By Amanda Dyslin
The Free Press
We live in a society where we are rich or poor, black or white, woman or man. But self-proclaimed “gender outlaw” Kate Bornstein says nothing about who we are is “either/or.”
With class, for instance, there are numerous categories outside of rich and poor — working class, middle class, starving artists, homeless and many others. A person’s race, age, sexuality, looks, ability, mental health, family/reproductive status, habitat, language, political ideology and gender are all just as complex, without definitive terms to define the same truth from one person to the next.
“Either/or is the language of bullies,” Bornstein said to a room full of mostly students at Minnesota State University Tuesday night during the annual Carol Ortman Perkins Lecture.
The trouble with breaking these “binaries,” though, is it creates chaos, she said. We have been taught to create order, which Bornstein described as a “hierarchical system of oppression.”
In a presentation about gender and sexuality laced with humor and profanity, Bornstein asked the audience to imagine a perfect person with “perfect everything” — the perfect gender, race, class, sexuality, etc. — at the top of a pyramid, and everyone else falls to the bottom, wanting to be as much like that person as we can, or at least be liked by that person.
“That’s how hierarchies retain their grip on us,” she said.
These binaries remove the need for our imaginations, triggering immediate ingrained reactions, she said. For example, when we see someone whom society has taught us is attractive, we immediately react with desire.
Bornstein, a transgender woman, says even gender is a continuum, and not just for transgendered people. People express their gender in different ways with the various people in our lives. We aren’t the same kind of woman or man to our parents as we are to our lovers, for example.
“All of us shift our gender subtly,” she said.
Compassion and respect for our fellow human beings’ identity, desire and power (access to resources they need) — the things that Bornstein says make life worth living — are the reasons breaking binaries are so important.
Bornstein doesn’t have the answer for how a system built on compassion without these binaries would work, what she refers to as a “Politic of Desire.” But she knows it does begin with “radical welcoming,” meaning seeing someone different from yourself and responding with wonder and an enthusiastic, welcoming nature.
Her only rule in life that she wants everyone to always try to adhere to is “Don’t be mean.”
Bornstein is the author of several books, including “Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us,” “My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, a Real Woman, the Real You, or Something Else Entirely,” and “Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws.”
Perkins, who returned to MSU to introduce Bornstein, is the beloved former chair of the Gender and Women’s Studies department. She said it was fabulous to come to an event “named in your honor, and you’re still alive.”