January 31, 2015 / 12:37 AM / in 4 years

Pivotal time for trans people as rigid notion of gender challenged: TRFN

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For Kate Bornstein, the American author and pioneer gender activist, this is a pivotal time in history for transgender people as the rigid concept of two sexes is challenged by a growing number of individuals who don’t conform to either.

Some even suggest the notion of gender as we know it, the categorization of individuals as either male or female, might become obsolete altogether.

“Most college students are okay with the idea of someone who defines themselves as not a man or a woman,” said Bornstein, 66, who was born a man but had a sex change operation in the 1980s.

“That’s very different from their parents or even their older siblings,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.

Gender non-conformity, also known as genderqueer, and transsexuality are far more visible now than they were at the beginning of her career as a lecturer and author, she said.

“In the early 1990s, there might be one ‘trans’ student in six or seven colleges and now the audience is filled with female to male...or really cool gender queer (people),” Bornstein, who does not identify as male or female, says in a new film about her life.

In the United States and beyond, a growing movement views gender as a complex, mainly psychological phenomenon in which a person’s external anatomy is no longer the defining factor.


A study conducted by scientists at the Medical University of Vienna showed that gender identity is deeply rooted in the brain and is not necessarily linked to one’s biological sex.

“While the biological gender is usually manifested in the physical appearance, the individual gender identity is not immediately discernible and primarily established in the psyche of a human being,” said the study, published earlier this month.

There are countries such as Australia, Nepal and Thailand that already have taken steps to recognize a third gender.

In the United States, which Bornstein called a “puritanical” society, change is likely to happen at a slower pace, she said.

Bornstein is the protagonist of the documentary “Kate Bornstein is a Queer & Pleasant Danger”, an intimate portrayal of her life and work directed by Sam Feder, a New York-based transgender artist and filmmaker. 

The film, which uses the title of her memoir, will be screened on Feb. 6 at New York City’s Athena Film Festival.

It explores Bornstein’s life as she travels from New York City, where she lives with her partner - writer and performance artist Barbara Carrellas - to towns across the United States where her lectures fill bookstores and college auditoriums.


Bornstein is the author of “Gender Outlaw,” a book regarded by many as the manifesto of modern theory on gender and sexuality which is taught in more than 200 universities.

“I know I’m not a man and a whole lot of people are telling me I’m not a woman so, extrapolating from that, this is the theory,” she said.

“I’m a Jew, I’m a transsexual dyke...I’m a reluctant polyamorist,” she said, referring to her openness to non-exclusive loving relationships.

Transgender people and transsexuals long have been living at the margins of society, often ostracized even within gay and lesbian communities.

Bornstein has criticized the focus given to marriage equality by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT)lobby groups while many of those within the group, especially transgender people, were suffering discrimination and violence.

“(I see) beautiful young children who aren’t wanted by their parents, who make it to the part of town where they’re supposed to be welcome and they’re not ... I see too much of that,” she said.

The documentary was four years in the making, Feder said, partly due to Bornstein’s poor health since her diagnosis with lung cancer in 2012.

(The story was refiled to clarify the wording in paragraph 5 and to fix a typo in paragraph 17)

Reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Ros Russell

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