Temple students swarmed the Women’s Studies Lounge in Anderson Hall last Wednesday to listen to notorious trans-sexual author, playwright and performance artist Kate Bornstein speak about gender and queer-related issues.
Bornstein, author of the popular works Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us and Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws, was brought to Temple by The Greater Philadelphia Women’s Studies Consortium for a speaking series last week in which she attended several other colleges in the Southeastern Pennsylvania region, including Drexel University, Villanova University and Bryn Mawr College.
“Her visit speaks to the progressive sentiment toward the recognized need for more trans sensitivity [on campus] as well as broader intersectional LGBT analysis that doesn’t leave the ‘B’ or ‘T’ out of the mix,” said Temple professor and the LGBT studies minor Adviser Whitney Strub.
Bornstein said she was going to talk about work that came to her mind since the publication of Hello Cruel World, calling the event a “survival guide for sex and gender outlaws or outlaws of any particular kind.”
Bornstein began the discussion with a PowerPoint of a venn diagram showing “what makes life worth living” – identity, desire and power. What Bornstein didn’t realize until after the publication of Hello Cruel World, she said, was how these three aspects are linked.
“You’ve got identity desire and power,” Bornstein said. “You can’t pull them apart, they affect each other.”
She stressed that if you raise one, the other two rise, if you lower one, the other two lower.
“What I was interested in was where these three factors of life overlap, what’s keeping them together,” Bornstein added.
Bornstein found that what keeps these three factors together is what’s at the center of the diagram: the human spirit.
“You call it the soul, God, you can call it the Goddess, compassion, love … that good stuff,” she said. “Whatever makes you feel like that.”
Bornstein said the world would be wonderful if this was the only thing driving the three factors, but it’s not. And that’s because there is one more aspect overlapping the three factors of what makes life worth living: gender.
“Gender ties your identity, desire and power together by giving orders as to what your identity is, who you can be, how you can dress,” Bornstein said. “It dictates your desires, such as who you can f—, who are you not allowed f—, where you can or can’t f— … gender does all of that.”
Bornstein added, “If that and the human spirit were the only thing affected what makes life worth living, easy-peasy, we’d just get everybody to read Judith Butler and to understand.”
In addition to gender, Bornstein stressed that there are several other things that affect people’s lives, including race, age, class, religion, sexuality, looks, ability, citizenship and family status. These ten factors, Bornstein said, form hierarchical systems of oppression. Unearned authority added to the hierarchies is when the problems affecting our lives occur.
For that point, Bornstein examined the roots of these forms of oppression, attributing them to gender and the way mainstream society thinks of it as a binary, where only male and female gender roles exist. The thought-provoking author then suggested a deconstruction of the binary to determine which elements people have control over, pointing out to the audience the flaws of postmodern theory—which emphasizes that things aren’t what they seem to be—while still showing how it can be used to help them survive.
After that, Bornstein showed the student enthusiast-filled room a list of all of the groups who are marginalized and cast aside by society as “outlaws” because they don’t fit into the binary, including everyone under the LGBTQIA acronym as well as adult entertainers, swingers, drag queens and kings, feminists, genderqueers (those whose gender identity is outside of the gender binary of male and female), pornographers, et cetera. All of these groups break the binary system, and support sex positivity and gender anarchy, both of which can stop the binary system from hurting these members of society, she said.
Although the author is trans-sexual, Bornstein does not identify as female – an example of breaking the binary system.
“My very existence breaks gender binary,” Bornstein said.
In the latter part of the event, Bornstein spoke about the harmfulness of “either/or” questions, like “Are you a boy or a girl?” and “gay or straight?”
“Either/or questions are bully questions,” Bornstein said. “Answering these questions robs you and supports the system of a gender binary.”
Students were so captivated by Bornstein and filled the room to capacity to the point where students were willing to sit on the floor to listen to the author speak.
Amanda Ramsaran, a junior film and media arts major, said Bornstein’s speech was, “very empowering because it pointed out that it’s OK to have any identity you choose, even if you are just in between.”
Junior religion major Cody Long said he was enamored with Bornstein’s talk.
“Nothing else mattered today but seeing Kate Bornstein,” he said.
The final portion of the Bornstein’s talk seemed especially powerful for everyone in the room. As stated in Hello Cruel World, Bornstein told the audience how to deal with life when it doesn’t seem worth living.
“Do whatever it takes,” Bornstein said. “Just don’t be mean.”
Josh Fernandez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.