An Open Letter to Kate Bornstein

Dear Auntie Kate, (can I call you that?)

I have had more than a few reservations about your gender theory for quite a while now but have held my tongue for a variety of reasons. Yet as I read through your latest op-ed in Out magazine, The Trouble With Tranny, I was profoundly troubled. I came to a point where I realised I just couldn’t stay silent any more because of the venues in which you’re promoting a certain kind of theory that is, perhaps despite your good intentions, very transphobic. If I haven’t already lost you, allow me to explain.

You begin the article with fond reminiscences about your time with Doris Fish, a prominent drag queen, whose views regarding trans women you characterise in the following way:

“I was afraid of her raw sexuality, but bowled over by her courage. Doris was amused by my quest to become a real woman.” (Emphasis mine)


“Like me in the late ’80s in San Francisco, the majority of MTF transsexuals just wanted to live their lives as closely as possible to whatever their notion was of “a real woman.” They considered drag queens beneath them. The drag queens were amused by the MTFs pursuing the dream of real woman.”

Let me be the first to say that the disparaging of crossdressers and drag queens on the part of transsexual people is, yes, quite morally wrong and represents internalised transphobia. It evokes that hierarchy of legitimacy that too many people of all backgrounds buy into in order to buttress their stability and position in a world that is built on domination. Yes, it’s wrong. I am not more legitimate than a crossdresser, no DQs do not make me “look bad” and I call out any person who claims such. The problem lies with a society that will not learn about us and lumps us all together as one blob of freakish bad, and not with any individual member of our diverse community.

All of this said, I get the distinct sense that you feel more ‘enlightened’ and ‘evolved’ now and agree with Doris Fish in her ‘amusement.’

Auntie Katie, let me reveal to you a bit of truth here. Willing to listen? Good:

I did not transition to be a “real woman”- that’s a useless concept, and a fairly sexist/transphobic one. I transitioned to be a woman, my kind of woman, the kind of woman I want to be, and that involves expressing myself as I am, as a whole person, in ways that break gender stereotypes as much as ‘caters’ to them. I’m not alone in this. A lot of trans women out there feel exactly the same way, and as we’ve unlearned our internalised transphobia and misogyny we are becoming all the more proud to be unique types of women, not archetypes of women. This leads rather nicely into my next point to you. You say the following:

“Years earlier, when I went through my gender change from male to female, I glided through life under the commonly accepted assumption: I was finally a real woman! That worked for me until I ran into a group of politically smart lesbians who told me that I wasn’t allowed to co-opt the word “woman.” Woman was not a family word that included me. My answer to this exclusion was to call myself a gender outlaw: I wasn’t a man, I wasn’t a woman.”

Here you’re making exactly the same, utterly fallacious mistake that too many “meanies” (as you might call them) make. Your experience was thus and so, therefore we all must be such.

Here is a bit more truth- I know, work with, and study the work of politically smart cis lesbians and queer women who would utterly balk at the idea that a trans woman “co-opts” the term “woman.” They are increasingly part of mainstream feminism, from the street to academe, they and their trans sisters would without a moment’s hesitation label such thinking outdated and transphobic. Why? Because how exactly are you going to break apart patriarchal gender norms if you cede “man” and “woman” to biologically essentialist definitions? If you say it’s not possible for someone assigned male at birth to truly be a woman, you’re not being a gender outlaw, you’re being  gender riot police. I don’t think you’d look very good in a black helmet and gas mask, Kate, so I invite you to reconsider your stance on these issues for the benefit of us all.

Because right now, you’re not helping by delegitimising people’s identities. By making womanhood more diverse, trans women are also in the vanguard of disrupting normative notions of womanhood and in case you were not aware, Kate, feminists do internalise gender norms as well; it’s what makes it so easy to take biological-essentialism for granted, as you yourself appear to do.

There is no question that you’re absolutely correct that it’s important to name yourself outside of known and common terminology if you so choose. It takes courage and a lot of perseverance to do this, and I am proud to call those people my siblings in struggle. We’re in this together. So why do you forget that, Kate? It is not my business to say your gender is illegitimate, and snarkily quote people who have no idea what it’s like to have your experience comment on it and pass it off as wisdom. How would you feel if I said with a whiff of smugness that I knew a trans woman activist who was amused by people “pretending” they could be something other than male or female? You’d feel hurt, marginalised perhaps, misunderstood and used. You might feel like they were stepping on you and your well-lived life in order to score cheap political points.

So, think on that. I do not have to attack or undermine people whose identities go beyond male/female. Why must you insist on attacking your trans brothers and sisters? We are not your enemies and we are not the ones who are holding you or The Cause™ back.

