Austen Crowder

Book Review: "Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation"

Filed By Austen Crowder | September 03, 2010 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Marriage Equality, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: androgyny, book review, gender studies, genderqueer, kate bornstein, LGBT essays, s bear bergman, transgender

Kate Bornstein's Gender Outlaw is a canonical work in the world of postmodern gender criticism.51-xz1X-hzL._SS500_-300x300.jpg The book is fifteen years old, though, and that is a veritable eternity in the realm of gender theory and trans* lives. Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, edited by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman, picks up where the original work left off with a collection of essays gathered from different corners of the trans* community.

No punches are pulled. This book presents the trans* community in all it's glorious, infamous, funny, angry, sexy, ugly, empowered, debilitated, and otherwise blazing glory. These are our stories - they do not ring of sensationalism, or apologism, or attempts to pander to the "outsiders" to our trans* world - and yet they remain accessible to everyone. The book is at once a liberating and empowering experience for anybody who has either thought about the gender spectrum or lived in the nooks and crannies between "boy" and "girl."

Best of all, the book is fantastically entertaining.

The overarching theme of Gender Outlaws is intersection. Few essays in this book discuss gender identity alone, and even fewer reflect the traditional, step-by-step process of transition that dominates the mainstream trans* narrative. Trans male drag queens, disabled trans folk, biracial trans folk, trans activists in other countries, trans roller derby girls, trans bible stories, trans Muslims even trans furries find a voice in this book. (A few Bilerico contributors even pepper the table of contents!) These pieces oftentimes skip the usual "Trans 101" discussion to move into new a new territory where gender acts as a lens to explore the other -isms in our world.

Playing into this diverse narratives idea, the format of Gender Outlaws pieces seem to change with every page turn. Formal academic essays are followed by love letters to special needs restrooms. Free verse poetry precludes comic memoirs, followed shortly by a discussion of the beauty of a trans woman's penis. Even with the rapid changes the book still flows from piece to piece even as it careens dangerously close to coming apart at the seams, thanks to the careful editorial choices by Bornstein and Bergman.

The book revels in its subversion, questioning conceptions, stereotypes, and the sexual narrative from the perspective of self-described freaks, fags, and corporate investment advisers. Rally calls for the gender nonconforming and in-between queers pepper the essays. Take this bit from Sam Peterson about the place of trans people in this new age:

Transpeople are either mutants or the next evolutionary stage: Either way, it looks like it's gonna be great TV. We best pay attention now and not TiVo for later. Trans is here to blow the lid off: off the Tupperware container of marriage of any flavor, off the top of our sex-toy chest, off our insistence on four able limbs and two well-spaced eyes--it's messing with our dick and our pussy, the most mistaken-for-sacred idols the world has ever known, so if we're scared, it is totally okay. We should be. I'm scared, and I have no idea what to wear to this shindig.

The essays are at once vindicating and terrifying, insular and ubiquitous, hilarious and challenging. It's the first book I've read that's collected these stories of gender transgression in a way that didn't bookend the whole mess in a process - guilt, suicidal need, transition, happiness, surgery, completion - and just showed trans* folk for who they were, tiny breasts and binders and queer voices and all. This is our culture. These are our stories. Even editor Kate Bornstein sees this book as vital first step to our understanding of a postmodern world:

It's the first book out there that I know of that's giving abundant first-hand experience of postmodern theory that goes beyond theory into the practical. The people writing in this book are no longer postmodern theorists - they are postmodern practitioners. This has never happened before! If we can get postmodern practitioners acting in more areas beyond gender, in areas like race, sexuality, class, age, religion, and the like - that's going to change the worldview. That's going to put a big crack in the wall of either/or thinking or either/or acting. These are folks that are living it.

[. . .]

It shows that trans people have something to bring to the social justice table. Not just "we're so downtrodden" - no, we know how to bust binaries, and it's binaries that are keeping other -isms in their place. We know how to do it, and this book is evidence of that.

If this book takes off in a way even remotely similar to its predecessor I see it becoming the best-fit way for outsiders to experience our trans* world - not within their own understanding of male or female, but on our terms.


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Angela Brightfeather | September 3, 2010 2:48 PM

I'm running out to get it now Kate!!!!

Look Austen, people like Kate, Holly Boswell, me and a lot of other Trans people have been saying for a long time, that there is a specific reason why Transgender people have been around and will always be around. We are the canary in the mine, when it comes to social equality. Wherever equality is not, we are there explaining to people who can only think in dual modes, that they are wrong and we can prove it just by the way we are living. If peopel refuse to accept diversity in life, we are the ones who stand in front of them and say, "what are you going to do about people like me then?"

Now that things are changing and so many people are challenging gender norms, not because of any simple one thing like, but by so man multiple every day things, it shines a lot of light on just how discriminatory and unfair some people are and what lengths they will go to keep us out of sight and quiet. Trans people are the ones that other people can't figure out and give a good answer for because it shows how little they understand about themselves most of the time and how they live their lives.

I don't know about this. I'm not here to practice any postmodern anything - those who wish to are welcome to their fun, but I reject the idea that being trans is about some sort of postmodern radical deconstructionist political agenda.

