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Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us

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Part coming-of-age story, part mind-altering manifesto on gender and sexuality, coming directly to you from the life experiences of a transgender woman, Gender Outlaw breaks all the rules and leaves the reader forever changed.26 black-and-white illustrations.

272 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1994

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About the author

Kate Bornstein

30 books499 followers
Kate Bornstein is a Jewish-American author, playwright, performance artist, and gender theorist.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 332 reviews
Profile Image for Prerna.
222 reviews1,321 followers
January 13, 2022
At the time of this book's writing, non-binary wasn't an available category, it wasn't yet in queer lingo. Mostly because queer culture was still grappling with identities, teams, allies and language and all of this on the margins of culture wars. It was a time when queer people had to use slurs used against them as terms of self-identification because they hadn't mobilized on a large scale yet, they couldn't decide if they should claim back the insults and wear it proudly like a second skin or refute it altogether and craft a new community-based yet individual focused identities. And that's why I have so much respect for Kate Bornstein and this book despite its many flaws, because they paved the way for me, for us. Not-man not-woman is a lot more clearly defined now while also being incredibly nuanced.

Although I'm not trans and therefore cannot speak for the trans community, I know that Bornstein is a well-celebrated trans elder. However, I also know that she thinks she still isn't accepted, or they think they still aren't accepted. Because their identity is not just of a trans woman but:

I write from the point of view of an S/M transsexual lesbian, ex-cult member, femme top, and sometimes bottom shaman. And I wondered why no one was writing my story? I’m writing from the point of view of used-to-be-a-man, three husbands, father, first mate on an oceangoing yacht, minister, high-powered IBM sales type, Pierre Cardin three-piece suitor, bar mitzvahed, circumcised yuppie from the East Coast. Not too many women write from that point of view. I write from the point of view of a used-to-be politically correct, wannabe butch, dyke phone sex hostess, smooth talking, telemarketing, love slave, art slut, pagan tarot reader, maybe soon a grandmother, crystal palming, incense burning, not-man, not always a woman, fast becoming a Marxist. And not too many men write from that point of view

I am conflicted about my own gender, I mostly think I'm a woman but not always. I know I'm not a man. And no, it isn't mood swings or phases, I've always felt very distant from the mainstream cultural binary gender classification. I'm lucky, I was born at a time when the idea that gender is not merely an x-y graph but a 3-D, no, a 4-D structure, was becoming fast established. This is not to say that we live in gender-fluid paradise now, but it surely is easier for queer and trans people today than it was for Kate Bornstein. Gender is a spectrum that has evolved over time. But I guess the point of contention is that Bornstein believes the future will be gender free, I suppose that is offensive for trans people who've fought hard to be recognised for their gender, but I also think it isn't too far-fetched.

I had several complaints about the book, but let's give Bornstein a break. They're 73 and all I can give them now is acceptance and respect.

Profile Image for Shawn.
85 reviews
June 1, 2012
my mind was BLOWN

Lots and lots of food for thought (aka just read it):

"But the need for a recognizable identity, and the need to belong to a group of people with a similar identity--these are driving forces in our culture, and nowhere is this more evident than in the areas of gender and sexuality"(3-4).

"I know I'm not a man--about that much I'm clear, and I've come to the conclusion that I'm probably not a woman either, at least not according to a lot of people's rules on this sort of thing. The trouble is, we're living in a world that insists we be one or the other--a world that doesn't bother to tell us exactly what one or the other is"(8).

"Two days after my lover and I appeared on The Donahue Show, the five-year-old child of our next door neighbor came up to me and asked me, 'So, are you a boy or a girl?' We'd been living next door to these folks for over two years. 'I'm a girl who used to be a boy', I replied. She was delighted with that answer and told me I'd looked very pretty on television. I thanked her and we smiled at each other and went about our days. I love it that kids will just ask"(9).

"They [guys] want to know, 'what do lesbians do with one another.' It's a sad question really: it shows how little thought they give to exactly what pleases a woman"(10).

"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 feeling, rather than its presence, that convinced me to change my gender"(24).

"Variants to...gender-based relationship dynamics would include heterosexual female with gay male, gay male with lesbian woman, lesbian woman with heterosexual woman, gay male with bisexual male, and so forth. People involved in these variants know that each dynamic is different from the other. A lesbian involved with another lesbian, for example, is a very different relationship than that of a lesbian involved with a bisexual woman, and that's distinct from being a lesbian woman involved with a heterosexual woman. What these variants have in common is that each of these combinations forms its own clearly-recognizable dynamic, and none of these are acknowledged by the dominant cultural binary of sexual orientation: heterosexuality/homosexuality"(33).

