I started reading Gender Outlaw by Kate Bornstein this week. It is the first book I’ve read by her and had been recommended to me by many folks. It’s okay. She does an amazing job to ask challenging questions to those who have never considered what it means to be a woman or a man and to introduce a trans experience. I have yet to finish it. There are a few challenges I wish to make. It is possible that she has responded to similar criticism and answered some of the questions I have already.
Criticism #1: Male behavior is male privilege?
Bornstein writes, “It took my becoming a woman to discover my ‘male behavior’–that is, exhibiting male privilege. When I was first coming out, I used to hang out mostly with women. Any act of mine that was learned male behavior stuck out like a sore thumb. Things like leaping up and taking charge, even when it wasn’t called for; things like using a conversation like a sledge hammer; things like assuming that everyone owed me special consideration for my journey through a gender change–I still shudder at my arrogance. Some might say none of that’s male. Well, I learned it when I was a guy, and I was the only one exhibiting that behavior when I was in the company of women, so if it’s not exclusively male, it’s real close…I noticed I didn’t have much remaining male privilege by the slow dawning of peacefulness in my life. That may sound flaky, but the fact is I’m nowhere near as territorial and possessive as I used to be. I’m not as frantic to get or hold on to something as I once was. I still want things. I still go after things. But I use force infrequently now. For me, that’s a perk of having gotten rid of male privilege” (p. 110).
One saying that I recently learned is, “Save masculinity from the patriarchy.” Often times, masculinity (or male behavior) is labeled immediately and absolutely as negative. Misogyny and the patriarchy have hijacked any and all traits that have been traditionally labeled masculine, thus much feminist rhetoric speaks out against this behavior has always already oppressive. Traits like taking charge, physical activity, and confrontation are said to be taught to boys. Like other social constructions, I agree that some behaviors are learned to be acceptable for some people and not acceptable for others. I agree that masculinity has been labeled as violent, forceful, and oppressive. What type of masculinity? Which boys are taught to take charge? Which boys are taught they have the power, skills, and ability to lead?
Primarily middle and upper class white boys.
The construction of masculinity that Bornstein refers to, the male behavior she was taught to display growing up, is complicated within her race and class privilege. Bornstein does not deny her background or privilege; yet, when she discusses freeing herself from force, her reflection upon this experience lacks a critique of race and class. Although I do not believe there is one experience for a whole group of people, some sort of shared experience for all middle class white boys, I do believe that in order to uphold systems of oppression the wealthy white male must stay at the top. What do we try to teach them? The skills, language, and behavior to make and or maintain that climb to the top.
Still, some of the behaviors that Bornstein labels as male behavior, therefore male privilege, I cannot see as either. I think that often those behaviors, like possessiveness, are labeled misogynistic but they are not exclusively male. I know plenty of people, of all gender identities, that struggle with being possessive. Capitalism requires possessiveness in everyone. If we did not want to keep what we have, other forms of consumption might be seen as more effective.
Although I have not had Bornstein’s experience, I can understand how freeing it feels to liberate oneself from behaviors that were forced upon someone due to the gender they were assigned. Being passed as a gender that one is representing takes a lot of work, and one effective way to be passed upon is to rid oneself of behaviors that are traditionally attributed to the other end of the oppressive binary created to regulate representation and one’s agency to define one’s own identity. It might not be that these behaviors are acts of male privilege as much as the lack of these behaviors allow Bornstein more movement in society passed as female.
I also do not believe that force is always already negative or an act of male privilege. This seems like empty rhetoric deployed by pacifists to ensure that nonviolence remains the only acceptable form of activism. I do not wish to argue some sort of moral code that labels force as either good, bad, or only good if used in very specific situations. Force can be a tactic used by any body to resist oppression. Force can be used to survive.
This leads me to my second critique of the book.
Criticism #2: Revolution is problematic?
“It would be important that any role that the transgendered wind up claiming is not a role that would by its very existence forward the culture that oppresses the transgendered and related border-walkers…Any position which operates non-consensually (violently) forwards a culture that oppresses the transgendered…Over the past decade, transgendered people have increasingly been speaking in their own voice. It’s the beginnings of a revolution. The problem with revolution, of course, is violence. It would be neat to take part in a non-violent revolution of inclusion, whereby the revolutionaries simply have a good laugh, and welcome anyone else to dinner” (pp. 131-2, my emphasis).
First, I must say that not everyone uses their voice to liberate themselves. It is an Eurocentric and ableist assumption that voices are necessary for liberation.
Systems of domination and those who actively seek to uphold them do not want a revolution. Acts of liberation disrupt the lives of those whose position is to uphold systems of oppression. I cannot argue with that. Yet, these acts are not exclusively violent. A peaceful sit-in and protesters that cause property destruction are disrupting the lives of the people they aim to protest against. Both of these acts are non-consensual. Both of these acts are not labeled violent, however. Systems of domination are not going to dismantle themselves while we sit around a table, laughing. We can invite those who hold traditional understandings of power over for dinner all we want. I do not believe, I cannot believe that that act will dismantle capitalism or free people of color from the prison industrial complex or offer new understandings of the non profit industrial complex to liberal white do-gooders.
To add to her arguement, Bornstein states that violent acts are always already non-consensual, thus leaving the reader to wrongly assume that nonviolent acts are consensual, as well as those who engage in such behavior (revolutionary activism) are taking on a “role that would by its very existence forward the culture that oppresses the transgendered.” Her understanding of revolution, and what she claims to be the only acceptable way to liberation, is extremely limiting and frustrating.
Bornstein challenges that violent acts are oppressive to trans folks without explanation.
And, Bornstein also does not define what is violent. What is violence? Property destruction? Bashing back? Anything requiring force? Any non-consensual act against the systems and powers that oppress, regulate, and violate the lives of trans folk and queerz? This would include actions labeled as peaceful protest often used in the struggle for liberation.
These critiques are important to me as I struggle against adopting misogynistic behaviors in order to be passed as male and as a transgender radiqueer dedicated to respecting a diversity of tactics and saving masculinity from the patriarchy. Liberation will not happen simply by wishing it were so. A revolution will not occur simply by inviting everyone to a dinner party. These systems are complex, entangled within one another, and have a lot invested in them to uphold them.
I challenge anyone to explain to me how a revolution can come exclusively by actions labeled as nonviolent and consensual.