Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us by Kate Bornstein Vintage, 2016.
In a recent tweet, Jewish American author, playwright, performance artist, and activist Kate Bornstein advised,“Tell a trans person that you love them. Do it today. We need it.” Well, I love you, Kate, and, in this column, I want to share why. Back in the early 1990s, when I commonly used the expression “both genders” to describe the range of students I encouraged to enroll in Women’s Studies courses, Kate Bornstein was one of the first to help me understand why I should instead learn to say, “all genders.” She also shared her view that gender could be a battleground, or a playground and that sex is what we do in bed, while everything else is gender. Her witty and insightful theorizing came from an experience of living through and giving up on other people’s ideas of how and who she could and “should” be. And her self- and world-awareness came long before declaring one’s pronouns became a thing, when mainstream culture confused transgender with transvestism, and when prurient curiosity about trans genitals overrode common humanity. Sadly, both then and now, ostracization, condemnation, and violence have been part of the trans experience.
I met Kate in person in the early 2000s. I had taken on the position of director of Women’s Studies (soon to become Women’s and Gender Studies) at MTSU and was looking to shake up the traditional speaker line-up for National Women’s History Month. Should I become the first to invite a trans woman to be a featured speaker? I could. And I did. And I loved every minute of my time with Kate, finding her generous with her time, articulate yet down-to-earth, and fiercely open about herself and her life. Her New York style, friendly warmth, and what I read as a heymish Jewishness made me instantly want to be her friend. I also enjoyed the experience of her trans-ness: I saw her less as a female or male but just as Kate – or “Auntie” Kate, as she now calls herself, an advocate for helping the next trans generation to “do whatever it takes to make your life worth living – just don’t be mean.”
Before meeting in person and hearing her speak (to an appreciative audience of students, faculty, and community members, including local trans folk), I read her first book, Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us, originally published in 1994 and reissued with illustrations and a new introduction by the author in 2016. The book offers compelling cultural analysis in the early days of gender theorization, interspersed with personal experience, including Kate’s own transition from nerdy heterosexual Jewish male IBM employee to lesbian trans performance artist. Within its pages, she discusses the importance of claiming an identity without getting mired in identity politics. She wants us all to find, learn about, and love ourselves, within and beyond gender binaries. Most Jewish to me in this volume and in all of her work is Kate’s determined, empowered, and funny voice, championing a survival wit most familiar to me from the speech of outspoken Jewish women comedians. I’d label her Fanny Brice meets Joan Rivers with a splash of Mrs. Maisel.
Today, Gender Outlaw is somewhat outdated, best read as an important part of a history of gender theory related to the era of its production and the limits of available published trans voices back then. It’s also important as a reminder of the self-love it takes to survive as a “gender
outlaw” in a culture so fearful of difference. There is not a mean or divisive bone in Kate Bornstein’s body, and there never was. She does not want to remake the world to resemble her or her journey. She wants us all to live happily and fully as who we most want to be. As we face increasing anti-trans legislation, from bathroom bills to teen sports prohibitions to barring gender affirming care for minors, it behooves us to understand what trans is and means and what it is not and does not mean. And I promise you cannot do better than beginning, as I did, with the writing of Kate Bornstein.
Elyce Rae Helford, PhD, is a professor of English and director of the Jewish and Holocaust Studies minor at Middle Tennessee State University. She is the author of What Price Hollywood?: Gender and Sex in the Films of George Cukor (2020) and teaches courses in film, Holocaust Studies, and immigrant women writers. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.