"...in other words, the sexual encounter is queer because both partners are queer and the genders of the participants are less relevent. Just because Batman is male and Catwoman is female does not make their interactions heterosexual--think about it, there is nothing straight about two people getting it on in rubber and latex costumes, wearing eyemasks and carrying whips and other accoutrements"(36).

"In any case, if we buy into catergories 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"(38).

"As an exercise, can you recall the last time you saw someone whose gender was ambiguous? Was this person attractive to you? And if you knew they called themselves neither a man nor a woman, what would it make you if you're attracted to that person? And if you were to kiss? Make love? What would you be"(40)?

"I try to engage these folks by asking, 'What's a woman? What's a man?' I wish someone would answer me that--it would make my life a lot easier. I could get on playing some other kind of game. But no one has been able to answer that"(43).

"I never hated my penis; I hated that it made me a man--in my own eyes, and in the eyes of others"(47).

"I remember one time walking into Woolworth's in Philadelphia. I'd been living as a woman for about a month. I came through the revolving doors, and stood face to face with a security guard--a young man, maybe nineteen or twenty years old. He did a double take when he saw me and began to laugh--very loud. He just laughed and laughed. I continued round through the revolving doors and left the store. I agreed with him that I was a joke; that I was the sick one. I went back in there almost a year later. He came on to me"(48).

"It doesn't really matter what a person decides to do, or how radically a person plays with gender. What matters, I think, is how aware a person is of the options. How sad for a person to be missing out on some expression of identity, just for not knowing there are options"(51).

"Are you a woman because your birth certificate says female? A man because your birth certificate says male? If so, how did that happen? A doctor looked down at your crotch at birth. A doctor decided, based on what was showing of your external genitals, that you would be one gender or another. You never had a say in that most irreversible of all pronouncements--and according to this culture as it stands today, you never will have a say"(57).

"We are trapped in the wrong body. I understand that many people may explain ther preoperative transgendered lives in that way, but I'll bet that it's more likely an unfortunate metaphor that conveniently conforms to cultural expectations, rather than an honest reflection of our transgendered feelings...It's time for transgendered people to look for new metaphors--new ways of communicating our lives to people who are traditionally gendered"(66).

"I really would like to be a member of a community, but until there's one that's based on the principle of constant change, the membership would involve more rules, and the rules that exist around the subject of gender are not rules I want to obey"(69).

"'Ladies' are the kind of people who won't let my girlfriend use that public ladies' room, thinking she's not a woman. Oh, but they're not going to let her use the men's room either-they're not going to let her be a man either. If she's not a man, and she's not a woman, then what is she? Once I asked my mother what fire was: a solid, liquid or gas? And she said it wasn't any of those things-It was something that happened to things: a force of nature, she called it. Maybe that's what she is: a force of nature. For sure she is something that happened to me.-Holly Hughes, Clit Notes, 1999 (102)."

"The preferred gender in our patriarchal society is male, and so males mostly take gender for granted, most men do not try and analyze what it means to be male. Even the men's movement seems more predicated on a desire to not be drawn into some web of femininity, rather than a desire to question the construct of male identity. Women, on the other hand, have been taught that they're the 'second sex,' the distaff gender, so their lives are an almost daily struggle with the concept of gender. The trap for women is the system itself: it's not men who are the foe as much as it is the bi-polar gender system that keeps men in place as more privileged"(106).

"Please--don't call it 'biological sex,' or 'social gender.' Don't call it 'sex' at all--sex is fucking, gender is everything else"(116).

"Let me tell you what happened, the way it looked from inside my head. The world slowed down...The words echoed in my ears over and over and over. Attached to that simple pronoun was the word failure, quickly followed by the word freak. All the joy sucked out of my life in an instant, and every moment I'd ever fucked up crashed down on my head. Here was someone who'd never known me as a man, referring to me as a man"(126).

"Straights and gays alike demand the need for an orderly gender system: they're two sides of the same coin, each holding the other in place, neither willing to dismantle the gender system that serves as a matrix for their (sexual) identity. Because of the bi-polar nature of both sexual orientation and gender, one system strengthens the other. Bisexuality and androgyny also hold two sides in place by defining themselves as somewhere in the middle of two given polar opposites"(133).

"So let's reclaim the word 'transgendered' so as to be more inclusive. Let's let it mean 'transgressively gendered,' Then, we have a group of people who break the rules, codes, and shackles of gender...It's the transgendered who need to embrace the lesbians and gays, because it's the transgendered who are in fact the more inclusive category"(135).

