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Week 9: Writing and Imagining Gender Outlaw-ry

Anne Dalke's picture

Today in class we'll be doing two exercises from Kate Bornstein's The Gender Workbook: "The Ten-Minute Gender Outlaw Exercise," which aims to get you "to a question you want to think about some more, one that really tickles your brain--something you can ponder on for the balance of the day" (33); and the "The First Gender Performance Workshop: On the Outside, Looking In," which is intended to  familiarize you with your bodies, and some of the major limitations of the kinds of bodies we have. To free you from some of the fixed ideas you might have about their bodies by giving you another perspective on looking @ your bodies (225f.). So: let's talk about these experiences....what happened? What did you learn? And (of course) please report in on what happened and what you learned from our informal conversation w/ Kate, and/or her performance @ Villanova on November 5.


w0m_n's picture


Here's a Youtube video for the song "My Body is a Cage" by Arcade Fire. I think it very much encompasses alot of what Kate Borenstein discusses...Enjoy!

Karina's picture

third gender option in India...

rae's picture

wait, sex or gender?

while i think it's great that there's now an option besides "male" and "female" (seeing as it's optional; i think it would definitely be bad if intersex and transsexual people were forced to identify as "other" and check that box if they didn't want to), it frustrates me when the words "sex" and "gender" are used interchangeably.
example: the title of the article is "India's third gender gets own identity in voter rolls," and the article writes, "But now, they will have the choice to tick 'O' -- for others -- when indicating their gender in voter forms, the Indian election commission said in a statement." however, there is a quote from an election official stating that "Enumerators and booth-level officers (BLOs) shall be instructed to indicate the sex of eunuchs/transsexuals etc as 'O' if they so desire." also, the terms "eunuch" and "transsexual" usually refer more to sex than to gender.
don't get me wrong; i think this is a really big step forward. it's just one of my pet peeves, if you will, when people take "sex" and "gender" to mean the same thing.

kayla's picture

Facebook demands that you choose

rae's picture

pronouns and facebook

i agree. so do many other people; below is a list of a few of the facebook groups that were started because other people were upset at that. also, incidentally, after a while, if you leave the sex part empty (ie don't click on female or male) on your profile, it uses they/them/their. it amuses me greatly. other applications, like farmville, do the same.

here's a screenshot of something by farmville: 

farmville pronouns



Appeal to Facebook to Stop Forcing Normative Gender (526 members)

Facebook should have other gender options: Official Petition (17,555 members)

Expand Gender Options on Facebook Petition (2,367 members)

Facebook harasses, demands your gender! (798 members)

More gender choices on Facebook. (265 members)

CCM's picture

Kate Bornstein visits the Mainline!

 I really enjoyed going to Villanova to see Kate Bornstein perform last week.  I even got her to sign my copy of Gender Outlaw!  Like her writing, Kate's performance was very dynamic and entertaining.  It was great to see her incorporate a number of different personalities in her overall performance.  Furthermore, as a spectator I truly enjoyed the multimedia aspect of her piece.  However, towards the end I got a bit uncomfortable with the video/photo montage she had created using images of her family members.  Moreover, I was a bit startled by Kate's focus on Scientology.  I wasn't expecting the topic of religion to be included in her performance. Nonetheless, I feel honored that Kate decided to share such a personal part of her life with us.  Along with her talk about religion I was very touched by Kate's love for her daughter.  The story she shared with us is a complicated and unfortunate one that will be hard to forget.  Anyhow, I look forward to reading the memoirs that Kate Bornstein will publish in the near future!



Terrible2s's picture

Hush Hush

Kate Bornstein is pretty amazing. I enjoyed the performance a lot, as a performance at least. However, I found that her exaggerated theatricality actually took away from her message most of the time for me. Someone said something interesting in class the other day about how it was actually quite fitting that she was performing/exaggerating because gender is a performance. I think that this is actually a great point. Gender is a performance, and Kate especially has had to experience and perform many different kinds of roles. I guess I probably would have benefitted from going to the conversation on Thursday morning, because then I would have been able to see the side of her which I think was missing from the performance. I guess with someone so interesting I want to see the real  them, not a rehearsed and polished version.

Regardless, I think she's a very talented performer/actress and that her writings, which she read aloud, are beautiful. I was especially touched by the small part of her play which she performed. However, the thing that I most appreciated about Kate and her performance was her honesty. She wasn't standing up there and saying that she used to be confused but now she was perfectly well-adjusted. She came to us as a work in progress. She came to us admitting very difficult things, and told us flat out that she was an anorexic, alcoholic, ex-phone sex operator, and a whole slew of things people try to keep hush-hush. I guess that's why Kate is so revolutionary. She doesn't keep her mouth shut on issues people was to let fade away into the dark. That takes guts. It also makes change happen. Go Kate!

meredyd's picture

 I really liked Kate

 I really liked Kate Bornstein's performance overall, but about halfway through I started to like it less. I'm trying to think about why. It might have been because I felt, in a way, she was airing stuff to us that she still hadn't completely worked out herself wrt her issues with her father and her daughter. And while I know that is part of the purpose of theater, somehow about it felt almost too confessional, too raw and sort of uncomfortable. I hesitate to use the word self-gratifying, but it felt sort of like that too. She's a completely dynamic performer and I loved her pieces on herself, but when she moved on to talking about others close to her it seemed almost like unfinished thoughts. This could be because it's all part of what she's working on for her new book (which isn't completed yet? or at least not published yet), but I don't know. Something felt off. 

