There's been an extraordinary shift in recent years in terms of how the public thinks and talks about gender. While gender non-conforming people have always existed, now on a mass level, the mutability of gender is an accepted fact, one that's no longer exclusively tied to body parts or historical gender norms.
We've essentially caught up to what Kate Bornstein, the writer and gender theorist, wrote 27-years ago in Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and The Rest Of Us. There's now a name for the "the rest of us" — nonbinary — and these changes are reflected in the youngest generation of LGBTQ+ people. In a report published by The Trevor Project earlier this month, the organization found that 26 percent of LGBTQ+ youth identify as nonbinary, and even telling, an additional 20 percent responded that they weren’t sure or were questioning if they were.
For as far as we've come with the proliferation of nonbinary visibility in our culture, Kate Bornstein says the relational nature of gender is still missing from the public conversation. "Gender depends on something else for its existence. What it depends on varies from time period to time period, culture to culture," she says, "We're not admitting that."
Being stuck inside under stay-at-home orders throughout 2020 and into 2021 provided us with a grand social experiment on the relative phenomenon that is gender. Away from other people, away from our individual culture's expectations of what a person's gender is or isn't supposed to look like, many people, both trans and otherwise, found their relationship to gender shifting. "That, for me, has always been the fun of it," Bornstein says. These changes, both big and small, happen every day. And they're affected by time. "That's why admitting that gender includes time, the passage of time, allows us to admit that living with gender is living with the process of letting go...gender is not something you can hold onto, unless you get really angry about it."
On this week's episode of LGBTQ&A, Kate Bornstein talks about why gender is always changing and how now in her 70s, gender has become "inconsequential" to her. Read an excerpt below and listen to the full interview on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
Jeffrey Masters: With as much as things have changed in the 30 years since your book, Gender Outlaw, was published — for example, with the new administration, you’ll soon be able to get a passport with an X as the gender marker — is that forcing a shift in your own identity? Do you still think of yourself as a Gender Outlaw?
Kate Bornstein: It's helping me leave that identity behind.
I saw gender in terms of, first off, the binary. Man and woman. Two-dimensional thinking. And in order to say, "I'm neither," I had to get into a third dimension because that said there was something else that wasn't represented by a binary.
So, OK, there are three dimensions and that meant there was a limitless number of identities. Saying nonbinary and watching so many people say they're nonbinary has helped me get into a fourth dimension of looking at gender, if you will, and that's adding the dimension of time.
It's the idea that — you know it, I know it, we all know it, but hate to admit it — gender is continually changing. We are changing our notion of gender. What we depend on to define ourselves as a gender continually changes, moment by moment. So now, rather than saying just "not man, not woman", I'm saying that my gender is a continuum. And currently, a continuum of 73 years.
JM: Another big difference is that 30 years ago, you were forced to invent language to describe how you experience gender. Now we have this word that the general public knows: nonbinary.
KB: Yeah. And in a way, that was good. The sneaky thing about the word nonbinary is it doesn't say what you are, it says what you're not. And that's what I was saying. "Not man, not woman" because I had no idea what I was. Some people seem to think that nonbinary is an "is" and it isn't. It's a "not is."
That's why admitting that gender includes time, the passage of time, allows us to admit that living with gender is living with the process of letting go. Being able to let go has always been a problem for humanity. Letting go of anything. Gender is not something you can hold onto, unless you get really angry about it.
JM: Do you think having that word, "nonbinary,” has helped to legitimize nonbinary identities in people’s eyes?
KB: Yes, to a point, and it's going to freeze nonbinary into something that can be defined. At that point, nonbinary will be so dependent on the binary that it will, in fact, become part of it, paradoxically.
Right now, nonbinary isn't dependent on the binary, it just is, "Well, I'm not that." But the more we say nonbinary, we're going to have to call up the binary in order to define ourselves. Defining ourselves by what we're not is a legitimate way of defining ourselves. That's what I like.
What we're doing is saying that we are on a continuum, of sorts. We admit that time is a factor in our gender and that it's changing moment to moment to moment.
JM: As these ideas get larger and more mainstream, we tend to dumb them down and oversimplify them. Is there something that you think we're misunderstanding?
KB: I think we've always misunderstood that gender is a relational phenomenon. Gender depends on something else for its existence. What it depends on varies from time period to time period, culture to culture. Some cultures say it depends on hormones, it depends on genitals, it depends on your mood that day. It's still relational and that's what we're missing. We're not admitting that.
