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Conversations With a Gender Outlaw

By Lauren Boyle
Photo by Imani Nia Rutledge

January 22, 2010 — Kate Bornstein Author, playwright, and performance artist Kate Bornstein, a male-female transsexual, shared with eager Drexel students her personal and professional perspective on understanding the current binary model of gender identification. Bornstein’s existence contradicts the binary notion of gender as we know it because she identifies herself as neither a man nor a woman.

Led by Dr. Rose Corrigan, Assistant Professor of History and Politics and Director of Women's Studies, the Women’s Studies Program coordinated Ms. Bornstein’s D3 lecture “Conversations with a Gender Outlaw.” Having lived in Philadelphia around 1981 before her sex-change surgery, Bornstein is pleased to be back in the area as Scholar in Residence for the Greater Philadelphia Women's Studies Consortium. Drexel students with questions about alternative genders or sexualities were able to engage in discussion with someone who has lived the experience.

Bornstein explained the overlapping relationship between identity (who you are,) desire, (who you want,) and power (your access to resources necessary for living.) Ideally, these aspects of a person would be governed by nothing other than the independent, human spirit. However, if the ideal was synonymous with reality, Bornstein would have no lecture to deliver. She encouraged the audience to realize what actually controls identity, desire and power: gender.

Perhaps gender’s influence would not be so troublesome if gender itself were not influenced by a myriad of extenuating factors that include race, age, class, ethnicity, sexuality, looks, ability, citizenship, religion, family status, and language. Instead of being guided solely by the human spirit, our identity, desire, and power are manipulated by the rules of gender and its contingent factors. A middle age, middle class, African-American, Muslim, woman, Bornstein suggested, would feel pressure not only to fulfill her role as a woman, but as a Muslim woman, American woman, ethnic woman, and so on. The systematic juggling of roles with conflicting values is sure to create anxieties, as a person will never perfectly fulfill each individual role.

Bornstein implored the young audience to accept its generation’s challenge: forming a coalition to fight each of these vectors of gender oppression. Within each of these factors affecting gender there is a “kyriarchy” or particular, powerful group dictating control. In race, it is the white man; in religion, the protestant; in citizenship, the American. Each of these examples is part of a binary, having two opposite components such as black/white, rich/poor, or ugly/attractive.

“Two elements of a binary can only be equal in a vacuum,” Bornstein explained, “Culture influences everything.”

Because of this inherent inequality, engaging in power struggles within binaries is not the solution. For example, gay marriage rights will certainly make life easier for gay couples, but will not erase the greater issue, as equality between opposites is not feasible. The ultimate goal, for Bornstein, becomes deconstructing the binaries, not seeking equality within them.


Lauren Boyle graduated in June of 2010 with a B.A. in English.

Imani Nia Rutledge graduated in June of 2011 with a M.P.H. in Public Health, concentrating on Community Health and Prevention.

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