Gender activism begins with gender rage

February 17, 2009

Gender OutlawSometimes, it’s not the fist in your belly that gets to you.
Sometimes, it’s when they’re quiet, even polite.
Sometimes, it’s how they look at you day after day that finally gets to you.
If they’re in a crowd, they shift their eyes so their friends can’t tell they’re looking at you.
     Real subtle.
You can read the fear behind the smirk,
The hatred just past the disgust.
You worry it’s your paranoia.
(Confidence, they’ve told you, helps you pass.)
But there’s always one of them who looks at you with longing.
And that scares you the most,
Because if you let that longing into your heart, you have to accept yourself just the way you are.
It’s not only people who intentionally transgress gender who get into trouble. Eventually the gender system lets everyone down. It seems to be rigged that way. Sometimes, even with all the time and effort we put into obeying the rules, we get hurt. We can get badly hurt by being a real man or a real woman.


And this brings up a great deal of anger. […]

We don’t deserve the ridicule, the stares, the fist in our bellies. We are entitled to our anger in response to this oppression: our anger is a message to ourselves that we need to get active and change something in order to survive. So we resist the oppression, the violence – we resist the tendency of the culture to see us as a joke.


Loose canons of activism

One trouble in having only a few of “us”, and a lot of “them”, is that it’s easy to hit out at the wrong “them”. […]

When I’m angry, I don’t have the judgement to select a correct target to hit out against. I do believe that anger is healthy, that it can lead to a recognition of the need for action, but activism itself is best accomplished by level heads who can help steer others’ anger toward correct targets. A correct target is the group that has both the will and the power to oppress you wherever you go. […]

It does hurt, being excluded or even attacked by other oppressed groups, and it makes me feel a shame I thought I’d gotten over a long time ago. It’s not what people say when they exclude me and my people, or how they say it, but rather it’s a very long ache that I don’t believe will stop until there’s a whole lot more room in the world for difference. Sometimes it’s a seemingly insignificant act of exclusion that will tip the scale […]

Something happens, some final bit that lights up the injustice of the gender system, and in that flash, we see that the emperor is wearing no clothes. That this either/or gender system we’ve got is truly oppressing us. That happens, and we snap; we begin to fight.


In this struggle for our freedom of expression there comes a point where the gender system reveals itself to be not only oppressive, but silly. When we see how ridiculous it is, we can truly begin to dismantle it.

From Gender Outlaw: On men, women, and the rest of us by Kate Bornstein


I dunno, Kate. There’s a lot in there that resonates with me. But those last couple of paragraphs? I just don’t know, there’s… something that doesn’t quite… sit right with me, somehow. Yes, the gender system is problematic and both a cause of, and target for, this rage that I feel – but no, I’m not sure that that’s all there is to it. The gender system is, I think, only one part of the puzzle. I’d like to know what you mean by the term ‘gender system’ – what is it? How is it defined, by whom and to what end? Does it exist in isolation? (Does anything?) And if not, what are the other things that relate to it, and how do they all interact?

Y’see, I have this rage in me. It’s a comparatively new thing for me, and it’s unsettling me deeply. I’m trying to figure out where it’s come from, what its significance is. Do I embrace it or reject it? I feel with a solid certainty, but in a way I find hard to articulate, that my being trans is a part of it, a big part. But how? Why? And what, if anything, is to be done about it – does anything even need to be done about it?

It feels like my rage nourishes me at the same time as it devours me…

I need to think about this a lot more, but right now my mind is fizzing and spinning like a firework – and I’m tired, I need to sleep. Maybe things will seem clearer in the morning.

I hope so.


11 Responses to “Gender activism begins with gender rage”

  1. Things are always more clear in the morning. I hope you wake up to see a peaceful angle on this kind of rage. Something *is* missing from Gender Outlaw and the take I had on rage back when I wrote it: I had no idea how much rage I was holding that had to do with how gender is latticed with age, race, class, religion, family status, sexuality, citizenship, looks and ability.

