Kate Bornstein, Gender, and Power


We’ve started reading / working / journeying through Kate Bornstein’s My New Gender Workbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Achieving World Peace Through Gender Anarachy and Sex Positivity (Routledge 2013), which is an update of Bornstein’s original My Gender Workbook (Routledge 1998). Of all the books I selected for the course, this one immediately inspired curiosity from my students and from my colleagues in the school’s bookstore. A cutline on the front cover of the book, which appears as a sort-of multicolored composition book, says, “Now with more high theory, quizzes, and SEX. Plus robots and pirates! xox-Kate.” And, yes, judge this book by its cover. It’s fun–but serious fun–fun in the service of social justice, of raising our awareness of our gendered existences.

We’re just two chapters in, and we’ve had good, frank discussions about gender, sex, being trans, and how binaries can be oppressive. Before we started talking about Bornstein’s (work)book, I showed this video of her speaking to Brown University’s Class of ’69 (of which she was a member) at their 40th reunion. Interestingly, she is one of two women to have a Brown diploma from pre-1970. Women, until 1970, took classes and received diplomas from Pembroke College at Brown University (just like Radcliffe was Harvard’s women’s college and Barnard was Columbia’s). Since Bornstein is an MTF (male to female) transsexual (as she identifies in the video and in her writing), she has this rare status of being a woman of her age who has a Brown diploma.

Bornstein makes us comfortable by making us laugh; at ourselves and our assumptions about gender. She leads us through self-reflection in the form of “quizzes.” She humanizes high theory by including tweets from her “twibe” (people who tweeted her and got her thinking about how to update the workbook). Essentially, she queers the way we discuss gender. As she says, ‘Well this whole book is a mix of metaphors, styles, genres, and points of view.” Its polyvocal, multifaceted approach to dealing with gender perfectly performs the idea of defying categorization and essentialism.

While Foucault was speaking to an purely academic audience, Bornstein is speaking to everyone who will listen. Foucault gives us complex definitions of power as it relates to systems, sex, identities, and history. Bornstein, on the other hand, defines power according a social justice perspective: “Power is access to resources.” She then shows how identity, desire, and power are interrelated and how gender sometimes controls identity, desire, and power.

We’re just into the second chapter, and Bornstein has just blown a mighty hole into the notion of sex = gender. She’s commanded us politely by “asking” the reader to use the word “sex” only for “fucking and so on” so that it “robs essentialist thinkers of their gendered biological imperative.” At first, that seems to be such a minor, basic change. But the more I think about the implications, wow…

I’m looking forward to our class’s discussion.

Queer vs. Gay / Lesbian



I thought this video from Katie Couric’s show that has been circulating around brings up an important point with regards to trans* issues, the fact that focusing always on the body can divert people’s attention from issues of social justice and violence. I’ll definitely need to bring this up in class tomorrow.

We just finished talking about the difference in the terms / associations “queer” and “gay/lesbian.” And we also talked about the relevance of queer studies generally. Basically, for the terms questions, the students boiled it down to “what’s at stake” or what a particular group wants. Generally, they saw that those who frequently use the terms gay / lesbian have an assimilationist agenda: they want to be included at the table. And those opting for queer are more revolutionary: they want to destroy the table because the table is broken.

Perhaps the most useful understanding of the relevance of queer studies came through looking at Eve Sedgwick’s contrasting of the “minoritizing” view and “universalizing” view in Epistemology of the Closet. The minoritizing view (usually gay / lesbian) sees homosexuality as something of interest to those people for whom it is an identity. But the universalizing view sees homosexuality or same-sex desire as “an issue of continuing, determinative importance in the lives of people acros the spectrum of sexualities.” Clearly both views are at work at once.

It seems, to some degree, that the terms lesbian and gay are often used in a minoritizing sense–the people for whom same sex desire is a defining aspect of their identity want to be assimilated into existing cultural norms (e.g. the right to marry). On the other hand, “queer” (the universalizing view) sees societal norms as oppressive and in need of radical change. Queers want nothing to do with the status quo (no interest in marriage, for example).

We’ll continually complicate this understanding, but we got a good look into why certain groups opt for the language they use and the implied aims of those terms.