"I've come to see gender as a divisive social construct, and the gendered body as a somewhat dubious accomplishment. I write about this because I am a gender outlaw and my issues are gender issues. The way I see it now, the lesbian and gay community is as much oppressed for gender transgressions as for sexual distinction. We have more in common, you and I, than most people are willing to admit. See, I'm told I must be a man or a woman. One or the other. Oh, it's OK to be a transsexual say some--just don't talk about it. Don't question your gender any more, just be a woman now--you went to so much trouble--just be satisfied. I am so, not satisfied"(144-145).

"I grew this body.
It's a girl body.
All of it.
Over the past seven years every one of these cells became girl,
so it's mine now.
It doesn't make me female.
It doesn't make me a woman.
And I'm sure not a man.
What does that make me"(234)?

"'My grandmother,' he said, 'told me something I've never forgotten. 'Never fuck anyone you wouldn't want to be.' The room went silent for a long time"(245).

"And I'm looking forward to the day when people look at this book and say to themselves, 'How curious to have put all that energy into talking about gender. I wonder what the world must have been like in those days for folks with only two choices"(246).
Profile Image for l.
1,669 reviews
December 12, 2019
this is a really engaging, witty read. kate bornstein must be a blast to hang out with. however, bornstein misinterprets basic radical feminist arguments & continually conflates sex/gender, thus betraying a lot of assumptions that i find troubling.

what i see time and time again is the assumption that for cis people, gender isn't an issue, and of course it is! particularly for cis women! and the failure to acknowledge that in so many of these texts is an issue for me that i find hard to overlook. bornstein eventually acknowledges that gender roles are enforced to benefit men and oppress women but fails to examine/understand the implications of this. for example, bornstein has a list of the different type of gender outlaws and never mentions the possibility of gender nonconforming 'cis' people; we're just in the privileged group of 'cisgender, binary-identified men and women.' (pg 85)

i do like that she views the whole lesbian separatist vs trans women debacle with some level of nuance (pg 104). and how she acknowledges and discusses male privilege (in some places (pg 140), in others the text implies bringing it up is transphobic (pg 61)) but other things - saying that gay bashing is more about gender performance than sexual orientation (pg 135)... these things aren't divisible. being gay is to be in a sense, gender non-conforming.... (see: wittig) tbh, some of the thing she says are kind of homphobic i.e. calling LGBT people straight if they don't identify as 'queer' (pg 172).

i just find her thoughts a bit scattered, and not very rigorous.
Profile Image for Andrew.
1,992 reviews699 followers
March 22, 2019
It's weird how fast the culture changes, sometimes. When I was a kid in small-town Iowa in the '90s, the tranny joke was simply part of the repertoire of playground banter among boys. To a certain extent, so was casual homophobia -- plenty of things were called gay -- but I can say with certainty that that always made me a bit uncomfortable. My parents had gay friends, and they seemed alright. But trans folks -- not that we'd ever heard the word "trans" yet -- were a species apart, to be made fun of, completely without consequence.

I can look back on that with serious shame, and now I can call actual, real-life, flesh-and-blood trans men and women my friends (an adulthood split between Seattle and Bangkok will enable that).

But many people don't have that. Someone like Kate Bornstein could help bridge the gap. Why? Because Kate Bornstein writes like a friendly, witty trans grandma, a refreshing change from the po-faced struggle sessions (hey there, Tumblr) and mush-mouthed theory (hey there, Judith Butler) that mark so much of the gender justice and trans rights public discourse in America. She cares about being funny, entertaining, playful, and even seductive (if you've watched Contrapoints on Youtube, you get the idea) just as much as she cares about the salient points of trans experience (whereby my main objective as Mr. Cishet over here is to not be a dick -- something I think we can all manage).
Profile Image for Erin.
2,078 reviews72 followers
November 14, 2008
While Bornstein raises interesting points (the idea of a third sexuality, neither male nor female), her arguments against recognizing gender suffered from her nearly complete ability to ignore that one key signifier....the ability to bear children, and her failure to discuss this issue within her theories made the whole premise rather circumspect.

In addition, this is an entire book that might have really been two magazine articles; the first would cover Bornstein's thoughts on gender, summarized above, and the second, a discussion of gender as it relates to Bornstein's true love, the theatre. She also includes one of her plays, which takes up nearly a quarter of the book.