    The process of handling my “gender rage” keeps unravelling as I discover elements of each of the other nine systems of oppression that hold the gender system in place by their insistence that each of *those* systems has the right take on gender. I’m glad you’re talking about this, and not just turning it inside against yourself. I’m interested to see what you come up with, hon.


  2. GallingGalla Says:

    So, Kate, a question.

    I do identify with the gender binary. I am a (trans) woman.

    Does this somehow make me less than you in the world? Does the fact that I am not “transgressing gender” mean that I am “reifying the gender binary”? and how exactly is this not just repeating the same trope that trans-exclusive radfems throw at trans women?

    I’m not here to “intentionally transgress the gender system”. I am here to live my life, without judgment from others because my body is different than expected, and I don’t need judgment from you b/c I’m supposedly not transgressive enough. I’m not anybody’s court jester.

  3. Jen Says:

    Actually, Kate, and meaning no disrespect, I was going to ask about the “transgression” part as well. I have the thoroughly outside perspective (in this matter) of a cis-gendered person, of course, but it seems to me a lot of the problems trans women encounter come from being considered “transgressive” while, as GallingGalla says, trying to live their lives, so it seems odd to me to project that onto your own identity.

    Plus, surely being a “gender outlaw” requires there to be a law in the first place, so that identity couldn’t exist without the gender binary being firmly in place.

  4. Helen G Says:

    GallingGalla, Jen: I’ve seen it argued by several writers that, in transitioning, one should somehow commit an act of transgression by finding one’s niche in a gender role outside the male/female binary norms. I freely admit that I have a huge blind spot in that regard, simply because I have always, for as long as I can remember (47 years), identified as female – nothing more, nothing less. The idea that I might somehow ‘challenge boundaries’ is not something I’ve ever had the slightest interest in, or wanted to do.

    I self-identify as female even though I was born male-bodied. My transition is (in part) about ending that incongruence and bringing my gender dissonance within manageable levels. I never ever again want to find myself sitting at that table with a bottle of whisky and a pile of painkillers because the life I was living had become so unbearable, so damaging to me. Bottom line: my transition is an act of survival. Transgressing anything has quite simply never been on my radar: I just want to get through the day and come home without a detour via A+E after getting a good kicking from half-a-dozen beer monsters on the Tube. Live dog, not dead lion. That’s my nature, and I’m not going to apologise for that; or live a different life just to fit in with somebody else’s theories.

    To me, transitioning is about finding a gender role and presentation that works for me. So I prefer female pronouns. So I prefer to wear skirts and dresses. So what? It works for me. But I don’t claim that it would necessarily work for everyone and I don’t insist that my solution is the only solution; one that everyone absolutely must follow. Am I reifying gender by living and transitioning this way? Yes, yes I am. But who doesn’t reify gender? To my mind, it makes no difference whether we identify as, I don’t know, let’s say, a genderfuck leatherdyke, or a lesbian butch: we all reify gender somehow. It’s not about laying down the law; there is no manual, no “How To Be Trans For Dummies” guidebook. We each write our own as we travel our own paths.

    I try my best to be inclusive, to treat others as equals and to celebrate human diversity, and to that end I don’t feel it’s my place to tell any other TS/TG person that this or that way is how ze should transition or live hir life.

    And I don’t expect any other person, be ze TS/TG, cis or from the planet Zog, to do it to me.

  5. queen emily Says:

    Hey, let’s get some perspective on that quote.

    I’ve got my issues with Gender Outlaw theoretically, but it *was* written 15 years ago or summat, and I think the recognition that there was a spectrum of (trans) gendered behavior was an important one. Transsexuality had been *so* medicalised (not to mention slagged off by rad-fems) that the whole pomo-influenced transgender theory thing was kinda necessary and gathered a number of critical insights–even if it was perhaps overly utopian and celebratory of transgression for its own sake.

    Of course, most of the binary identified of us know the problems with that, and that’s part of what made Julia Serano’s writing important and necessary too.

    My point–and I probably has one–is let’s give Kate the benefit of the doubt. If she still thinks that binary identified people *should* be gender outlaws or transgressive or whatever, then ok I’ll be the first to jump down her throat, cos like Helen I’m unambiguously a woman and resent being appropriated by queer theory.

