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Gender Outlaw

An interview with Kate Bornstein
by Susan Bridle


Kate Bornstein

"I'm what's called a transsexual person. That means I was assigned one gender at birth, and I now live my life as something else. I was born male and raised as a boy. I went through both boyhood and adult manhood, went through a gender change, and 'became a woman,'" writes Kate (formerly Al) Bornstein. "On the personal side of things, my lesbian lover of over three years decided to become a man. We lived together for a few more years as a heterosexual couple, then we stopped being lovers. He found his gay male side, and I found my slave grrrl side. What a wacky world, huh? I can't think of a day in my life when I haven't thought about gender. . . ."

Kate Bornstein is a woman (she underwent a male-to-female sex change operation in 1986) with a mission: to dismantle the "gender system" on the planet as we know it. As a lesbian feminist writer, actress, performance artist and frequent guest on daytime television talk shows, she is dedicated to educating others about what she feels is the inherent oppression of a binary gender system that forces everyone to conform to one of only two gender options. In her books Gender Outlaw, Nearly Roadkill (coauthored with Caitlin Sullivan) and My Gender Workbook, as well as in numerous theater productions and the experiential workshops she presents across the United States, Bornstein questions, challenges and deconstructs all ideas about gender—including ideas that many of us aren't even aware we have.

The moment we heard about Kate Bornstein and her work, we knew we wanted to speak with her for this issue of WIE. Here was someone who has spent several decades deeply investigating what gender is and isn't, how gender identity is constructed and maintained, and how we can free ourselves from what she sees as the rigid and narrowly defined roles called "man" and "woman." She has a unique perspective on the nuances of the "performance of gender" informed by both her training as a character actor and her familiarity with postmodern gender theory. But Bornstein's exploration of the subject has by no means been academic. She has explored these questions with her own life and her own body and gone farther with her inquiry than most would even dare to imagine. We were very interested in talking with her about what she has learned about "gender freedom," and how her experience sheds light on what an ultimately spiritually liberated relationship to gender identity might be.

When I finally got a chance to interview her, in the small, cluttered apartment/office in New York City that she shares with her girlfriend, two dogs, a cat, several turtles and a conspicuous collection of sexually suggestive art, books, knickknacks and videos, she was not, somehow, the person I had expected to meet. Through her thoughtful and provocative writing, I had encountered, on the printed page, a committed feminist and social activist, someone serious about her work and ideas. In person, however, I met someone more closely resembling, well, a seventeen-year-old Valley Girl who punctuated her remarks with, "Cool!" and "Like, duh!" Bornstein was intentionally, even rebelliously, chameleonlike, with a palette of personas she would shift into and out of unexpectedly, sometimes in mid-sentence. On occasion, the fifty-one-year-old, well-educated, upper-middle-class suburban white man she would have been had she not taken her destiny into her own hands appeared before me; at other times, a flamboyantly gay stage performer prone to breaking into song; and once, a gruff "Uncle Max" from New Jersey. While speaking with her, it became unsettlingly apparent that when she writes about embracing "personal anarchy," she means it literally.

Bornstein, who has described herself as a "gender terrorist," has invented what she calls a bodhisattva approach to unhinging ourselves from gender identity. "Make yourself foolish!" she told me. "Make yourself sillier.Make yourself more outside the rules that have been set up for you. . . . All I've been doing all my life is going lower and lower and lower on the social scale." For Bornstein, using "gender transgression" to aid in downward mobility on the ladder of social acceptance, prestige and privilege is not just a sign of the "gender dysphoria" her psychiatrist diagnosed her with, nor simply a personal agenda, but a spiritual path that can dismantle patriarchy and the adversarial gender relationships she feels are the primary glue that holds it in place. "This is the Age of Pisces," she explained, "and what the Age of Pisces is going to teach humanity is fluidity. Gender fluidity is a lesson we're going to have to embrace if we want the peace that's going to come through the Age of Aquarius."

Meeting Kate Bornstein was, without a doubt, a mind-opening experience. This "gender outlaw," who insists on "saying no to gender, and to keep saying no to systems that would rein me in, classify me, pin me down or keep me in my place," does seem to have achieved success in her goal of blurring the margins of her identity, particularly her gender identity. And in spite of her defiant attachment to "fluidity and whimsy" and her aversion to taking anything, even her own life's work, very seriously, she is a patient teacher about the subject of gender with a generous willingness to lay bare her own experience. Because she asserts that gender itself is a powerful path to enlightenment that emerges from the point where "postmodernism, technology and desire meet Zen," we were eager to explore her discoveries about the liberation that lies in transcending identification with this most central of our ideas of self. Yet as she revealed that the ability to wear a mustache one day, lipstick the next, and both together the day after is the sort of thing that she feels demonstrates progress on the path, it became increasingly clear that the "gender freedom" she advocates is not exactly what we had in mind.


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This article is from
Our Gender Issue


More articles and interviews about similar subjects:
Gender Issues

Spiritual Awakening