by Kate Bornstein
Gender rights are often reduced to the rights of women and the rights of men. But over the past 15 yearsby means of postmodern theory, as well as more precise biological confirmationWestern Culture has parsed gender into far more than simply two genders.
I wrote the book, Hello, Cruel World, using gender as a hierarchal system (comprised of more than two) to illustrate the ways in which a hierarchal system of oppression can cause an unaware person to experience suicidal thoughts. Gender, however is only one of ten primary hierarchal systems of oppression, the others being age, race, class, sexuality, religion, looks, ability, citizenship and family status.
Because gender is so firmly entrenched as “natural,” it’s not often seen as a primary, secondary or even tertiary causative factor of our oppression. The matrix of all ten hierarchal systems of oppression must be untangled one from the other before any sort of true freedom is universally available. My contribution to the untangling, though, is gender.
Here is a brief excerpt from my book, Hello, Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws:
“Today could be the last day of your life. Whether or not you’re thinking of killing yourself, you could die at any moment.
Excellent! That’s called staying alive.
And just who am I, trying to creep inside your head and talk to you about staying alive You have every right to know more about me. So, here’s me coming out to you: My name is Kate Bornstein, and I’m a transsexual.
Excellent! That’s called being interested in life’s possibilities. I’m not exactly a transsexual. A transsexual is a man who becomes a woman, or a woman who becomes a man, and I’m not a man, and I’m not a woman. I break too many rules of both those genders to be one or the other. I transgress gender. You could call me transgressively gendered. You could call me transgender. Me, I call myself a traveler.
I’m traveling through all sorts of identities, picking and choosing what works and leaving the rest behind. I shift and change in order to make staying alive more worthwhile. I shift and change in order to keep myself from getting stuck someplace where I’d rather be dead, or might as well be.
Sometimes I’m aware of shifting my identity, and other times I shift identities without even thinking about it, like a chameleon skillfully morphing its colors and markings to accommodate an ever-changing environment. They’re not multiple personalities, they’re all different ways of expressing me in the world.
I was a boy who didn’t want to be a boy, and in the either/or, gotta-be-one-thing-or-another modernist world of the 1950s, the only alternative to boy was girl, which I wasn’t allowed to be. No one talked about the possibility of being neither. So I worked real hard at being a boy. It was something I was conscious of doing all the time. I watched other boys and did what they did. I did what all the ads and movies and school textbooks told me that boys do. I watched for what to do right. I needed other people to validate my effort to be real. It was important that they saw me as one of them. I don’t think I ever pulled it off. Their kind of realness seemed always to be out of reach. These days, I’m trying less and less to be a real anything but the real me, whatever that ends up being.
Have you ever pretended to be another kind of person so that someone would like you better, or maybe so they wouldn’t hurt you Have you ever changed the kind of person you were in order to make people believe you were somehow more real How did you ensure that you were looking and behaving within acceptable social parameters
Everyone consciously or unconsciously changes who they are in response to their environment or to some relationship that they are negotiating at any given moment. Every life form does that. It’s a kind of phenotypic plasticity, an observable biological theory that says more or less that all life forms evolve according to their surroundings. They shift and change what they are so that their identity doesn’t wind up causing their death and/or eventual extinction as a species.
We don’t learn to shift identities for purely whimsical reasons, or because we’re bored or want to entertain people. It’s something we do in order to survive. The ability to control who and what we are or seem to be in the world is a life skill we learn through practice, just like any other life skill.
People who are reactionary try to keep the world from changing, rather than do the hard, but ultimately more realistic, work of changing themselves. People who don’t see any way of changing themselves or the world spend a lot of time wishing they were dead.
When we consciously evolve toward an identity that we can live with, life becomes more of a game or a sport, like surfing. I’m not saying it’s an easy or fun thing to do, just that it takes skill, it’s exciting, and it’s absolutely worth the commitment and sacrifice.”
October 7, 2009
Video: Kate Bornstein Speaking at the 40th Reunion of the Class of ’69, Brown University
Kate Bornstein is the author of two ground-breaking books of postmodern gender theory:Gender Outlaw, and My Gender Workbook. Her most recent book is Hello, Cruel World. Now in her sixties, Kate still tours college campuses as a speaker and performance artist. She is an advocate for teens, freaks, and other outlaws. The excerpt from Hello, Cruel World is courtesy of Seven Stories Press.
Also see “Southern Reproductive and Trans Alliance” by Sir Jesse of Decatur in the this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
See The Art of Tammy Rae Carland in The Art Perspective, curated by Linda Stein, in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.