    But in the meantime, give her a chance. Ideas change, no?

  6. Jen Says:


    What you say is pretty much what I had understood from what you have always told me. To be honest, I see people using the words “reifying gender”, I don’t even understand what that means, or even whether it means anything. Although taking it to mean “allowing gender a central part in your life”, well, however anyone understands gender, it always is a central part in anyone’s life, and it strikes me that this is just as true for anyone who makes conscious attempts fo “transgress” with regards to the gender binary, or to be genderless, as it is for any of the rest of us. I mean, you take any cis-gendered person, I could go on about how “gender doesn’t affect me”, but you give me a footballer’s mullet and force me not to shave and we’ll soon find out how unimportant gender is.

    It’s my opinion (not sure how well-informed this opinion is) that what matters is what you are right now – not what you were born with or how you got there. And, survival, as you say.

    I certainly don’t want to be telling Kate what to think about her gender either, and I hesitated to ask the question. I’m just wary of ideas like “transgression”, because they suppose that there’s a law to be transgressed (I mean, if gender is silly, why is the transgression such a big thing?), but mostly because there are people who have to get past the beer-monsters and so on.

    I guess it all depends what that rage gets turned into, and personally I think the rage itself is very valuable and righteous and I would be wary of trying to convert it into something else too quickly. Then again, the more I’m typing, the more I realise it’s probably none of my business, so I hope you don’t mind me sharing my thoughts.

  7. Jen Says:


    I think I’m having a (theoretical) issue with the way Kate’s “transgression” is jarring with the whole survival thing. Because if you put it together, you can end up with the idea of survival itself being transgressive – and that’s not a territory I like the look of.

    Then again, I was mainly interested in what Kate has to say, rather than leaping down her throat in any way. I mean, I’m a total outsider here, asking questions is one thing but I don’t think I should be leaping down throats in any shape or form!

  8. queenemily Says:

    No, I agree. Valuing the precariousness of trans lives–and what gets trans women, especially trans WoC sex workers–killed, that ain’t right. And I think Kate’s book did that, or glossed the real-world consequences of that a little easily.

    But there’s a certain kind of value in that too, cos if you read it when you were coming out like I did, it makes you bold and unafraid and can help give the fire–and that’s what rage can be–to do what you need to rather than turning your anger inward.

    Anyway, my point was, it’s a pretty old criticism that I’m sure Kate’s heard a few times, so I wanted to give her a chance to clarify what her current position is..

  9. GallingGalla Says:

    Queen Emily, and i am saying this out of great respect for you, but is this a tone argument?

    am i bitter? hell, yea. I was made to feel unwelcome in the Philadelphia trans community because i was seen as not “transgressive” enough.

    this idea the we should seek to be as transgressive as possible is, in my case anyway, being a club against me by the transgressive-ocracy (if i may coin a word) within the phila trans community. that is *my* reality, and i think i’m allowed to be a bit pissed about it.

    i am not saying that kate is not welcome here (how could i? it’s not my blog) or that she’s not permitted to express her views. and i do understand and agree with her point about accepting one’s rage — and one’s identity — as legitimate. i am objecting to the pressure to identify as third / other-gendered when that is not my identity.

    really. i’m not kate-bashing. i’m expressing my disagreement.

  10. queenemily Says:

    You know GG, it *was* partly a tone argument, and I’m sorry I pulled it.

    I was trying to give Kate the benefit of the doubt cos Gender Outlaw was published a long time ago and I would hope that any trans person would realise how flawed some of those ideas were (and the consequences of such: ie the very real way mandatory transgressiveness has been used to slag off less transgressive binary-identified people), but yeah, essentially I told you not to be angry about something that’s still a problem in our communities now.

    Apologies and whatnot.

  11. GallingGalla Says:

    yeah, it’s like raymond wrote her tripe 30 years ago, and it’s *still* being used in defense of transphobia.

    all’s good, though, thanks :)

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