I probably wouldn't recommend this to someone looking for a clear study of transsexuality - it's dated and seems like a fair amount of repetitive ramblings, with little substance.
Profile Image for M..
238 reviews6 followers
August 13, 2021
I’m giving it four stars but because sadly I had to stop reading it for a week and I think I lost the momentum when I returned to it, because I had only the “theatre” bits left and, although they were interesting, I’m not particularly interested in theatre, I can’t lie.
Nevertheless! I did feel like this talks about gender in a really easy way while still being super interesting and not in a basic or surface-level way at all. I don’t agree with everything it says but I don’t have to, I think it really succeeds in making one think and that’s what it sets out to do. I do recommend it a lot to anyone interested in queer perspectives on gender, and I’m definitely interested in reading the following “Gender outlaws: the new generation”!
Profile Image for Bek MoonyReadsByStarlight.
251 reviews56 followers
July 29, 2020
Gender Outlaw is a reflection that is part gender studies, part memoir. This book takes on many topics related to gender and even sexuality, many of which are controversial even within the trans community. This text is very queer -- not just queer as in "gay" but queer as in "radical" queer as in "fuck your black-and-white". LGBTQ+ framework is constantly in flux, so as time goes on, the definitions that it covers might change -- framework, much like gender that Borntein describes, is constantly in flux. But the core of queerness will stand strong as a queer classic.
Profile Image for Zefyr.
248 reviews13 followers
April 17, 2016
There's a lot of problems with the book (see the appropriation of the term "shaman" in a quote below, although this edition includes some commentary about the politics around that) but the good stuff is so so good.

There's a strength in knowing we have our own comics, our own jokers. But here it gets tricky. The pressure and temptation is to create art or politics for a particular group, which is in turn based on some inflexible identity: special interest groups, identity politics, whatever you want to call it. The group becomes loyal audience, supporters, and followers, if for no other reason than the fool is speaking their language, performing their lives.

But this is so important: the fool becomes a fool by flexing the rules, the boundaries of the group, and this is antithetical to the survival dynamic of most groups. A group remains a group by being inflexible: once it stretches its borders, it's no longer the same group. A fool, in order to survive, must not identify long with any rigidly-structured group. When more and more of the fool's work is done for a particular identity-based group, then the fool becomes identified with the group. The fool is indeed foolish who serves a special interest, and will quickly cease being a fool...

Like the fool, the shaman can't take sides or be part of any identity politics. The shaman needs to seek broader and broader groups of people to serve—by staying in a fixed time and place, the shaman's message will only be repeated over and over to those who've already heard it, and then the madness sets in.


Most of us assume that there is gender; that there are only two categories of gender; and that we are (have the identity of) one or the other. We have a lot invested in this belief—it's very difficult to imagine ourselves genderless. It's difficult to the degree that our identities are wrapped up in our gender assignments. We need to differentiate between having an identity and being an identity.


I write when nothing else will bring me peace, when I burn, when I find myself asking and answering the same questions over and over. I write when I've begun to lose my sense of humor and it becomes a matter of my life and my death to get that sense of humor back and watch you laugh. I write in bottom space. I open up to you, I cut myself, I show you my fantasies, I get a kick out of that—oh, yeah. I perform in top space. I cover myself with my character and take you where you never dreamed you could go...my instrument is my audience and oh how I love to play you.
Profile Image for Jo.
226 reviews22 followers
January 23, 2016
MIND BLOWN. Completely fucking brilliant. I want to buy this book for everyone in my life. As someone who feels pretty informed around issues of gender (IT IS PERFORMATIVE!), I need to write about, think about and unpick this all loads more. Which is brilliant, particularly as this book is over 20 years old. It still has so much resonance.

Some questions:

“What’s your gender?
When did you decide it?
How much say do you have in your gender?
Is there anything about your gender or gender role that you don’t like, or that gets in your way?
Are there one or two qualities about another gender that are appealing to you, enough so that you’d like to incorporate those qualities into your daily life?
What would happen to your life if you did that?
What would your gender be then?
How do you think people would respond to you?
How would you feel if they did that?”

"There is most certainly a privilege to having a gender. When you have a gender, or when you are perceived as having a gender, you don't get laughed at in the street. You don't get beat up. You know which public bathroom to use, & when you use it, people don't stare at you or worse. You know which form to fill out. You know what clothes to wear. You have a past."

"The first question we usually ask new parents is: is it a boy or a girl? There's a great answer to that one going round: 'We don't know; it hasn't told us yet'. Personally, I think no question containing either/or deserves a serious answer, & that includes the question of gender."

“One answer to the question, ‘Who is a transsexual?’ might be ‘Anyone who admits it.’ A more political answer might be, ‘Anyone whose performance of gender calls into question the construct of gender itself’.”

