Kate Bornstein1 is very candid when discussing the prospect of gender fluidity. Her book, Gender Outlaw, is a place where she is able to express her thoughts without viewing the reaction of her audience immediately. This offers an unusual comfort that she does not receive when walking about in society. People look at Bornstein and judge her for not conforming to a gender binary. This discrimination is derived from a natural fear of the unknown—her gender status promotes curiosity as transsexuals are a people society is not used to dealing with. How does one behave around a transsexual? Does one treat them as the gender which they appear to gravitate towards? In Gender Outlaw, Bornstein describes the behavior of gender attribution, that is, “[When] we look at somebody and say, ‘that’s a man,’ or ‘that’s a woman.’” (p. 26) Perhaps looking at someone is not the only telltale sign of gender binaries. Other features can give this away such as voice, name, and even handwriting. Voices can be deeper versus quaint. Certain first names are gender fluid but most are gender polar. Handwriting that is more careful and consistent is marked as feminine. These features have created gender stereotypes that are hard to stray from. These stereotypes have defined the functionality of our society.
What does it take to break through this boundary? Bornstein introduces the idea of gender fluidity. A being with ambiguous gender can shift at will between the binaries using costume and behavior with the exception of their naked body image. This presents an interesting position in terms of feminism and equality. When Bornstein changed her body image, she was treated in the complete opposite manner in which she was treated prior to her operation. A man known as Old Fred flirted with her at a government office where he worked until he saw her official name and then started questioning her. Such power has been embedded in gender stereotypes that it is difficult to know how to deal with a gender fluid or transsexual individual. Bornstein had trouble comfortably attending a lesbian community gathering because “The reaction was very much, ‘Well that’s a man for you!’” (p. 42) Our association with men as power figures overshadows thoughts of equality among the gender spectrum. The fact that such a spectrum exists is evidence that there are no real men and women. Yes, there are two types of reproductive organs and humans are born with either one or the other, but gender is a completely different issue. It is felt in the purest sense of what it means to feel. This natural feeling is ever clouded and challenged by societal gender norms. What does it take to change these norms? It seems people disregard transsexuals and prospective transsexuals because there are so few that present themselves to society. Those that do present themselves are brave. It takes a certain confidence to go against the grain of what is seen as normal. Bornstein knows this and lets her readers know forthright that she is acting as the voice of her fellow transsexuals simply because she has the bravery to speak.
“It’s a time when we’ve begun to put down the cultural baggage.” (p. 13) What does she mean by the word baggage? Could baggage be stereotypes? No, for often we are unaware of stereotypes that we carry but all too aware of baggage for it is heavy and obtrusive. The word itself lends connotations to weight and obtrusiveness. Then perhaps Bornstein is focusing more on the action of putting down the weight than the weight itself. In her eyes, popular culture has been moving about far too incessantly between issues of gender without stopping for a moment to reassess—to ask questions. Questions are, after all, the greatest catalyst for tolerance and subsequent paradigm shifts. When Bornstein is asked a question about her gender, sexuality, or lifestyle, she answers in a very blunt yet comical fashion. One such answer is stated: “Yah, the plumbing works and so does the electricity.” (p. 31) This sort of answer brings her and her inquirer to the same level. If they had been separated by some intangible barrier of sexual naivety, this light sarcasm has more or less fluffed up the situation. Someone who may have been intimidated to ask Bornstein a question now feels empowered. It is this sense of empowerment that enables further questioning. What it takes to defeat stereotypical barriers is comfort in asking what is unknown. Society must not fear gender ambiguity, but take it by the horns and stare it in the face. Only then can the fear be broken down into open discussion leading to tolerance.
The gender spectrum is infinitely broad, therefore, fluidity is highly possible if not unavoidable. Bornstein uses her book as a form of expression much in the way she uses her gender as an accessory. By breaking down the fear of ambiguity with electrically witty answers, she has enabled the inquirer to ask questions about gender fluidity and transsexuality with the result of gaining tolerance and understanding. Her book is not an attempt at integration of non-binary genders just as Maurice Berger’s2 book White Lies is not an attempt at integration of Blacks. These works are attempts at analyzing the current status of society and recognizing the naivety of its people. Only once knowledge and understanding of such subjects is gained can they be understood and therefore loved among the rest.
Written for Dr. Beth Schachter’s Performing Identities in my first semester at Muhlenberg College. Exact date unknown.