The transgender movement is now a powerful cultural force, but there are trans elders who have led the way for the recognition and progress that we are making today in the United States. You may recognize her from her role on Caitlyn Jenner's TV show, but Kate Bornstein has been leading a gender revolution for the last 30 years.
Bornstein is one of the most important contributors to gender discourse in the 20th century, and her ideas are still just as radical. Where the trans movement of today has gained momentum in part by developing and advertising a transgender ideology that lines up neatly along a gender binary between male and female, Bornstein's gender identity cannot be easily or neatly categorized.
She was exiled from the Church of Scientology, losing her daughter and the mother of her children. She left behind manhood to become a woman, only to find that the new label she'd adopted also failed to accurately identify her. Not man, not woman, Bornstein was unmoored from society and, still, from herself.
As Bornstein told me during our interview, that was "a dark night of soul." But it is the work Bornstein did in the wake of that disillusioning experience that made her into the indefinable trans auntie of a generation of queer people across the globe. She wrote Gender Outlaw in the early 90s, a queer bible that's still taught in colleges today, outlining Bornstein's non-binary gender opus.
Though Bornstein's work has always served to broaden our understanding of gender, there are people in and out of the transgender community who have reacted with hostility to her message. Bornstein isn't afraid of saying she used to be a man, or claiming the term "tranny" as her own. "It's my name, it's who I am," Bornstein pleaded on I am Cait, as the straight-laced trans female professor and author Jenny Boylan debated Bornstein's use of the controversial word.
But Bornstein has never backed down. She has refused to bend over to assimilationist rhetoric, choosing instead to fiercely embrace the outliers, the rejected, and the freaks. She has given a voice to the silenced and the reviled, advocating for their survival. This is the simple yet profound moral to Bornstein's countercultural fairytale: "Do whatever it takes to survive. Just don't be mean."
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