Profile Image for Kate Haskell.
8 reviews17 followers
May 26, 2010
Gender Outlaw was somewhat frustrating for me on a critical level. The whole book seemed to be written from a Marxist methodology wherein binary pairs are actually waging some kind of dialectic war. Since reading Levinas, I've never really seen binarisms in that way. Polar opposites are self-defining pairs, yes, but one need not be superior. Also, the extremes of the poles aren't the only valid options. Every binary pair is, in essence, a continuum. North has no meaning without South, but it also has no meaning without context. South of what? North of where? Likewise gender is a spectrum. More masculine than what exactly? Feminine with respect to which point on the chart? Bornstein and I arrive in similar places by completely different means, and it drives me batty. As a result, we seem preoccupied with completely different questions. Her questions seem to have a more activist tone — which leads neatly into her call for queer theatre as a form of activism. My questions lead me to ponder the structure itself and what the flaws in the structure have to tell us about our perception of gender and, more generally, the queer.
13 reviews2 followers
July 22, 2009
Don't let my review fully influence you. I'm sure this book is very enlightening and empowering for some genderqueer out there, but I just couldn't get through it. I just too fundamentally disagree with her on the value of science and biology, disagree on the most basic terminology and have no sympathy for how often she conflates the multiple meanings of words in different contexts as if they all shared the same context.

For those with stouter tolerances, have at it, but don't be surprised if you find yourself alternatively horrified and throwing it against the wall in anger.
Profile Image for Bryan.
469 reviews3 followers
August 6, 2019
Thank You Kate Bernstein!!! If only this book fell into my hands in my teenage...geez...pre-teen years, maybe I wouldn’t have spent so many nights crying into pillow wondering “what’s wrong with me”?
Profile Image for Mary.
214 reviews2 followers
November 15, 2021
Legend. Super fun to hear her read the book herself with her actor's inflection and humor.
Profile Image for M Caesar.
62 reviews
October 29, 2015
Largely useful as a lens into what the trans community was like in its fledgling days/formation of the community itself. The author expresses many counter-productive and at times outright transphobic ideas and the rhetoric used to discuss everything is rather dated (expect lots of "transgendered" "ftm" "Mtf" etc.) The author does bring up nonwestern genders outside the binary, however its almost always done in a manner which summarizes millenia of a culture in a paragraph and then dismissively, accuses navajo nonbinary people of misogynistic existences for existing as mediators between men and women (not sure why that bit happened, there was a lot of reaching in that section and it was rather ahistorical and antimaterialist--she says things happened but never cites examples, which, in a society based around oral traditions would have been well documented). All in all it was Not Good.
3 reviews13 followers
September 3, 2016
It seems very obvious to me that Bornstein became involved in trans thought and politics before being involved in feminist thought and politics; the lens is not a feminist one, and I do wish she had brought in more discussion about gendered power dynamics, masculinity and femininity. She says in at least a couple bits and implies in many others that upholding our gender system upholds misogyny; breaking it down is inherently anti-patriarchal, while I think that it’s actually perfectly possible to have a society with fluid gender and a vast range of genders and gender expressions, and still have patriarchy in the form of femmephobia and misogyny. Really, trans women don’t get a break from misogyny just because they transgress gender boundaries – they’re hit with it very hard, because they’re usually seen as choosing to be women, which is a giant middle finger to the patriarchy, and also means they’re seen as asking for objectification and violence.

Again, and again, she groups all trans people into one massive lump – as gender outlaws, as people who should form a community separate from the lesbian and gay ones, as people who are defined in the largest part by their trans-ness and transgression of gender. (This is another way in which I think we can see that her trans politics precluded her feminist ones (although the two, ideally, are not separate.)) She specifically says she doesn’t think it’s wrong for trans women to be excluded from women’s spaces; while I think current discourses tend to fall into the oppression Olympics (cis lesbians are more privileged than trans women, therefore they need to shut up and let us in!), I disagree strongly with this for a multitude of other reasons, and it threw me off very strongly. I also find the mindset that possessing one or several oppressed identities entitles one to not examine one’s actions is a really troubling dynamic – it’s the same one that is employed by white women to avoid discussing racism, or black men to avoid discussing misogyny, or trans men to avoid discussing misogyny. She states in another section that anger has little place in activism, its main role being to reveal a need for action – I would have thought that this extended to many other emotions as well, and would end up with a model of activism in which all are rational about their actions, who is included in their groups, and who isn’t.

It will probably come as no surprise that she also seems to fall into bits of discourse that would be labeled, without context, subversivist, and although if we take into account her viewpoint that very few people are “entirely men” or “entirely women,” (oh, this is phrased badly), it isn’t technically subversivist, it ends up having the same implications.

Her analysis of the oppressive gender binary (“gender system”) entirely fails to address its patriarchal and colonial roots, and the misogynistic and racist dynamics it helps to perpetuate today.

