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Gender Is a Playground
Zackary Drucker and Kate Bornstein discuss pioneers, politics, and the next frontier in gender expression.
From Aperture’s “Future Gender” issue, Zackary Drucker and Kate Bornstein discuss pioneers, politics, and the next frontier in gender expression.
Kate Bornstein is a gender outlaw. Decades before Caitlyn Jenner graced the cover of Vanity Fair, Bornstein was pushing for a radical vision of gender beyond the binary. In 1989, with daytime talk shows among the only mainstream arenas to address nonnormative identities, she appeared on Geraldo in a segment titled “Transsexual Regrets: Who’s Sorry Now?” The show was meant to sensationalize Bornstein, a transgender lesbian, but she wasn’t having it. “I was the one who wasn’t sorry,” she later said. In her performances and plays, such as Hidden: A Gender (1989), and in her groundbreaking, genre-defying 1994 book Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us, Bornstein writes with characteristic wit, candor, and generosity about topics from gender confirmation surgery to trans activism. Throughout her life and career, Bornstein has defied the rules. For Aperture’s “Future Gender” issue, Bornstein spoke with guest editor Zackary Drucker about trans pioneers, the thrill of pornography, and the young photographers envisioning the next frontier in gender expression.
Zackary Drucker: I wanted to start by telling the story of how I found my way to you and your writing as a fourteen-year-old queer youth. It was the mid-’90s and I’d recently discovered the word queer. There I was, in the LGBT and women’s studies section at the bookstore. I don’t know what possessed me, but I shoplifted a copy of Gender Outlaw, and discovered the word transgender, and found myself in your words and in your experience in a way that I had never felt reflected before. It was a Bible of sorts. It was a Talmud, rather. I still have this copy of Gender Outlaw, and it’s creased and worn, and has notes in it—my little fourteen-year-old self, writing notes in the margins. It has a rainbow sticker on the front [laughs]. You were such a gender pioneer for me personally, and for countless others—I think an entire nation, really. Who are your gender pioneers, and who were they when you were transitioning in the 1980s?
Kate Bornstein: First off, allow me to say that when we first met, you stole my heart, and it’s lovely to hear that you also stole my fucking book. I’m so proud of that!
Drucker: I’ll pay you back for it.
Bornstein: It’s a gift now. Oh! I cherish that story.
My pioneers. Well, there weren’t many. There were, of course, the mainstream big hitters: There was Christine Jorgensen. There was Renée Richards. But I didn’t identify really with any of those. There was Wendy Carlos. She was the first trans person to graduate from Brown University. I was the second—that we know of. But honestly, my real hero, who I wanted to grow up and be like, was Tula.
Drucker: Caroline Cossey.
Bornstein: Yes. But she was Tula, and that’s all she was known as, and she wrote the book I am a Woman (1982). What got me was her liminal beauty. She was a beautiful boy and a beautiful girl all at the same time—and I wanted to be pretty! She was the first trans woman I saw who embraced beauty. She went right into being “girl.” But she lived “boy.” That sang to me. She was my earliest hero.
Much later, Lou Sullivan was a hero of mine. We lived near each other in the Mission District in San Francisco in the late ’80s and early ’90s before he died. He was a complete maverick. I was one of the earliest trans women who came out as lesbian. He may have been the first trans man who came out openly as a gay man. So, we spoke about the entanglement of sexuality and gender. I have lots of heroes today, and you’re one of them.
Drucker: Oh, my goodness.
Bornstein: You are.
Drucker: You’re making me blush now. I have so many questions. First, I was thinking about your relationship to postmodernism, and how hard it must have been to conceptualize this binary—that of Christine Jorgensen and the writer Jan Morris, and the antiquated narrative of being a woman trapped in a man’s body. It must have been reductive to you because you were so much more interested in complicating meaning and adding layers. That’s why you’re my gender pioneer, because you were presenting a way of being that was not a simple, reduced, “I am one way, but I should have been the other.” That feels like a very black-and-white way of thinking.
When I found your book, you were way ahead of the curve of where we are today, with people acknowledging that gender is a spectrum like everything else. How did the conditions of the 1980s and your understanding of postmodernism influence your sense of self, or was it completely self-made?
Bornstein: I didn’t know about postmodernism until I got invited to an academic women’s theater conference in 1987. These were not women who were making theater; these were women who were critiquing theater. They invited me to come perform, and told me that what I was doing, performing three genders, was postmodern. Postmodernism runs so against the grain of either/or, which is the basis of America; but that basis proved to be a veneer for a deeper truth that everything—including gender—is relative to context and point of view. And in the 1980s and early ’90s, that made the most sense to me. The word binary didn’t exist in relation to gender. Or, if it did, I didn’t know it. We called it “the two-gender system.” Actually, in the first edition of Gender Outlaw I called it “the bipolar gender system.”
