Gender Outlaw by Kate Bornstein

Gender OutlawThe name of this journal was stolen from Kate Bornstein’s wonderful book, Gender Outlaw (1995). I started my journal before reading the book, but knew I’d want to kick off my trans book reviews with this gem.

What this book is not: Gender Outlaw is not a personal memoir of MtF transition. It’s not a transition guide either.

What this book is: Gender Outlaw is an exploration of gender theory, interspersed with personal anecdotes, and closes with the full text of Bornstein’s two-act play, Hidden: A Gender.

What I loved about Gender Outlaw was how it made me really think about how the gender system is upheld in modern society, and how perverse and downright funny it can be. If I had to apply a label, I’d say this is a book about gender theory, however Bornstein’s humor shines throughout, keeping this engaging and approachable. The word “theory” conjures up images of dusty, dry, academic manuals, and this does not apply here. What also really stands out is Bornstein’s wit and intelligence.

Some of my favourite quotes include:

“There’s a simple way to look at gender: Once upon a time, someone drew a line in the sans of culture and proclaimed with great self-importance, ‘On this site, you are a man; on the other side, you are a woman.’ It’s time for the winds of change to blow that line away. Simple.” (p. 21)

“Then there’s gender attribution, whereby we look at somebody and say, ‘that’s a man,’ or ‘that’s a woman.’ And this is important because the way we perceive another’s gender affects the way we relate to that person. Gender attribution is the sneaky one. It’s the one we do all the time without thinking abou it; kinda like driving a sixteen-wheeler down a crowded highway… without thinking about it.” (p. 26)

“Here’s the tangle that I found: sexual orientation/preference is based in this culture solely on the gender of one’s partner of choice. Not only do we confuse the two words, we make them dependent on one another.” (p. 32)

“I love the idea of being without an identity, it gives me a lot of room to play around; but it makes me dizzy, having nowhere to hang my hat.” (p. 39)

“It doesn’t really matter what a person decides to do, or how radically a person plays with gender. What matters, I think, is how aware a person is of the options. How sad for a person to be missing out on some expression of identity, just for not knowing there are options” (p. 51)

That’s just the tip of the iceberg (and I’d dig up several more nuggets of wisdom if I wasn’t in a bloody duel with the flu right now.) This book is filled with intelligent questions that will make you think, whether you’re trans or not.

Call me art illiterate, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a play. As such, I ended up skimming through Part Six of the book, which includes the full script for Bornstein’s play. It didn’t grab me as much as the rest of the book, but that shouldn’t take anything away from this excellent read.

Verdict: Highly recommended.

You can learn more about Kate Bornstein online:

Read a review of Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, ed. by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman.

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