Kate Bornstein on Why the Gender Bullies Can’t Win

Kate Bornstein is a world renowned performance artist, and the award-winning author of Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest Of Us. She recently co-starred in the Broadway production of Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men.

I was born in 1948, just under a year after Donald Trump was born. We both grew up in the Fifties, back when it seemed we all knew that America was great. World War II was over, and we’d won. The boys came back and returned to work in the factories. The women (most of them) stopped working in the factories, and returned to their rightful places in the home, taking care of their men and the children.

No one needed to define what made a man a man, it was obvious: his penis. No one needed to define what made a woman a woman, it was obvious: she gave birth to children. Simple. Obvious. Unquestionable.

Gender wasn’t a word that anyone used besides biologists, and then only in conjunction with other words like species, phylum, and order. Sex was the word that everyone used. It was a word that included everything about what we now refer to as gender: assignment, identity, role, expression, attribution, and sexuality; as well as genitals, hormones, chromosomes, reproductive organs and all their tissues and fluids. The word sex also included the understanding of the term, secondary sex characteristics, which included beards, breasts, body hair, lack of body hair. The word sex included what we call sex drive: how bad do you want it? When you wanted to talk about suitable work for men and appropriate work for women, you were talking in terms of their sex roles. Sex was not a very precise word. When you said sex, you meant all of the above. Gender, as we’re using the word today, only really entered mainstream use in the 1970s and 80s.

Feminists were questioning the supremacy of sex as a factor in equality. A cultural wave was rising, and it was made up of more and more people who were not allowed to be called real men: women, children, homosexuals, and any adult males who were not white and Christian—nope, they weren’t real men. They were something other, and in the 1970s and 80s, all the people who weren’t real men were realizing that they were being denied jobs, homes, rights, justice, and sexual pleasure. Keep in mind, please, that this was back when America was great.

The real cisgender men who controlled public spaces could deny access, on a whim, to women, children, homosexuals, and any adult males who were not white and Christian. Donald Trump and I grew up reading signs that said “Men Only,” “No children under…,” “Whites Only,” “No Jews Allowed.” Donald and I—he in New York City, me down on the Jersey shore—we’d ride our bikes past signs like that, and we’d wonder about that day in the future when the world would finally treat us like real men. We were both in the process of developing a sexual identity. I saw my approaching manhood along the lines of Wile E. Coyote frantically trying to come to a halt before flying off the edge of a huge cliff. As far as I know, when Donald Trump dreamed of becoming a real man, it was a wet dream and he was licking his lips with anticipation of money and power. Donald and I were proving to our dads that we could be real men—Donald, because he wanted with all his heart to be one; and me, because I couldn’t let my father see that I wasn’t and never would be one. But the women, blacks, gays, lesbians, and radical youth were all at once raising their voices. It was a sexual revolution. The word gender was just spreading its wings in the academy. We needed a new word because the word sex had become overwhelming, and seemed imbued with a God-given power of final arbiter-ship: right or wrong sex, good or evil sex, real men or real women sex. In response to all that black and white thinking, shades of grey were dawning. In response to all the answers prescribed and proscribed by sex, questions were whispered, spoken, shouted, and moaned. We needed a new word for all that, a word that we could all figure out the definition of. We took gender from the its body-level roots in the field of biology, and repurposed it. Gender began to mean body and mind. Sex meant either/or. Gender allowed for maybe something else.


Kate Bornstein in June 2018. Photo: Walter McBride/Getty Images

Now here’s the kicker: all of the above — all of it — was taking place with no legal and binding definition of what’s a man or what’s a woman. Used to be, everyone had their own idea of that, and that worked just fine. Up until now, there hasn’t been a definition of men and women that’s been encoded and enforced by law. So why is this happening now? Well, the people who want to enforce those definitions need to enforce them, because no one in their right mind would see the sense of agreeing with those gender definitions without those laws.

The unending struggles between men and women that emerged in the 20th Century as “The War Between the Sexes” has morphed into the Gender Wars — that is, real, manly cisgender men versus everybody they won’t let be one. The Sexual Revolution that began in the 60s worked! What we need now is the Gender Revolution; and there are a lot of people who could rise up together in resistance to the crazy idea of defining the rights of all Americans according to their genitals.

Yes, we’ve been fragmented along the lines of not only gender, but also sexuality, race, age, class, religion, politics and so on. And while all those divisions are real and must be healed, we have the opportunity now to look past all those differences and focus on what we have in common, all of us who are not permitted the rights, privileges, access, justice, and power afforded to straight, white, cisgender, real, manly men.

The first thing to keep in mind is that there are more of “us” than there are of “them.” Relatively few people in the world are allowed to call themselves real, manly cisgender men. So it’s time for the rest of us to find and hold some common ground. Women have got a great deal in common with gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people who’ve got a lot in common with queer people, who’ve got a lot in common with children and older youth. Sissy men and young boys have a lot in common with men of color. People with disabilities — physical and mental alike — have traditionally been denied membership in any gender in the America that once was great. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Wiccans and atheists stand alongside the ranks of the intellectuals, the effete, and town fools. In short, we are a whole lot of people, and all we have to do to stop the gender bullies from getting away with it—the only thing we have to do is stop thinking that our own unique gender-based suffering is worse than anyone else’s. Everyone experiences their own suffering as the worst. Once we let go of our own gendered importance, we can begin to cooperate with others who are being targeted by the gender bullies. We agree to look after the most vulnerable among us, whomever we triage them to be. We cooperate, compromise, and form coalitions…and we vote. Voila! End of gender bullies in power.

It isn’t going to be easy. It may take a while. So we keep resisting. I’m 70 years old, and I’ve been resisting gender bullying from the day I was told I had to be a boy. I’m still alive, and joyously living the gender of my choice. We all can do that if we do it together with the kindness, compassion, and justice we all deserve.

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