Owl's picture

How I changed.

The exercise from Bornstein's Workbook, that we did in class, really intrigued me, because unlike most of the peopl in that class I didn't feel more relax and comfortable with my body but rather frustrated, as we went through the motion of the exercise, I found that my body was getting heavier. Now it might have been because I was sitting on a chair instead of laying on the floor, but when we got to the part where we had to imagine what part of our body we would use, I found the only thing that popped into my head was my brain. But I felt inadequate and disabled when I couldn't think and couldn't function because my mind was not doing anything. I began to feel frustrated, upset, and angry at the fact that the one thing I though would function without it having to change would be the mind, but I was wrong. 

After the exercise I started to think about the probable implications the exercise could have and I finally came up with the solution. I think the reason for my frustration had to deal with who I am in reality. I think that I would like to think that I control my mind but how am I sure. I think the exercise helped me see my mind is still constricted and defined by what we already think we know.

dshetterly's picture

Here is an article about

Here is an article about gender norms and school dress codes from the New York Times in case anyone wants to check it out.

Karina's picture

a lesson from kate bornstein


The thing that stayed with me the most after Kate's performance was the piece that she did about her 8th grade English teacher and the meaning of pronouns. I was struck by the obviousness of the things was pointing out, even though they were precisely the things about which one rarely thinks explicitly. “He” is used universally as the default “neutral” gender – a privilege which “she” has never and will never experience. If he is the default, it’s no wonder that “she” is the break from the expected, the disruption of the norm, the aberrant. Of course, at least “she” is a known radical, one that is still name-able. What happens is the disruption from the norm lacks a name, is neither the expected norm nor the one known radical (something outside of the he-she binary)? If that unnamed radical is so elusive it can’t even be named, then naturally it makes sense for people in our [fill-in-the-blank]-normative society to assume that it cannot possibly exist. It’s not that it’s a deviation from the norm – that’s already been taken care of: spotted, identified, and tagged as a “she” – it’s that its neither the norm nor the deviation from the norm. It’s neither IT nor NOT-IT. Boggles your mind, doesn’t it?


kayla's picture

update on Caster Semenya

I was perusing the internet and found this update about the controversy in South Africa, thought I'd share...

"Athletics South Africa wishes to publicly and unconditionally apologise to Caster Semenya and her family, the President of South Africa as well as to all South Africans for the handling of her gender verification processes and the subsequent aftermath."

I'm really appalled about this part of the story, I cannot believe this is the way the tests were conducted:


"She was told it was random doping tests she was being taken to in South Africa and Berlin, in the meantime it was gender verification tests.

"She was never briefed properly about her rights and the implications about the outcome of the tests.

"She was never given the opportunity to make a decision to compete or allow medical interventions that could regularise her situation."


Also, in Junior Seminar we are currently reading Walt Whitman. I found some quotes from his poem "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" that reminded me of this course and Kate Bornstein, especially considering the issues of identity that we are facing right now with her work.

"I too had receiv'd identity by my body, / That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I / knew I should be of my body." 

And another, 

"Appearances, now or henceforth, indicate what you are, / You necessary film, continue to envelop the soul, / About my body for me, and your body for you, be hung our divinest aromas"

Though the poem itself isn't necessarily about gender and sexuality as identities, it does give an idea of unity between the speaker and the reader and kind of outlines processes for moving past individual identities, the individual identities Kate Bornstein suggests are holding us back. From Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, Howard Nelson writes that this movement beyond identity can be taken "through the physical world itself, through shared human nature and experience; and through works of art (and especially this work of art)" (link for citation: It's fascinating to me that even in the 19th century, phrases such as "receiv'd identity by my body" and "Appearances, now or henceforth, indicate what you are" existed, which suggests that there must have been some sort of thought or discussion about the the body and how the ways in which bodies are perceived by others mark how people label each other. Both of these lines remind me of the way infants are immediately identified by their doctors as "male" or "female" when they are born, and this identification influences the way the infant lives the rest of its (his or her) life, and the problems people are now facing because of this practice because no one has the opportunity to decide their gender for themselves. 






dshetterly's picture

Doing what we feel?

In class Cantaloupe asked something along the lines of "why can't we just do what we feel like and not worry about deconstructing categories?"    I think that is what all of this deconstruction is about; trying to figure out how much of what we want to do is the product of social constructs.  Marcel Duchamp said "You cannot defy convention by being anti-convention. The only way you can defy convention is by ignoring it." So the question is now: can we ignore conventions if we don't fully understand them.  The ovbious answer seems to be yes, of course you can ignore something you don't know about.  But the conventions we don't know about nevertheless shape who we are in major and minor ways.  We are socialized to want to do certain things, to behave in certain ways, to think in certain ways and to feel certain things because of our sex.   Our pleasures and desires are shaped so much by social constructions.  I don't know if it is ever possible to deconstruct these fully for ourselves.  I think for the future what we can do is change the way socialization occurs so that possibilities are framed by gender neutrality.

