Kate Bornstein was a personal hero of mine for a long time. When my best friend (now partner) handed me their copy of Gender Outlaw several years ago (spring 2002 maybe?), it was that book more than anything else that made me think about my gender and really made me understand that there were many ways to play with and explore gender, including ways that made sense to me. Until that point, my only real exposure to trans issues wasn’t in the form of anything I could identify with, and I’d never questioned my gender identity because I didn’t understand the range of genders that existed (and the fact that if the gender you feel most comfortable with doesn’t exist you have the right to go make it happen if you want). I may have come to a similar understanding of myself without that book as a catalyst, but it wouldn’t have happened at the same point in my life or in the same way.
The one year I went to Gender Odyssey (2005), a main draw for me was the fact that Kate Bornstein was going to be the keynote speaker. After the speech she was signing things and meeting folks in the lobby and I very shyly came up, told her how important Gender Outlaw had been, and asked if I could take a picture with her. She was so sweet to my nervous fanboy self and had me come around the table and sit on her lap for the photo while she gave me a little hug. It was amazing! I’ve seen her speak twice other than that keynote speech and both times were really intense and meaningful. At one of those talks, she saw my partner and I enjoying her pre-show music (which was the Serenity movie soundtrack) and said a few words to us about how much she loved Firefly and Kaylee’s character in particular.
But my unbridled enthusiasm for her has waned in recent years. I know that I won’t agree with everything any person says, and that it’s important that we allow public figures to be humans who sometimes make mistakes, but for all the wonderful work she does (which I don’t want to dismiss) I keep seeing her say and do things that upset and alienate folks in the trans community without really addressing those issues when people try to talk to her about them. It becomes a lot harder to say “I love Auntie Kate!” when I know she is, as a widely-accepted voice of the trans community, making statements that a lot of people I care about find hurtful.
Bornstein’s been criticized for her use of the word “tranny” despite a lot of people taking issue with it, and I think the following exchange sums up my own frustration with her pretty well: last year, blogger Quinnae Moongazer wrote a brilliant open letter to her (not just about her use of “tranny” but touching on that at the end) . In the first comment, Kate gave a very sweet response where she said “It has never been my intention to knowingly cause a rift in the trans community. And you’ve made it clear to me that I’ve been doing just that by using the word tranny as cavalierly as I have been. I’m sorry. I’ll try my best to stop using it.” So far so good, right? She didn’t address anything else from the open letter, but I was happy to at least see her response on the language issue, and I remember writing her a tweet to say thank you when she posted about it (I read her twitter at the time but after what I’m about to discuss I stopped out of frustration).
But the next day she posted a retraction and cited two reasons: she likes the word and she never meant to hurt anyone by using it (which magically absolves her of all blame if someone happens to be hurt). No deeper discussion of the issue, just a disclaimer that she initially made the decision to stop using it out of fear (of what, she did not say). When Quinnae, understandably upset, confronted her about this in the comments of Bornstein’s blog and her original open letter, the response she got was “we’re never going to agree online but I’d be happy to talk to you in person.” Who knows if this ever happened. If Bornstein has ever had an open dialogue about this issue online or in person since then, I haven’t seen or heard about it.
While I can understand this desire to discuss a really thorny and emotional issue with someone in person, Bornstein doesn’t have the luxury of only being able to do that. Like it or not, she’s a vocal trans activist and is often chosen as a spokesperson for the community. You know how sometimes people will say “my [member of x group] friend uses/doesn’t mind [x-phobic slur], so it’s ok for me to use it” and won’t listen to anyone else’s objection? Kate Bornstein, at the moment, is that friend for a lot of people. And as long as she refuses to really talk about this issue in public, she will continue to be “that friend” and will continue to hurt and alienate a lot of people in the trans community. If she’s going to put herself out in the world as someone who speaks for and about other trans folks, I think she has a greater responsibility to be respectful of the entire trans spectrum and listen to what people are saying about her words and behavior. That’s part of being a public figure.
