Published in 1994, Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw was a revelation. She was shockingly candid about being a transsexual lesbian and dating a woman who had begun to transition into manhood. This was groundbreaking stuff in the mid ’90s.
Now in 2010, we may see pregnant men on Oprah, but trans and genderqueer identities are still a boundary-pushing subject. Nowhere is this more apparent than the continually forward thinking revamped Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, released this month by Seal Press. But this is not merely an update. Edited by the original outlaw along with co-editor S. Bear Bergman, GO:TNG is an anthology of 50 varied artists and writers, each with a strong and socially edgy voice.
In between poems, essays, comics or reflections on sex play, the editors discuss the work that is coming out of a generation raised with tools such as Bornstein’s seminal text. The introduction was a little discordant and it was difficult to tell whether this was a transcript of an in person or instant messaged conversation. But though this may have been slightly frustrating it also fit nicely with the transgressive nature of the book as a whole and was an entirely appropriate beginning to the journey.
It can be difficult to approach a subject so tied to politics, identity and personal freedom and expression without descending into trite rants. Outlaws occasionally brushed against this problem but was mostly intensely articulate in its arguments. In Telyn Kusalik’s “Identity, Schmidentity” she argues for inclusiveness in feminist and women’s only spaces by writing:
One advantage for experience as a basis for feminist space is that, if challenged, it is much easier to prove that your identity is valid. This makes it more difficult for someone who is prejudiced against transwomen (or anyone else they’re convinced is not “really” a woman) to prevent them from accessing services or community…This practice opens feminist space to people who do not identify or perceive themselves as women, on the grounds that they experience sexism.
This hard logic is balanced by incredibly moving personal stories such as Kyle Lukoff’s “Taking up Space” wherein he recounts his battle with anorexia. In this way a theoretical argument like the privilege of straight white males to “take up space” is quite literally embodied by the experience of a transman who had difficulty getting treatment at all, and was told to suppress his history in the one hospital that would take him. He says:
My gender directly fed my eating disorder. Or rather starved it…the thinner I got the easier it was to bind my chest flat…It’s no wonder eating disorders are rampant among young women. Women are conditioned to take up as little space as possible in the world.
Gender Outlaws assures readers that there is also plenty of joy and humor to be found in these stories. Ethical Slut co-author Janet Hardy relates a very tender tale of life with her aging partner. And Part 3, entitled “…which is why I’m as cute as I happen to be,” is filled with appreciation of sex, sensuality and appearance as well as pride, poetry and the secret life of a wiener. It is also here that we get a welcome interruption of prose with illustration, comics and photographs of a live sex performance piece that discusses identity in relation to sexual connection.
These identities are more nuanced than simply “trans” and the American anthology is conscious to include other parts of the world. There’s an article chronicling the Lamal Ceremony of the Masaai in Kenya and an Argentinean youth who discusses the need for locally constructed trans words, which I read entirely in Spanish (and pretty well if I do say so myself) before realizing that there was also an English translation.
But my favorite piece is E.S. Weisbrot’s “Seaworthy,” which plays with language and metaphor to tell the story of a person who “steals” mannerisms from others. It is a particularly artful way to describe the way we construct ourselves as gendered and styled beings, as well as how we can simultaneously shed and incorporate the mannerisms we come to love and consider a part of us.
Gender Outlaws: The New Generation is available now.