Some of her analyses are simply lacking – in one paragraph, she’s talking about The Crying Game, and how the guy who discovered that a woman was transsexual vomited. She says that it’s “not so much as a sign of revulsion as an admission of attraction, and the consequential upheaval of his gender identity and sexual orientation.��� I mean – if the dude’s throwing up, he’s disgusted to be attracted to you, and that stems from degendering and misgendering the woman in front of him, the disgust with her deceit, the disgust with his own doubt at his sexuality, the disgust with something so unnatural that it disturbs every conception he’s had about gender and sexuality and gendered appearances in general. Bornstein seems to view it as – well, his own identity was uprooted, therefore he’s nauseous – whereas I think if he’s vomiting, his own identity hasn’t been uprooted in any meaningful way – he’s desperately scrabbling to maintain his hold on them, he’s still convinced that every previous conception of gender and sexuality he held is correct.

In one section, she also describes Navajo nadle as “sort of transgendered male-to-female persons,” and I’m really, really uncomfortable with her projecting our vocabularies and notions of gender onto indigenous cultures and genders. She’s already stated very early in the book that society constructs not only gender roles but genders; I expected better from her.
Profile Image for Raven.
27 reviews12 followers
January 29, 2018
I’ve had this book since I was fourteen and somehow never got around to reading it until now. Anyways - it was FANTASTIC. Very interesting, although sometimes quite a bit outdated (I didn’t agree with all of Bornstein’s ideas, and some of them likely wouldn’t fly in modern times, but the writing was all so thoroughly original and thoughtful. I would absolutely recommend it to anyone willing to spend time thinking about the complexity of gender - though they should probably have a decent understanding of modern gender theory before starting this book).

I really enjoyed Kate Bornstein’s ideas about the gender binary and gender roles, and how she felt distanced from them even after her transition. And just reading all of the experiences that she went through as a transgendered woman - so much of it is unchanged since she was writing this in the 80s and 90s. I found myself very interested in her thoughts on all kinds of subjects.

And, lastly, my favourite passage:

“Experts agree that we don’t even think about gender in terms of ourselves. No, it’s not until we see someone walking down the street and we can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman. Ever wonder why you can’t stop staring until you decide one way or another? It really bothers you, doesn’t it!

We don’t have to know someone’s age. Their race may be somewhat indistinct, and we might be mildly curious. We may look at someone and think they are gay or straight, but we don’t have to know. We can wonder. Yet we insist, and this is the curiosity, we insist that a person must be one gender or the other and we remain unsettled until we assign one gender or another.”
490 reviews74 followers
September 27, 2012
Kate Bornstein is so incredibly charming. This book is charming. But I'm already sold on most of what she is trying to convince me, uh... mainly "Let's not be defined by gender because it sucks being confined to stereotypes and anyway it's crazy." Agreed! Uh... now what?

But that question, "now what?" is difficult for this book to answer because it is an incredibly 90s book. Which I didn't think was too long ago but man, this book is nearly 20 years old. So "now" was 20 years ago. OMG i am so old. As a result the book's revolutionary tone strikes me more as a relic of its time than anything passion rousing. Man, time's an asshole.

She really shines when she talks about her personal experiences, which is why I much prefer her memoir, A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She is Today. In fact, reading that book before this one really helped me understand what she was trying to get across better.
Profile Image for Alison.
762 reviews30 followers
October 25, 2020
I read excerpts from this in college fifteen years ago and I thought I should actually read it all the way through sometime and it took me a while, but I finally did. Kate Bornstein is a trailblazer and an icon and a vivid personality and this book was a pleasure to read. This is an engaging and candid memoir and examination of gender identity that discusses plenty of things that, even now, let alone in 1994, are pretty radical. This book is almost twenty-five years old (1994!) and it is a bit dated, but Bornstein tackles complex gender theory in a very personal, fun, and offhand way. Her writing is very easy-going and casual, but it's still very powerful and moving. I think it's a good, accessible introduction to the idea that gender is not as simple as "one or the other" and she challenges her readers to really examine their own gender identity and not just blindly accept what they've been told. It's a very thought-provoking book, but its tone is affable and personal and upbeat while still being fiercely unapologetic. I read the 1995 version and it has some issues and I gather a new, updated edition is in the works now (2017), so I look forward to reading it again someday. This book is vivid and fun and unique and hopeful and still so relevant today. It's a classic.
569 reviews8 followers
March 2, 2017
I am a little torn about whether this book should get three or four stars. I thought that a lot of the material was interesting, but I found Bornstein's writing style really disorganized and many of the pages visually confusing: there were often multiple paragraphs aligned differently in different fonts, which I think were intended to be separate trains of thought.

On a more personal level, I felt that the book just didn't resonate with me as a non-binary person in the ways I had hoped it would. I got the impression that Bornstein thinks of non-binary identities as being necessarily genderfuck, which is essentially the opposite of my identity and presentation.