I’ll also make a note of how she and S. Bear Bergman (another person I don’t want to be frustrated with) handled their use of “tranny” in the call for submissions of last year’s Gender Outlaws: The Next Generaton. Several people pointed out that this was problematic and alienating to a lot of people who might otherwise submit pieces, and their response before the book came out seemed to boil down to “sorry if anyone’s hurt, you raised some points and we’ll think about them” and not much else. In the introduction to the book, which is presented as a chatroom-style dialogue between Bergman and Bornstein, they do mention this controversy, but their discussion of it is so dismissive and bizarre that it felt worse to me than if they had just continued to ignore the issue altogether.
So this brings me to this week’s Savage Love column, where Savage brought Bornstein in to answer an “Am I transphobic because I wouldn’t date a trans woman?” question. I suspect that he did this because he’s so often criticized for his treatment of trans issues; what better way to avoid people’s anger at your failure to properly respect trans folks than by avoiding trans-related questions and bringing in a Real Trans Person to answer them instead? Maybe I’ll give Savage the benefit of the doubt and think that maybe he did this out of a real desire to do better by trans folks and not just a need to cover his ass and have something to point to when people ask him why he can be such a transphobic douchebag. But maybe I won’t.
Oddly enough, I don’t think the answer Bornstein came up with is trans-friendly at all. The letter writer may have the best of intentions and really think he’s being honest when he says he’s 100% behind his trans friends, but if there’s a hierarchy in his mind of cis women over trans women in terms of dateability and attractiveness, that is a problem, and it’s one rooted in transphobia. Important point here: you can’t tell who’s trans by looking at them. Really. You might think you can, and you might be right sometimes, but it’s not an exact science. And your ideas of what sort of person “looks trans” won’t be the same as everyone else’s.
I also take issue with the statement that “trans people have bodies that are different than cis people’s bodies.” Yes, this is technically true, but the range of all women’s body types is so large that you could easily find a trans and cis woman whose bodies were more similar than two other cis women. I’m making the assumption, based on the letter writer’s mention of not wanting to be with someone who “had at one point in her life been a man” (note: NOT TRUE OF ALL TRANS WOMEN, THANKS), that he’s afraid of a Ghostly Penis casting its phallic shadow over a potential relationship with a trans woman. I do think it’s ok to say “I am just not into external genitalia” if that’s your preference, but I don’t have a lot of patience for someone who’s freaked out by the concept that their non-preferred genital configuration used to exist. Of course you can’t really assume that a particular trans person has a particular set of part unless they offer that information.
I’m not really sure where Bornstein gets her response, but it seems to be from an idea that a self-proclaimed ally can’t possibly carry any transphobia and I don’t buy that. I carry transphobia around. It’s creepy and weird when I recognize it, but that’s part of the process – you have to recognize and confront it before you start the process of dismantling it.
A great take on Bornstein’s answer can be found here (part 2, on what I saw as a very weird definition of “queer” considering that the letter writer self-identified as straight and should probably be taken at his word, is worth reading as well), and a friend of mine wrote a fantastic alternate response to the letter writer.
This comes back to the idea of “that friend” who makes transphobia acceptable. I dread hearing someone say “yeah, I’d never date someone who’s trans, but I have some trans friends and Kate Bornstein said that was ok, so I don’t have any transphobic issues to work through!”
Where does all of this leave me? I’m still so grateful to Kate Bornstein for writing Gender Outlaw and bringing trans issues into my life in a way that instantly resonated with me and gave me the space to come into my trans identity in a way that felt safe and unrestricted. But right now I can’t hold her up as this fabulous fairy godmother of the trans community the way I used to, and it hurts my heart a little. Maybe a lot.
One last thing – because he can’t quite manage to avoid fucking up even when he’s brought in someone else to dispense expert advice on his behalf, Savage manages to mention the letter writer’s “cranky LGBTQA friends” and his fervent hope that maybe someday they’ll accept him the way he accepts them. How sweet.