Drucker: That’s so accurate.
Bornstein: Postmodern theory gave me the permission to define myself as “not man, not woman.” We didn’t have words for what we were, but we could definitely state what we were not. The Warhol superstar Jackie Curtis said that way before I did. “I am not a man and I am not a woman.” Many of the queens of the day, in the late ’60s and through the ’70s, were actually embracing and living nonbinary lives.
There’s intense polarization on many levels within the trans community these days—one of them is between drag queens and transgender women, who claim that drag queens hold on to male privilege. But, my guess is that none of these transgender women has met a drag queen out of drag. For the most part, they are highly effeminate men, sometimes just flaming fags. They have no privilege out in the world. And they are wonderfully nonbinary. Drag is a “queer” identity. Female impersonation is a “straight” identity. So, female impersonation is what transgender women might be objecting to. Out of their female clothes, those men retain male privilege.
Drucker: I couldn’t agree with you more. Female impersonation has been used as a tool of misogyny, especially in television and film, and has too often been conflated with trans identity. I think much of the time homophobia is really rooted in a discomfort with gender, with gender roles, and with people performing outside of their gender roles. It’s not about two masculine men holding hands walking down the street—though, of course, that can be cause for violence, too. I think it’s actually swishy queens and butch women that bear the brunt of what we call homophobia, which we can just as easily situate in the realm of transphobia or trans misogyny.
Drucker: Moving from people to images—to film, television, and photographs—who were your pioneers in image making? What images of trans life informed your imagination or your sense of yourself? How did you arrive at a trans identity through culture at large?
Bornstein: In the 1970s and through into the ’80s, and even today, the images of trans porn inspire me, light me on fire. I think it’s so fucking beautiful!
In April, Laverne Cox told Elle magazine that trans people are beautiful and shouldn’t have to “blend in.” I retweeted that, but I was quickly reminded that sometimes you have to pass for safety’s sake. Absolutely. That takes priority. But the beauty inherent in the blend—porn was the only place I could find it. And there were wonderful porn magazines. Chicks With Dicks. She-Male. They weren’t trying to be women. They were beautiful not-men, not-women.
Drucker: Yes! I’ve been collecting all the trans woman magazines that I can get my hands on. They go back to the early ’60s. It’s a rare glimpse at our history, and it provides documentation of people who are not really documented elsewhere. Our history is in those magazines, and it’s embedded into a history of sexual exploitation, and maybe in the history of sexual pleasure, too. We often forget to recognize how empowering it can feel to be photographed and to be represented. And that’s continued today. Trans pornography is a category of pornography that’s growing faster than any other category. So, it’s interesting how our relationship to pornography, as a community, is so fraught. We have existed there, and it has provided a rare economic opportunity, where we were typically shut out of other economies.
Bornstein: For decades, porn was the only place we were allowed to be sexy, where people were allowed to be attracted to trans bodies. And today, you can’t be attracted to a trans body. You have to be attracted to a woman’s body. You’re allowed to be attracted to a woman who transitioned out of being a man. You’re allowed to be attracted to a man who transitioned out of being a woman. You’re not allowed to be attracted to those of us who blend.
Drucker: What do you think about the wave of visibility that trans folks have had over the past several years? How has that amplified platform helped us, and where has it hurt us?
Bornstein: In the ’60s and ’70s, when transsexuals first became known to the mainstream, we were the cultural butts of jokes. When transsexual—a binary-identified man or woman who had transitioned out of another gender—became transgender, it was a big step because transgender is now understood not to depend on biology, so that’s good. But what’s visible again is only the binary. The people who took the place of trans as the butt of the jokes are now the genderqueer folk, the gender fluid, the nonbinary, the gender nonconforming.
If you google genderqueer you will find very objectifying visibility. Whereas transgender visibility is more and more inclusive, more and more, “Oh yes, they’re just like us.” So, there are two levels of visibility going on here. But the flood of trans everywhere is specifically binary-identified trans people.
Drucker: Absolutely. To your previous point about Jackie Curtis, when Holly Woodlawn was interviewed by Gay Power newspaper in the late 1960s, they asked her, “Do you live your life as a transvestite completely?” and she said, “There is only one Holly Woodlawn. I know what I am.”