You say the following near the end of your article:

“Labels aren’t all that bad when they’re used consciously, but a major downside of using labels to describe an identity — even the labels we wear proudly as badges of courage — is that labels set up us-versus-them scenarios. The next generation of gender outlaws is seeking to dismantle us-versus-them. As a people, none of us deserves to hear the words “You’re not welcome here,” or “You’re not good enough,” or “You’re not real.” My Goddess, we just have to stop saying that to each other, all of us whose identity somehow hinges on gender or sexuality. We have to stop beating up on each other. The Sydney drag queens and transsexuals knew that when they came up with the word tranny to encourage mutual respect.”

You are telling me, Kate, that I am not real, good enough, or even welcome because of my gender, and you condescendingly tell me and many of my sisters that our feelings about the word “tranny”- which are very complex- are invalid. By the Goddess I believe in, yes we do indeed need to stop saying such things to each other, but I have never told you that you’re not real. More power to you in your gender. Fact is, though, I’m an outlaw too; just ask the people who don’t accept my gender for what it is (like yourself), or the politicians who seek to legislate against us as perverts, or the media personalities who liken us to Ewoks and the like.

What a “real woman” is, that’s something that’s determined by the lived experience of every woman on the planet- including trans women- and that’s a set that “diverse” can’t describe, whose vivid difference is a chromatic wonder that words have but the poorest power to illustrate. I never sought to be “real” except in the sense that I wanted to be the real me, who just happened to be a certain kind of woman. One who is now part of that limitless mosaic. I work with plenty of people who identify as men or women, or something else altogether  who have made it part of their life’s mission to work on making the world a better place for all of us, no matter what your gender is.

But with that project comes a need for respect that we all recognise. The word “tranny” is something that, yes, does belong to the community of trans women and male crossdressers/DQs that it is most often used to describe. Do we all agree on its use? Hell no. But many of us respect boundaries, many of us know it’s still a loaded term whose meaning is variable. Whatever its origins, where I’ve seen it used in the discourse is by cis people who are out to wound us. Some of us reclaim it for sure, but it is our word.

“Saying that FTMs can’t call themselves trannies eerily echoes the 1980s lesbians who said I couldn’t use the word woman to identify myself, and the 1990s lesbians who said I couldn’t use the word dyke.”

Then, if I may be so bold, why do you agree with those people exactly? Because that’s what one gets upon reading this article. There are trans men themselves who have explained quite clearly why it’s uncouth for trans men to use the term “tranny”– because it’s not really theirs to reclaim any more than it’s the place of suburban white kids to reclaim the N-word. Reclamation is a site of power that comes from inverting and taking back a word that’s been specifically used to harm you. That’s what gives certain people ownership of certain terms.

To quote Asher Bauer at some length on this subject:

So I hear the T word from supposed allies. And of course, one can always hear it from haters. But I also hear it from other trans people, particularly other trans men. And that pisses me off.

Look, as a self-identified fag, I am all about reclaimed language. Taking a brutal slur and wearing it like a badge of honor is an act of tremendous power. I absolutely encourage all those who have been burned by the T word in the past to go ahead and brand themselves with it if they desire. So no, it’s not reclaimed hate-words that I have a problem with. My problem is with some of the people who think they have a right to the word ‘tranny’ at all.

Let’s clear one thing up right now: while “tranny” is undoubtedly a transphobic slur, it has not been applied to all trans people equally. As I have said before in this column, it is a word that has been primarily used against trans women, drag queens, and other male-assigned people who present in female or feminine ways. It is just not used in an equivalent way against trans male types.

He understands the need for respecting specific circumstances, you should be able to as well. Tranny can, in a certain sense, be a family word of sorts. But please respect people who are part of that family and ask not to be called that in something as broad and general as a call for submissions that you want to be inclusive. There’s a welter of words to use: trans*, transgender, transsexual, genderqueer, genderfuck, and so on. The idea of “summarising it all” under the word “tranny” is both silly and ignorant of history. It’s as absurd as calling all gender non-conforming people “fags” as a super-heading, or “dykes”. It ignores a history that says ‘this word has been used to describe a particular group.’

Yet despite going on at length about how and why you and Mr. Bear have a right to the word “tranny” that my own lived experience and that of my sisters cannot inform or critique, you then say:

“It’s time to reclaim more than names. It’s time to reclaim the moral high ground.”

You do not reclaim the moral high ground by:

  • Defining away peoples’ identities.
  • Pooh poohing them when they tell you to please be a bit more respectful.
  • Quoting people who don’t belong to their experience-group as authorities on their lives (Doris Fish and your patriarchal lesbian friends).
  • Saying we need to name ourselves and then attacking people who do precisely that.

This is a running theme in a lot of your writing, and it is unfortunate; it erases and it hurts. Here’s your “tribal grandchild” saying to you very plainly, beseeching: stop hurting me, Aunty.



Quinnae Moongazer/Nuclear Unicorn