I also found Bornstein's extended appropriation of the term "shaman" disturbing. She seemed convinced that her identity as a non-binary person automatically makes her into a shaman, while ignoring that (a) this is a rather limited interpretation of non-binary genders and (b) that the word "shaman" refers to a specific set of religious practices and beliefs that she doesn't appear to subscribe to, and doesn't have any connection to the cultures they are indigenous to.
Profile Image for Audacia Ray.
Author 17 books241 followers
June 29, 2009
Here's the thing: when I was in college, I read Judith Butler's Gender Trouble, and it made me feel crazy. That book was my first intro to gender deconstruction, and it left my head spinning and heart hurting. I felt like I was trapped in the gender system, and that was a miserable miserable place to be.

Then I read Gender Outlaw.

Gender Trouble is the problem, Gender Outlaw is the solution.

Re-reading this book after 10 years, it was just as fun and fabulous as the first time I read it all those years ago in college. Kate Bornstein gives readers a sense of hope, encouragement, and plain old fun when thinking about and experimenting with gender. And it doesn't hurt that I've gotten to know Kate a bit since reading this book for the first time, so now I smile and picture her gestures and hear her voice as I read.
48 reviews
March 3, 2022
I listened to the revised edition of this book, which definitely improved my experience. Not only is Bornstein an incredibly expressive narrator, but considering that a significant portion of this book is the retelling of a stage play, I would say that listening to the audiobook is almost essential. In terms of content, this book does an extraordinary job of balancing being an "on-ramp" for people who may not know a lot about gender studies, without shying away from more "radical" topics such as BDSM and graphic descriptions of gender reassignment surgery. Bornstein also manages to make the tone of the book playful and fun overall, despite explicitly discussing transphobia, misogyny, homophobia, and other difficult to swallow topics. I highly recommend this book as a first read for anyone who wants to further examine their own ideas about gender.
Profile Image for Reija.
370 reviews78 followers
October 1, 2020
The first half of the book is an interesting philosophical exercise in gender theory. You really need to go into this book expecting philosophy and social commentary, and not science.
The play on the second half of the book, was kind of a miss for me. Some parts were interesting, others felt incredibly self indulgent.
227 reviews6 followers
February 8, 2022
对trans的接触、了解其实为零。最接近的概念可能是大学时参与的drag分享个人经历的讲座。科普的同时,让我对现在的bipolar system做出反思。改变的第一步可能就是以后把自己identify成为nonbinary性别。
Profile Image for Lo.
20 reviews
January 6, 2022
I’m in tears. I feel seen. Kate is the hero, parent, defender, teacher, and friend I have needed on this journey. I laughed and cried. If you identify as trans/NB, this is a must-read. ❤️
Profile Image for Devin.
190 reviews32 followers
January 15, 2019
I wanted to love this book. I wanted so, so bad to love this book. When I picked it up and researched Kate Bornstein, and saw that they were an emerging voice in the world of gender studies and deconstruction of gender, a non-binary/genderqueer figure in a time where it was only them and Leslie Feinberg and a few others, vocally speaking out against the colonialist gender system, I wanted to LOVE this book. As an agender person -- someone who identifies with no gender whatsoever, who lives outside of gender and really has no concept of what it feels like to "feel" a gender, I wanted this to be one of the best books I have ever read, to lay a framework for my own studies in the world of gender.

But it wasn't. And unfortunately, I didn't love this book. I stayed on the fence about whether or not I should give this 2 or 3 stars, because Goodreads doesn't have an option for half stars, so I feel it's closer to 2 1/2, maybe 3 if I think about it any longer.

First, Kate Bornstein is a performer. It took a long time for me to fully grasp this -- they are a performer, a playwright, now writing a work of non-fiction. So, right away, the writing style threw me for a complete curve. The book is written in an unorthodox style, where Bornstein is speaking to the reader, and simultaneously has conversations with themself (your colonialist grammar means shit to me) in the margins, which made this very confusing at times to read. Almost like they wrote a book, then went back, edited it by arguing or debating with themselves in the side notes, and THEN published it. On some pages, the words are broken up and scattered all around the page, like a bad e.e. cummings poem.

The first chunk of this book is just a disorganized mess of what at times, seemed to be non-sequitur, random "interludes" that consisted of possibly? fictitious interviews with Bornstein and an unknown speaker. If stripped down to its core, the first half of this book reads as an autobiography -- a very...colorful and confusing autobiography, but an autobiography nonetheless. Bornstein's repression of gender variance while growing up in the baby boomer/gen X times is a core theme of this section, and one I highly relate to, given that I am a transgender individual myself whose concepts of gender and sexuality were repressed by mainly gen X, growing up in a small Southern town. So that part, I could relate to. But at times I would lose complete track of where Bornstein was going with their words. It became confusing and eventually I put the book down.