JM: Going off that, we were inside and away from people for over a year. How did that affect your own experience of gender?
KB: Speaking of time, age is in the picture. All of a sudden, I was really, really old. I'm 73. I thought I was going to be dead at, like, 39, 29. I thought I was going to be dead. I still think I'm going to be dead when I wake up. First thing in the morning I go, "Today, I could die." I certainly am ready for it now.
Gender became inconsequential to me while I was in quarantine and grappling with old age. "Oh, you're not old. 70 is the new 50." Fuck that. 70 is the same old 70. This is where you really need to be letting go of shit. I'm letting go of the ability to be...cute, in certain ways. I'm too old for that. My face is sagging, my boobs are sagging. Boy, oh boy. They're down to my waist and you let go of that as being necessary to your gender.
JM: That surprises me that you say gender became inconsequential. I would have assumed you'd be saying that for the last 40 years.
KB: No, no, no. I've been nonbinary for a long time, but there's gender identity and gender expression. Gender identity is becoming less and less important. Gender expression has always been important for me, and that's as much gender as identity is.
Part of my gender has included "gender theorist" and in some cases, "gender icon", and quarantine has been letting go of that. I'm stepping back here. I'm watching other people write beautiful pieces of literature and theory, and I'm going, "Good. OK. I can just step back and watch and focus on basically end-of-life issues."
I'm not dying. Well, of course, I'm dying, but nothing bad or anything is happening right now, but it is the end of my life and I'm letting go of "gender theorist", the need to be listened to. I'm coming up with all kinds of gender theories still, but I don't have a need to get them out there. If people ask me, I'm very happy to talk about it because it's a fun conversation, but it's not important to me whether a whole lot of people connect with it and follow it anymore.
JM: If putting these ideas out into the world isn’t important to you now, what is?
KB: For the most part of my life, I've been totally fascinated with death. What the hell is that? Death is the moment when you lose everything. Everything's gone. And so what am I doing now? I'm focusing on my losses. My back hurts most of the time. I can't move in a lot of ways that I used to be able to move and I go, "Oh well, lost that ability."
When I was going through chemotherapy in 2012 through 2014, I experienced what's called chemo-brain and that stays with you. That's like a fuzzy brain. That plus old age, I don't have access to language as good as I had before. Trying to write now, that's a lot more of a chore and a lot less of a delight. Oh well. OK, that's gone.
Now, if I can keep saying, "Oh well," if I can keep smiling about stuff that I lose, then at that moment of death, I'll be able to smile and go, "Oh well," and see what's next.
JM: Do you think about your legacy and how you want to be remembered?
KB: No. I see how I am thought of more or less now and I imagine that'll continue, and that's cool. That's sweet. A lot of people like what I've written and like how I've written it and think of me as their auntie, and that feels good. That feels good to be part of a family.
JM: So you're not rushing to cross anything off a to-do list?
KB: No. I've done a fuck of a lot in my life. I've gotten pretty much all the tattoos I want to get. If I could change something now, I would wish for better health, but I fucked up my health with cigarettes starting back when I was a teenager. As you reap, so you shall sow. And that's come around now.
JM: As you're preparing for death, you seem very at peace, but you're in your 70s, what if you happen to live 20 more years?
KB: [Laughs] 20 years of loss and laughing at loss. We all have work to do here in the world. We all do. The only way to admit that you've got work and then find some serenity in life is to do your work and then let it go. Not, "Oh, I've got to make sure everybody agrees with me on this now and I've got to rewrite it and tweak it and tweak it and tweak it and tweak it and tweak it," which is what I did.
If there's another 20 years, I imagine I'll find some really good recipes. I've been cooking a lot in quarantine. I imagine I'll get really even better than that. I don't think it'll have much to do with gender, my next 20 years. If I have 20 years. I could have 20 minutes.
It's not a sad thing. I was suicidal most of my young life and into my middle age and into my 40s and just up to my 50s. And something changed and I wasn't suicidal. But that didn't change my fascination with death, just my attitude toward it.
Listen to the full podcast interview on Apple Podcasts.
LGBTQ&A is The Advocate's weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Pete Buttigieg, Laverne Cox, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, and Roxane Gay.
Episodes are released every Tuesday.