transgender is just the next layer to come to the surface, that's all. It's the evolution of transgression.

Keehnen: Is cyberspace a gender-free universe?

Bornstein: Yes! Caitlin Sullivan and I wrote a novel about just that. It's called Nearly Roadkill, and it's about two people who meet online in a chat room, have some way cool cybersex and start to fall for each other. But they agree not tell each other who or what they really are. So, they meet online in all these different identities. Sometimes they're gay men, sometimes they're a het couple, sometimes they're lesbians . . . they even become vampire and food! Sometimes they know it's each other, sometimes they don't. But they always keep falling for each other. It's kinda sweet. And it's got this cool background of government and big business intrusion on the Net. I think it's a hopeful novel. Cyberpunk with a happy ending, if you can see that kind of paradox. It's written in online language, which isn't writing so much as it is written speech.

Keehnen: Exciting project. What's next for you?

Bornstein: You mean after the Brain and I take over the world? Well, before that happens I'd like to get myself back on stage and into film and television. Acting was always my first love as an art form, and there's never really been a tranny gyrl playing a tranny gyrl on television. I figure, why not? Can you see the episode now--"The Nanny and the Tranny"? As to stage work, my grrrlfriend Barbara Carrellas and I are putting together a new show called Too Tall Blondes. Sort of a wacky love story about two folks who've never managed to fit in anywhere, and they fall in love with each other. It should be way fun.

Keehnen: Those are great things, Kate. All the best with them and with the book as well. It's been wonderful talking to you.

Bornstein: Thanks, Owen.
About Owen Keehnen
Owen Keehnen has worked as a journalist, book reviewer, and interviewer for a number of years. Currently, the Chicago based author is completing a trilogy of interview books on gay XXX stars, finishing a horror novel, and supporting himself as a massage therapist. He is also launching a website which celebrates independent horror films,
Related Pages

Bornstein, Kate

Identity Politics



Transgender Activism



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