I’ve been taking a course over the summer in gay and lesbian studies. I’ve recently submitted a couple of article review assignments. I thought since I’m not writing much else these days that I would share them with you here over the next couple days, and see what discussion might be generated. so without further ado, here’s the first one:
The article I chose to review for this assignment was a chapter from Kate Bornstein’s book, Gender Outlaw, entitled “Naming All the Parts” (Bornstein, 1995). I chose this article because I wanted to review something specifically written about transsexuality and how it relates to both gender and sexual orientation. I will first discuss the main themes of the piece in detail, then particular issues that were raised for me, and finally how the essay contributes to discussion of LGBT issues.
The main themes of Bornstein’s essay have to do with the relation of gender to desire and sexuality. Bornstein, a male to female transsexual, sees gender as an entirely socially constructed system of classification: “Gender means class” (Bornstein, 1995: 21). She argues in this piece that gender as a system must be deconstructed and done away with completely (Bornstein, 1995: 21).
Bornstein discusses how gender functions in society, and where it comes from. She begins by discussing gender assignment, which she states is performed at birth in this culture (North American, western, contemporary), generally by medical doctors, “which shows you how emphatically gender has been medicalized” (Bornstein, 1995: 22). She argues that gender assignment in this culture is performed on the basis of whether or not the child in question has a penis: “It [gender assignment] has little or nothing to do with vaginas. It’s all penises or no penises: gender assignment is both phallocentric and genital” (Bornstein, 1995: 22). Bornstein briefly discusses how other cultures assign gender, showing that the way gender is assigned in this culture is not related to anything “natural” or biological, but rather is a social construct (Bornstein, 1995: 22).
Bornstein writes further on the false notion that gender is biologically based: “It’s biological gender that most folks refer to when they say sex. By calling something ‘sex,’ we grant it superiority over all the other types of gender” (Bornstein, 1995: 30). Here, Bornstein argues that biology isn’t necessarily the most important thing when talking about gender, but that by emphasizing biology, we do just that, thereby marginalizing alternative conceptions and experiences of gender. She goes on to write about the problematic ideology of gender as “natural.” Bornstein writes, “Gender is assumed by many to be ‘natural’; that is, someone can feel ‘like a man’ or ‘like a woman’” (Bornstein, 1995: 24). This is not something she experienced, however, or what drove her own transformation from male to female. Bornstein writes, from her own personal perspective, “I’ve no idea what ‘a woman’ feels like. I never did feel like a girl or a woman; rather, it was my unshakable conviction that I was not a boy or a man. It was the absence of a feeling, rather than its presence, that convinced me to change my gender” (Bornstein, 1995: 24). She argues that the belief in the naturalness of gender “is in fact a belief in the supremacy of the body in the determination of identity” (Bornstein, 1995: 30).
Bornstein advocates doing away with the gender system altogether. She does, however, acknowledge that this raises the question, “if gender is classification, can we afford to throw away the very basic right to classify ourselves?” (Bornstein, 1995: 24). Gender is an identity as well as a classification, a way to belong (Bornstein, 1995: 24). This can certainly be oppressive. Bornstein writes, “In this culture, the only two sanctioned gender clubs are ‘men’ and ‘women’. If you don’t belong to one or the other, you’re told in no uncertain terms to sign up fast” (Bornstein, 1995: 34). However, gender is not just something that is thrust upon us – it is also something we can claim for ourselves.
Bornstein next discusses gender roles, claiming that these teach a person how to function so that others perceive him/her as belonging to a specific gender (Bornstein, 1995: 26). She writes, “Gender roles, when followed, send signals of membership in a given gender” (Bornstein, 1995: 26). Directly related to gender roles, which send out signals as to which gender one belongs, is gender attribution, which happens (for the most part automatically) when we look at a person and attribute a gender to them (Bornstein, 1995: 26). This is important because it affects the way we relate to others (Bornstein, 1995: 26). Gender attribution relies on gendered cues, which we are obligated to give in ways that are clear enough to be perceived by others. These cues include physical cues (hair, body, voice, clothes), behavioural cues (manners, decorum, deportment), textual cues (such as personal history, documentation, and names that support the attribution), mythic cues (cultural myths that support gender attribution, such as ‘weaker sex’, ‘emotional female’, ‘strong male’), and power dynamics (ways of communicating, aggressiveness/assertiveness, persistence, ambition) (Bornstein, 1995: 26-29). Bornstein points out, “In this culture, gender attribution, like gender assignment, is phallocentric. That is, one is male until perceived otherwise” (Bornstein, 1995: 26). A study Bornstein cites found that “it would take the presence of roughly four female cues to outweigh the presence of one male cue” (Bornstein, 1995: 26). Bornstein also includes sexual orientation as a gender cue (Bornstein, 1995: 29).