For me, it seems that the only way to do what I feel is through self examination.  I am trying to think about why I want the things I want to figure out whether I really want them even though I dont know if there is really a me...  All of this is so complicated and I don't think there are really any answers...I guess we just have to keep questioning, keep imagining ourselves on that shapeshifting planet.

Here is a funny little animation that makes me think about gender outlaw-ry and about bodies that don't fit in......... WARNING It might one of the (many) things that I think is funny and others think is totally inappropriate/really, really weird... (sorry)

cantaloupe's picture


I understand what everyone is saying when I say "do what you feel!"  People respond with "but how do you know that it is what you feel and not what society is making you feel?"  My response is that society is what you makes you feel everything!  You grew up in such a world that constantly influenced your mind.  It isn't possible to look at "what you really want" without society because you are a product of your experiences.  My giant question is why is this bad?  Yeah it sucks if your whole life you have felt like a man, but in a woman's body and everyone you have ever known is telling you that you must act like a woman.  But that's when you go out and find a support group or other people like you and you realize it's okay, you get strength and then you follow through with how you felt.  Society isn't just bad.  Society isn't just telling us to be perfect WASPs who are straight and marry perfect men.  Bryn Mawr, for instance, is part of society.  And we accept all kinds of genders and sexualities and religions and races.  It is a society and it is positive.  

I feel like living is comprised of meeting a lot of different people, reading lots of different things, and going lots of different places and picking up parts of other people along the way.  You aren't you by virtue of just you, you are you because of all the people you've met and places you've gone.  So you take all that, and you pick up things you like in people or whatnot, and that becomes you.  That's just the way it is.  It isn't bad.  I came to college a lot different than I am now.  I wore skinny jeans a lot and tight "fashion shirts."  I had my hair in an actual style.  My thought before entering college was that I would try to "look nice."  I did for a while, but then my friends became people who like to wear jeans and t-shirts.  I started dating a girl who likes loose jeans and tie-dye.  So I started adapting what I liked in what other people wore, and now it's what I wear.  But it's like like "shit, what I'm wearing isn't what I really feel like wearing, it's what society is influencing me to wear."  No, I like it a lot.  I know this example was very superficial, but thats how I think about all things in life.

You don't have to deconstruct social constructs to be happy and to be you.  You just have to be a part of the society that you like.  If you don't want to live by stereotypical female roles, then don't participate in a rich suburban lifestyle with cookie cutter houses.  Enter into some weird radical cult like movement who has spiked hair and doesn't believe in driving cars.  There are so many niches in society that we can fit perfectly into.

That's why those exercises didn't seem that helpful to me, especially the meditation one.  I know I was supposed to be fascinated by a world where if I wanted to change anything at all, it could happen.  I could represent myself physicaly anyway I wanted and anything could appear or disappear by my whim.  Coming back down to the real world was supposed to be disappointing, but really, it wasn't.  I don't feel constricted.  I don't feel repressed or unhappy or bounded by society.  So I guess this is my real question, do you guys?  I'm not trying to sound like an asshole in all my postings or in class, I guess I just don't get it.  It's not that I'm not self-reflective, I think about the world and myself all the time.  But when it comes to my physical form, my gender expression, or anything along those lines, I feel free.  When I came out and my mom told me that the world is always going to push me down and it will be "so much harder."  I laughed and said "let them try!"  In my mind we are all free.  Especailly here at Bryn Mawr, we can be whoever we friggin want to be.  And if we can't express that, I don't think it's social constructs that are holding us down.

Owl's picture

Self Explanitory!

dshetterly's picture

hi everyone! Staceyann Chin,

hi everyone!

Staceyann Chin, the performer in the video is coming to Haverford this Friday for a performance as part of Outweek!

ebock's picture


that was absolutely beautiful. i don't even think i have words for everything she just said.

dshetterly's picture

yeah... wow

yeah... wow

ebock's picture


Mostly the exercise we did today made me a little bit sad to come back "to earth." It was nice to imagine a world where I could forget everything that comes with this human body I have, even if it was just for 10 or 15 minutes...

But then I caught myself thinking, shouldn't I be proud of my body and my self and everything that we've been through together?


After a moment of silent embarrassment for my relishing of the precious moments of escape into a world of general amorphous-ness, I thought back to one of the questions I recorded during our question-asking exercise:

"When do I get to stop thinking so damn much and just live?"

and then

"Who the fuck can tell me what I can or can't be?"

Sometimes it just helps to let yourself be a little pissed off and push back. It takes a lot of work to just "be who you are" in the world that we live in, so sometimes an escape is nice, but then you just have to jump back on the horse and keep shoving.