I'm no kind of mutant and I'm not the "next evolutionary stage," whatever that's supposed to mean. I'm forced right now to live between genders in some ways, but that's not where I want to be. I support trans people who are nonbinary but I'm not one and I do very much wish they wouldn't presume to speak for all of us. I really wish they wouldn't claim that our narratives are somehow "pandering" to the mainstream.

My transness is just as legitimate as any genderqueer's or gender outlaw's. I'm here, I'm real, and all I want is my fucking penis. Thank you.

"My transness is just as legitimate as any genderqueer's or gender outlaw's. I'm here, I'm real, and all I want is my fucking penis. Thank you."

Well said. Everyone's journey is just as valid and should be respected as such. With or without the penis.

Thanks Evan. What you said is so important.

Yes, Bornstein, in hir attempts to free us, sometimes pigeonholes and objectifies us as much as our oppressors. Hir acolytes remind me of so many of the Scientologists ze controlled in hir earlier days. Smugness is not liberation.

Well said Evan. I couldn't agree more... except for the penis part, I don't want one of those but the rest is spot on.

As someone who hasn't really transgressed much of anything and has no plans to, I applaud your comment.

I'm cool on people being transgressive. And then there are the rest of us.

I'm looking forward to reading the book. I have to say, I'm ambivalent about post-modernism and the idea of post-modern gender. Maybe I'll feel better after I read the book, or maybe I'll feel worse and that will be better. That would be the postmodern way.

I love Kate, and she's had a significant impact on my trans journey. But I can just imagine the material this will supply for people who want to portray us as sick freaks who shouldn't be permitted to transition, and certainly don't deserve civil rights.

I love love love when people look beyond theory and into the way people apply such theories to their real lives. Too much queer theory gets stuck in the academic, and the few times these people (not naming names) are forced to interact with the outside world they show nothing but contempt for the rest of us.

I'll see if I can get my hands on this book out here, but it's on my list.

saddened by this | September 4, 2010 9:38 AM

I would love to read a book about trans people where they just talk about their individual lives without the meta-agenda of claiming that trans is better than anything else. I understand victims' overcompensation and need to rebuild group ego, but Bornstein is always irritating in her obsession with creating a hierarchy between trans and other peoples. A necessary phase I know but sad nonetheless. As Evan said above, in making trans people the New Humans, you split yourselves even further from the Old Humans (90% of whom are happy in their boring cis binary sexes). It's like a religion or cult where the people who believe cannot understand why everyone else is not bursting with excitement over the Truth and the Way that they have found. Bornstein is a trans evangelist and just as disconnected as the Christian kind.

Saddened: Ze does the same trip on trans people too. If you don't buy hir "queer gender rebel" religion, you're out of it, self-delusional and reactionary. Moreover, a lot of hir schtick isn't even meant for trans people, it's meant for queer people... the deconstructing gender kind... the gender is totally a social construct kind. And those people are as judgmental about trans people as the conservative wingnuts are.

Maybe I should clarify: even with all the postmodern gender ideas - and all the baggage that comes along with that - this book is a fantastic, empowering read for pretty much any trans person. There are postmodernists in the pages, yes, but there are also stories of trans people just trying to make their way through the world.

It is, to my mind, the single most impactful book I've read about trans people. Did it change my views on gender? Nope - I'm still a woman. But reading these stories - our stories - gave me hope.

I completed transition during the days of "Gender Outlaw" and well before the current battles of "TG or TS", "HS or AG" and all the other skimishes that now seem to take up most of the TS waveband. The ideas of that book still resonate with me and I look forward to reading this new book by Kate.
It is hard to see a "TS community" when most of the members (at least, as self-defined) spend most of their time attacking other TS for various diverse reasons that matter little and are no more than opinions. As the saying goes, we all have those. I value Kate's opinion far more than that of many others.

Gender Outlaw did not resonate with me, but Whipping Girl did, and Julia Serano has a piece in this book, so I figured I'd give it a try. Bought it this weekend in Portland.

As I commented earlier, I am among the women born transsexual -- I don't know how many of us there are -- for whom postmodernist gender deconstruction is not terribly meaningful. I'm not any kind of outlaw. I'm boring! But I'm happy this way. And I'm all in favour of people doing whatever makes them happy, as long as they harm no one (including themselves).

One reason I thought I'd get the book was a comment I read, addressed to me, from one of the contributors about how she wasn't much of an outlaw either but the editors wanted her point of view in the book as well.

Whether you believe it or not, participate or not, trans is a powerful force for social justice/change. Regardless of how you inhabit your body / gender, because of this movement, this transness, we are going to have to deconstruct some old, oppressive ideas about what it means to be a “man” or a “woman.” Why this is transgressive or radical is beyond me – it seems utterly logical and about damn time. Also, that my own joy and wonder and delight at having to transition isn’t contagious means I’m just going to have to try harder. This will require some balloon animals, and will make some folks unaccountably angry.

I keep seeing "trans*"

But there's no "*: this means something-or-other" at the end? What does the * mean? Where is the footnote?