Social pressures impose binary gender on us all, but resistance is possible: Amelia Bayes reviews the follow-on anthology to a key text in queer theory
Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us was published in the mid-1990s and soon became a key text in queer theory. Seventeen years on, author Kate Bornstein has produced Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation which showcases how widespread her ideas have become within LGBT communities, as well as academic circles. With co-editor S. Bear Bergman, Bornstein has brought together essays, poetry and comics in a volume that reveals a spectrum of possible gender identities.
The collection’s key theme is that, while social pressures impose binary gender on us all, resistance is possible. There is no one trans identity, and Gender Outlaws’ contributors challenge the presentation of trans narratives as a journey from man to woman or vice versa by embracing identities combining both genders – or neither – or dismissing gender as an irrelevance entirely.
Gender Outlaws emphasises that trans identities are not formed in isolation, that they are formed by constant intersections with race, class and sexuality, amongst other things. Bornstein and Bergman have gathered some truly diverse stories together to illustrate this, and this is the book’s greatest strength, presenting the reader with a constant stream of fresh viewpoints to consider.
Little-heard stories, such as negotiating a pilgrimage to Mecca whilst trans, communicating between genders in a corporate setting, encounters with trans history and experiencing pregnancy as a trans man are all voiced. All this is in addition to more commonly raised debates such as tensions between trans people and the state, surgery, sex and the labels we give ourselves.
Ryka Aoki deconstructs the concept of the ‘gender outlaw’ and its fetishisation. Instead she argues that our goal should be to live well, as most outlaws end up dead or outcasts. I agree with her challenge to the idea that a trans person must be visible as a ‘freak’ or ‘outlaw’ in order to disrupt binary gender. Could it not be just as radical to remain integrated into mainstream society and actively resist gender norms in a limited but consistent way?
Privilege and social hierarchy are raised often in Gender Outlaws. Gwendolyn Ann Smith’s ‘We’re All Somebody’s Freak’ rails against hierarchies of oppression and discourages the idea that anyone is not trans enough. I couldn’t help wishing some of the other authors had read her points about self-policing, as some essays seemed to stress the importance of being visibly gender transgressive in order to be legitimately trans.
There’s certainly privilege in passing, and perhaps privilege of other kinds allow more freedom to choose your gender identity, but the setting of up divisions between the trans community and their allies can only be a step backwards.
Telyn Kusalik discusses the often-raised issue of who should be allowed access to feminist space. Kusalik argues that access should be open to everyone one who experiences sexism, not based on identity arguments about who is a ‘real woman’. This would allow my transgender boyfriend to re-join the meetings he once organised, but is now denied access to. Moving towards this style of feminism, awesomely named rollergirl Uzi Sioux describes joining her league, where the focus is on ability and shared experiences, rather than birth gender.
For me, one of the most interesting pieces was Sherilyn Connelly’s ‘The Big Reveal’ precisely because it disrupted my feminist assumptions about porn. Connelly explains that she finds ‘she-male’ (the term Connelly prefers) porn empowering. She notes mainstream depictions of trans women being rejected, assaulted or killed after they reveal their trans identity, in comparison to the fetishising of trans women as sex objects in porn. Connelly explains that she prefers the latter representation. Perhaps this is only the better of two bad options, but it was certainly a view I hadn’t considered before.
Staying true to its diverse roots, some of Gender Outlaws’ offerings totally alienated me, while some brought me to tears. I found the editors’ instant messenger chats that bracket the book a little cringey with their flirty banter. This didn’t seem to best way to introduce the book’s history and their message got lost amongst tangents about sex with Sarah Palin. However, Kyle Lykoff’s ‘Taking Up Space’ presents a painful, touching insight into the intersections between transmasculinity and anorexia that resonate with many trans people I know, and I hope will be discussed widely.
Even where I found myself disagreeing with authors, I came away pondering new aspects of my own gender. Real variance of gender identifications means that Gender Outlaws is a great tool for those interested in thinking critically about gender.
Sherilyn Connelly’s contribution finishes, “I’m not a boy because I have a penis, and just because I don’t have a vagina doesn’t mean I’m not a girl” which might be the best summary of this volume. This resistance to gender conformity should be welcomed by feminists in the fight against multifaceted sexism. Hopefully in another 17 years, gender variance won’t be such an outlaw activity anymore.