Bornstein tells about her own struggle with learning feminine cues in order to pass as a woman during her process of “becoming” a woman. Successful “passing” meant that others attributed a female gender to Bornstein (Bornstein, 1995: 27). Many such feminine cues can be seen as harmful to women. She writes, “It wasn’t ‘til I began to read feminist literature that I began to question these cues or see them as oppressive” (Bornstein, 1995: 28).
Bornstein discusses the problematic conflation of biological sex and gender in our society (Bornstein, 1995: 31). This conflation leads to another conflation – that of gender with sex (the act). She points out that gender isn’t the only thing that is confused with sex in this culture – “we’re encouraged to equate sex (the act) with money, success, and security; and with the products we’re told will help us” attain these things (Bornstein, 1995: 31). Bornstein asserts that “it’s important to keep gender and sex separated as, respectively, system and function” (Bornstein, 1995: 31).
Bornstein goes on to discuss sexual orientation/preference as a factor in both sex and gender (Bornstein, 1995: 32). She quotes Murray S. Davis as saying that “the gender component of identity is the most important one articulated during sex. Nearly everyone (except for bisexuals, perhaps) regard it as the prime criterion for choosing a sex partner” (Davis, in Bornstein, 1995: 32). Bornstein argues that sexual orientation/preference is solely determined by the gender of one’s partner, and that sexual desire is meant to fit into one of only a short list of models: heterosexual, gay male, lesbian, or bisexual (Bornstein, 1995: 32).
Bornstein discusses variants on these gender-based relationships, such as heterosexual female with gay male, gay male with lesbian female, lesbian female with heterosexual female, gay male with bisexual male , etc. (Bornstein, 1995: 33). These variants each “forms its own clearly recognizable dynamic, and none of these are acknowledged by the dominant cultural binary” of heterosexual/homosexual (Bornstein, 1995: 33). Furthermore, all of these models, and their variants, depend on the gender of both participants. This is problematic because it “results in minimizing, if not completely dismissing, other dynamic models of a relationship which could be more important than gender and are often more telling about the real nature of someone’s desire” (Bornstein, 1995: 33). Some of these other dynamic models include butch/femme, top/bottom, reproductive models, multiple-partner models, monogamous models, and non-monogamous models (Bornstein, 1995: 33-34).
Moreover, Bornstein argues that “there are plenty of instances in which sexual attraction can have absolutely nothing to do with the gender of one’s partner” (Bornstein, 1995: 35). For instance, Bornstein suggests that sexual preference could be based on sex acts rather than on the gender of one’s partner (Bornstein, 1995: 36), because sex acts don’t have to be heterosexual or homosexual (Bornstein, 1995: 37). For example, Bornstein gives a very elaborate code by which participants use coloured handkerchiefs worn on either the left or right side of the body that indicate their preference for particular sex acts, and whether they prefer to play a top or bottom role in such acts (Bornstein, 1995: 37). Here, the gender of the partners is less important than their willingness to participate in particular sex acts in particular ways.
Nevertheless, our culture is one that does conflate sex and gender, and codifies sexual preference along these lines – which results in lumping together very different subcultures into one catch-all category that is binaurally opposed to the dominant sexual culture, heterosexuality (Bornstein, 1995: 37). Bornstein writes,
A dominant culture tends to combine its subcultures into manageable units. As a result, those who practice non-traditional sex are seen by members of the dominant culture (as well as by members of sex and gender subcultures) as a whole with those who don non-traditional gender roles and identities. (Bornstein, 1997: 38)
Bornstein writes that people are still attracted to her, despite not having a clear-cut gender identity (Bornstein, 1995: 38). She goes on to say that this made her feel nervous at first, as she thought, “What kind of pervert… would be attracted to a freak like me?” (Bornstein, 1995: 38) She identified this fear as internalized phobia about her transsexualism; however, she says she still doesn’t know how to respond to a man’s attraction to her (Bornstein is a lesbian) (Bornstein, 1995: 38-39).