I actually started reading this book in 2014, nearly 4 1/2 years ago. I struggled through the first 111 pages, trying to make some sense of their words, but eventually I gave up and as mentioned above, put the book down for several years. So I picked it back up recently and started where I left off: page 113. Chapter 12. Suddenly, the whole theme, the whole tone of the book, just shifted. It changed completely. I had evidently left off on the brink of what is to me, the best part of the book.

Starting in chapter 12, Bornstein begins to directly challenge the notions of the male-female gender binary, and amazingly, they begin to incorporate the art and history of theatre, and especially queer theatre, into the theories surrounding gender and sexuality, and the social movements of the time (this book is 25 years old, it was released the year I was born). They confront and challenge the assimilation shift of the mainstream LGBT community that was re-beginning around this time (it started in the 1970s but was quickly put away during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s), and acknowledge this assimilation movement that has drowned out queer (as in strictly non-normative) and trans voices from the far-left who believe in alternatives to assimilation into heteronormativity. Suddenly I found myself excited to turn the page and read what they had to say next. From here on out, it became a great read.

Bornstein also incorporates a play they wrote, produced, and directed, into the middle of the book. It's a fun play that brings history, transgender culture, and queer culture into the middle of an intersection and encapsulates them in a vessel of theatre. I liked it a lot. And I am someone who hates plays, but usually because when I think of plays, I think of Shakespeare and what not, and I hate Shakespeare, but Bornstein really made me think about why I hate plays and the like, and how it's because I'm so used to the typical Aristotelian method of conflict > solution, within the scope of heterosexual, cisgender, watered down theatre. They're right. Now suddenly I'm intrigued by theatre for the first time.

Unfortunately, despite the sudden and complete 180 in writing style and content, I have to stick to my 3 star rating, because despite the sudden and complete 180, I had to wait over 100 pages for it. If it had been a 1 or 2 chapter, 10 or 20 or MAYBE even 50 pages, before it got to the good stuff, I think I could still give it a better rating, but this book took 113 pages, and 4 years for me to trek through. I dreaded picking it up each time I tried to restart it, but I have that problem where, unless a book is absolutely reactionary or outright fascistic, I'm going to HAVE to finish it at some point. I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I didn't. So I finished this book. I'm glad I did. I just hate that it took so long to make me glad to read it.

Overall, I still like Kate Bornstein, and I love their contributions to gender theory, but overall, this book was just lukewarm; tepid. I might give another one of their newer books a chance and compare the styles. Hopefully the result is better.
Profile Image for Dana Jerman.
Author 7 books49 followers
March 2, 2020
Great memoir/gender studies discourse by the author of "My Gender Notebook". Bornstein is an assumed name for "her"- a MtoF Transsexual/S&M player whose "lesbian" partner is now an FtoM post-op transsexual.
The confusion of role switching, she not only brings to her relationships but to her work in "queer" theatre, where she revels in it the most. She constantly challenges her audiences to redefine the roles we each must find for ourselves in society.
Well written and quoted, with an emphasis on not adhering to one font or page side or style of writing, Kate puts down the story of her existence with illustrated moments of power and reflection and pretty good pacing.
The play contained in her memoir is her story, but somehow it is insincere in its high camp.
Profile Image for Betsy.
331 reviews1 follower
February 27, 2022
This was a good read in that it gave me a perspective I don't typically get to view from. Bornstein is equal parts charming and informative and unique. "Why gender?" "Is gender a cult?" There were several interesting points throughout the book that question the importance of clearly defined genders. What I struggled with was how the book seemed to jump from one point to another. Creative, right-brained, beautiful artists make the world such a better place. I do think this book could have used a left-brained, more streamlined and organized approach to help organize main thoughts together.
Profile Image for Raquel Smith-Cave.
22 reviews4 followers
April 11, 2021
I love Kate so much. I love her wisdom, her humor, her mind, her body, her very unique and calm way of speaking that is translated into the written word with so much ease and love. I love her questions, and her answers which only formulate more answers, i love her infinite curiosity and sensetivity. I love that she published a revised edition 25 years after the first time this book was published, i love learning from her, and feeling seen and understood. I wish this book was translated into every language in the world.
Profile Image for Adrienne.
349 reviews3 followers
May 21, 2022
Finally got around to reading this. Considering this was written almost 30 years ago, it's astonishing how little it's aged. Yes, there are problematic words and ideas and the theater parts are really boring but man! The world has changed a lot in 30 years, and I think it's amazing how prescient this work remains. I read the 94 edition and I'm really curious to see what was updated.
Profile Image for Rel.
202 reviews16 followers
May 23, 2022
Dated, but great. Kate Bornstein!!
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