Drucker: For the 1960s, that was so forward-thinking. It was kind of like, “Fuck you; there are more than two ways of being.”
How do you think this kind of pluralistic range of identities today has established new barriers and obstacles between us? The right thinks that the left is fetishistic about identity, and even the moderate left has been critical of the trans rights movement for pushing the conversation too far out of people’s comfort zones. How do we rush the gates instead of backing down, and how do we push the conversation ahead and lean into a backlash, instead of losing momentum with these sorts of increasing legislative setbacks?
Bornstein: When gender is a binary, it’s a battlefield. When you get rid of the binary, gender becomes a playground. All kinds of ways of looking at gender can peacefully coexist. Of course, there are playground bullies. But whereas the activism of any kind of binary politic is struggle, and opposition, and gaining ground at the expense of someone else, the activism of a playground is cooperation and coalition. And that’s not really being tried. Caitlyn Jenner is doing it—in the weirdest way. She is forging a coalition within the right. Good for her. I couldn’t do that. I am trying to forge a coalition within the left.
How about you? In art and photography, what do you see?
Drucker: I love looking to the horizon of young trans and genderqueer visualizers, like Lia Clay, Hobbes Ginsberg, Leah James, and Wynne Neilly, each of whom incorporate disparate elements of culture seamlessly, connecting fashion, performance, auto-ethnography, social media, and more. Being around long enough to identify a new wave of talent cresting is so exciting—it makes the future feel limitless. These image makers are imagining future gender in their own way, and it looks like nothing that’s come before.
Moving into the future, how do you think gender will be regulated by technology? Or do you think binaries will be more or less entrenched? Do you think there’s always going to be an “us” and a “them,” a dominant versus a subjugated? Or do you think medicine and science will veer us away from fixed states of being altogether into this sort of proverbial playground that you so gloriously illuminated? We might be the most visible generation of trans people, but medicine and science could actually reduce our visibility in the future, and yet this also speaks to the growing class divide. If it’s only people with affl uence and status who have access to procedures that reduce their visibility, will there be a sort of rebel class of gender warriors, of people who are resisting the binary?
Bornstein: Way into the future, I see the dissolution of binary thinking. This is the basis of postmodern theory. This is the basis of all Eastern philosophies. This is the basis of quantum mechanics. Relativity. Nondualism. The acknowledgment that things are unpredictable, that things are going to change. Gender is a continuum. Identity is a continuum. And that, I think, is the future, not only of gender, but of the world.
Drucker: You just performed On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us at La MaMa in New York. How have you noticed the change in your audiences since you started performing in the ’80s? What have you learned from the younger generations in the past thirty years?
Bornstein: When I first started performing, with Hidden: A Gender and my solo shows The Opposite Sex Is Neither (1992) and Virtually Yours (1994), everything was a revelation to my audience. No one was going “Me, too.” Or, if they were going “Me, too,” they were really quiet about it. What is still new about what I’m performing is the notion of “not man, not woman.” That still knocks some people over. But now, there are more and more audience members who go, “Yeah, yeah.” When I see your generation embracing the possibility of a third, embracing the notion of fluidity, it gives me hope for the world I’m going to be reborn into.
Drucker: You’re an incredible visionary and a futurist. What do you think are the most significant changes you’ve witnessed in your lifetime, and where do you see gender heading in future societies?
Bornstein: I grew up in the 1950s in the “great America” everyone wants us to be again! But the fact that, today, people are motivated by a wish for inclusion, a wish for cooperation, a wish for breaking down barriers—that never existed when I was growing up.
Where do I see gender going in the future? Which future? One hundred years from now? Two thousand years from now?
Bornstein: There’s a Star Trek movie, Star Trek: Nemesis (2002), that starts with a great big dinner party, and all the Federation officers are in dress uniform, and it’s a fancy do, and Commander Data is welcoming people, and he says, “Ladies and gentlemen, and invited transgendered species.”
Bornstein: Oh, yes. They are some of the first words of the movie. When I saw that, I was rocked to my core. That made me think, “Okay, I exist in a future of Star Trek.” What’s more, in 2002, transgender was an inclusive word. Transsexual was the binary word. He didn’t say “transsexual species.” He was talking nonbinary. So, I see the future of gender as being included as neither-nor, just being acknowledged. That will be gender. It won’t be worldwide. But my God, Gender Outlaw has been published in China, Korea. People are thinking about this shit.
Drucker: I think that people will continue reading Gender Outlaw two thousand years ahead. Star Trek time in the future.
Bornstein: Let’s hope for favorable rebirth in a universe that’s still exploring gender. That would be swell.