Bornstein finishes her essay with a discussion of desire and how it relates to gender. She writes, “Given that most romantic or sexual involvements in this culture are defined by the genders of the partners, the most appropriate identity to have in a romantic relationship would be a gender identity or something that passes for gender identity, like a gender role” (Bornstein, 1995: 39). Even without a gender identity, with something like a gender role, we can still navigate the waters of sexual relationships. Gender is, Bornstein argues, an identity that can be used to manipulate desire (Bornstein, 1995: 40).
Whenever Bornstein advocates the dissolution of gender altogether, the objection is raised that without gender, how can there be desire? (Bornstein, 1995: 38) Bornstein acknowledges that this culture is one that is “obsessed with desire: it drives our economy… No wonder I get panicked reactions from audiences when I suggest we eliminate gender as a system; gender defines our desire, and we don’t know what to do if we don’t have desire” (Bornstein, 1995: 40). She goes on to write, in perhaps the most important insight of the essay, “Perhaps the more importance a culture places on desire, the more conflated become the concepts of sex and gender” (Bornstein, 1995: 40).
However, this conflation is ultimately limiting, says Bornstein. By having these gender identities to rely on in our personal journeys, we are prevented from examining our preferences and identities more fully:
If we buy into categories of sexual orientation based solely on gender – heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual – we’re cheating ourselves of a searching examination of our real sexual preferences. In the same fashion, by subscribing to the categories of gender based solely on the male/female binary, we cheat ourselves of a searching examination of our real gender identity. (Bornstein, 1995: 38)
Bornstein’s essay raises a number of excellent points and issues for me. Firstly, the relationship between gender and sexual desire was intriguing. Certainly, it seems true that the primary criterion for the vast majority of people in choosing a sexual partner is that person’s gender in relation to their own. I appreciated Bornstein’s discussion of other ways to define sexual desire, like by preference for sex acts, as well as her encouragement for us all to examine how desire functions in our sexual lives outside of gender. In light of this idea, it seems right that Bornstein should advocate the dissolution of gender as a system.
However, doing so seems like a dangerous and frightening thing. As Bornstein says, gender is a kind of identity. The right to determine our own identities without punishment is, I think, much more important than eliminating the options available to us for self-definition. It’s the forced nature of gender as a system of classification, the rigidity of that classification once it’s been determined, and the binary of male/female that is problematic. There is nothing wrong with being a “man” or a “woman” – what is wrong is the unequal valuing of those identities and the subsequent oppression of both all the members of one of the binary options and everyone who doesn’t fall into either of the options.
The other major issue raised for me by Bornstein’s article is regarding the nature of desire. I thought a lot about LGBT politics and the fight for equal rights within that community, and the debate about why queer people are queer – is one born queer, or does one choose to be queer? For so long, and still in some circles, the belief is very clear that people are born queer. Saying that you’re born queer is a biologically essentialist argument, but it can carry some weight politically – as a society, we have decided (at least rhetorically) that it isn’t ethical to punish or discriminate against people because of something that they’re born into, that they cannot help. Of course, this kind of discrimination happens all the time against people for things they cannot help: sexism, racism, ableism, to name a few. But rhetorically, we have a notion of human rights that stands most definitely against such discrimination, and it is considered unethical. However, biological essentialism in any form is problematic.
I don’t necessarily believe that we choose our sexual preferences. I think it is far more complex than that, because I am inclined to believe that our sexual identities are socially constructed and it is not without a good deal of self-examination that we can break free of compulsory heterosexuality. But yet, I think a discourse of freedom of choice is a far more tenable position from which to argue for LGBT rights. It is unethical to discriminate against others because of the choices they make (within limits, of course, such as not hurting others and obtaining consent). People make choices all the time that are protected by law. Why should sexual preferences be any different? So what if someone “chooses” to be queer? Why should that “choice” be any less valid than the “choice” to be straight?
In conclusion, I think Bornstein’s writing is very important to discussions of LGBT issues. Hearing from people who experience transsexuality is vitally important to furthering understanding of trans issues, and to furthering political solidarity among gender-marginalized groups. Finally, because her writing is so personal, it encourages us to examine our own gendered experiences. The personal is, indeed, political.
Bornstein, Kate (1995). “Naming All the Parts” in Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us. New York: Vintage Books. 21-40