Review of Gender Outlaw

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A Review of GENDER OUTLAW: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us

by Kate Bornstein

New York: Routledge

Review Copyright © 1994 by William A. Henkin

Originally published in Spectator



For several years now Kate Bornstein has been riding the circuits as America's favorite transsexual. She's the one who wasn't sorry for what she'd done when Geraldo focused on "Transsexual Regrets: Who's Sorry Now?" Her first play, Hidden: A Gender, was mounted originally on the friendly boards of San Francisco's Theatre Rhinoceros, and in its subsequent tours around the country turned out to be a major force in expanding an ongoing dialogue about the multi-faceted nature of gender: it helped to move the discussions out of the cross-dressing clubs and academic journals and into the nation's general consciousness. Recently, Bornstein was featured on the cover of Transgender Tapestry magazine with her lover, David (née Catherine) Harrison. From the perspectives of a new lesbian who was born and raised as a man, in partnership with a new man who was born and raised as a woman, their interview inside the magazine pointed up the complex challenges and excitement many people experience who truly search to understand their gender.

Though Bornstein is by no means the world's first post-operative transsexual SM femme lesbian, she is the one who has spoken and written most widely, not only at gay events and in the gay media, but for mainstream outlets as well. Highly visible and highly articulate, she has also had a hand, therefore, in altering our national awareness both of sexual orientation – whether we find males, females, both, neither, or others erotically stimulating – and of gender identity – the ways we perceive ourselves as male and/or female.

Considering this background and her training as an actor it is hardly surprising that, alongside a few academic theoreticians and researchers into brain chemistry, Bornstein has become the leading experiential voice suggesting that there may be some sort of relationship between gender identity and sexual orientation: that anyone who is not strictly oriented toward heterosexual intercourse has something in common with everyone who is not entirely satisfied with an identity as simply male or female.

In other words, America's favorite transsexual is here, she's queer, and she's rather pleased with the turn her life has taken. This book includes interviews with the author, a couple of previously published articles, questions, quips, quotations by the famous and the unknown, and acknowledgments of Bornstein's transsexual peers and antecedants whom she calls "my people"; it is a celebration of what she has discovered in her journey so far. Neither the first word nor the last on anything – Bornstein says repeatedly that she speaks for no one but herself, transgendered or otherwise, and urges more questions and fewer answers anyway – Gender Outlaw is one of very few books I could consider indispensable to a contemporary discussion of the nature of sex and/or of gender.

While I happily endorse her iconoclastic perspective, however, my observations do not always jibe with Bornstein's. For instance, I concur when she warns people against taking sides "in a game called us-versus-them. In transgendered politics,' as in any other identity politics, we look around for a them.' From the standpoint of the transgendered person, there's no shortage of them,' no shortage at all."

But then, upending the power structure she perceives, Bornstein takes her place as one of the transgendered "us" to generalize about one of the easiest "them"s to attack in the whole transgendered universe. And since, in this theatrical role-reversal, I'm one of those "them" – a therapist who specifically works with people who have questions about gender – and since I know most of the other therapists in the Bay Area who also do this work, I feel especially constrained to respond.

Bornstein makes the common claim that transgendered people are


taught that we are literally sick, that we have an illness that can be diagnosed and maybe cured. As a result of the medicalization of our condition, transsexuals must see therapists in order to receive the medical seal of approval required to proceed with any gender reassignment surgery. Now, once we get to the doctor, we're told we'll be cured if we become members of one gender or another. We're told not to divulge our transsexual status, except in select cases requiring intimacy. Isn't that amazing? Transsexuals presenting themselves for therapy in this culture are channeled through a system which labels them as having a disease (transsexuality) for which the therapy is to lie, hide, or otherwise remain silent.


Well, yes: if that paragraph were true it would be amazing indeed. And a decade ago, among the therapists she knew, in the city where she underwent her formal transition, it may be what Bornstein was taught and told: I cannot speak for her experience.

But neither can she speak for mine, and this catechism does not reflect the perspective of most therapists I know who are really familiar with gender concerns. I don't mean there are no therapists whose positions Bornstein accurately describes: certainly there are, and they have earned her anger. But they are not the only therapists around. The stereotypical portrayal of therapist-as-enemy in some segments of the gender community is as false and limiting as the stereotypical portrayal of the transgendered-person-as-sick in some segments of the medical and psychological communities.

All stereotypes reinforce us-versus-them divisions: that is their purpose. And in this instance the division Bornstein reifies is dangerous because it seeks to divide two groups of people who can more usefully be seen to have important goals in common: discovering the truth about a person's gender identity in a way that enhances his or her ability to live as satisfying and fulfilling a life as possible, with or without hormonal or surgical sex reassignment – for which, as Bornstein knows, therapy is not a legal requirement.

Contrary to Bornstein's allegation, gender therapists – at least those I know – do not, as a group,

* consider transgendered people to be ill;

* believe that transgenderism can or should be "cured" (only an illness or preserved foods can be cured) or otherwise treated by silence;

* tell people not to divulge their gender status;

* tell people to invent pasts for themselves to conform to their new sex.

In brief, we do not, as Bornstein says we do, tell transsexuals or anyone else to lie. The gender therapists I know value the truths their clients discover. As in any other coming-out process, we work with our clients to help them determine how much or how little of what they learn about themselves they may choose to disclose, and how, and to whom, at each stage of their transitions.

I hope it is obvious from the way I began this review that even though I have my own axe to grind, and even though I take issue with some of Bornstein's generalizations, I support her major theses enthusiastically:

* that gender exists on a continuum rather than as a binary structure;

* that feeling discomfort with the gender one has been assigned at birth does not mean a person is ill or even wrong;

* that – at least in our society – gender distinction is a form of class distinction; and

* that the Standards of Care first promulgated by the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association in 1979 to protect people who were wandering unprepared into surgery with doctors who were equally unprepared, could benefit from a new revision based on the new information about gender now available. (After several minor emendations, the first significant revision of the Standards took effect in 1998 – WAH)

I hope it is also clear that I find the questions Gender Outlaw raises to be so important I am willing to argue when I disagree with Bornstein's answers. This is not a book that anyone concerned with the nature of gender has the right to ignore.

Years back, when I saw Hidden: A Gender at Theatre Rhinoceros, I scribbled one of the play's concluding statements on a handbill, planning to pin it to some bulletin board in my life. I later lost the piece of paper I'd written on, but since the whole play is reproduced toward the end of Bornstein's wonderfully quirky and idiosyncratic book I have it again and can offer it to you:

"I don't consider myself a man, and quite frequently I doubt that I'm a woman.... Gender is not the issue. Gender is the battlefield. Or the playground. The issue is us versus them. Any us versus any them. One day we may not need that."

I agree; and though I fear that day has not yet arrived, Kate Bornstein's Gender Outlaw has certainly brought it a good deal closer.


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