Performance artist, writer, and theorist Bornstein’s My New Gender Workbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Achieving World Peace Through Gender Anarchy and Sex Positivity is an updated version of her innovative and influential 1997 text that championed the happiness and survival of transgender and gender-nonconforming people while working for a world in which all systems of oppression are undone.
What changes have happened in transgender and queer communities since your book’s original publication 15 years ago that seem particularly exciting or impactful to you?
At the time, “gender expression” wasn’t a widely known concept. Neither was intersexuality, genderqueer or sex positivity, asexuality, nor trans. There was a much more narrow POV of what transgender meant. Many people took it to be simply a replacement word for transsexual. Transsexuals were claiming that using the word transgender invisibilized them—some still claim that. Queer was mostly just another word for gay and lesbian; there wasn’t a closely-knit radical edge to the trans community, but it was beginning to coalesce—and transgender and queer communities today are nicely overlapping in art, politics, and culture. And back then, we all thought that getting the B and the T added on to the G&L was a monumental achievement. What a hoot it was to include in this book over 200-and-still-counting letters that need to be in our acronym!
Why might someone who does not identify as trans want to pick up My New Gender Workbook and spend time thinking about their own relationship with gender?
The message of the workbook has always been to live your gendered life consciously, so that it’s you who are gendering you, not some vague cultural commandment to be gendered thus-and-so. I’m gratified to hear that the book is taught in Women & Gender Studies programs pretty much around the world—that’s a LOT of people reading the book who wouldn’t claim a trans* identity. I think I was able to make conscious gendering more accessible to those folks, while increasing the book’s reach into the darker corners of the radical queer world. Hence the new cover design: from bright pink (which stimulated discussion of the old pink-or-blue debate) to this version’s dark-clouds-over-the-rainbow motif—or maybe it’s a rainbow shining through the dark clouds.
It’s a little something for everyone; even if someone doesn’t consider gender to be a primary source of oppression in their life, there are 14 OTHER spaces of cultural regulation over and above gender, and I’m hoping every reader gets to find themselves in one or two or more of THOSE.
Both versions of the text contain a mixture of autobiography and cultural theory; revisiting those threads after 15 years, were you at times surprised by or in disagreement with the past version of yourself?
I was close to the notion of intersectionality, without ever really putting my finger on it. I asked questions in the first version, like “how does race, class, and age affect your gender,” but I never asked, “How does your gender impact race, class, age and so many more equally sticky cultural traps?” In the first version, I used the word “transgendered”; here I did a universal find-and-replace from “transgendered” to “transgender.” It took early activists letting me know that the former implied a passive/submissive POV. That was embarrassing. I did a lot of Twitter polling early on to discover which parts of the book were relevant, which parts students were responding best to, and which were most helpful to teachers. Everyone said they loved the Cosmo-style quizzes. I was surprised that a lot of the old quizzes worked just fine with only a few minor tweaks.
Was I in disagreement with myself? Not exactly—I cut out a lot of the self-referential, longer-winded stories about myself, the ones that don’t look radical anymore because so many people have taken living radical gender so much further than I had at the time. That left more room for lots of sex, and using more of other people’s examples, as well as some larger cultural metaphors like robots and pirates and God. Oh, my!
The internet and social media have played a large role in developing trans communities. What’s your own engagement with the digital world and how it has affected your life and this book?
While I was wrapping up the first version, I was newly diagnosed with leukemia, and I wrote about that in the last chapter from my desk at home. I composed the final draft and design of this updated book while I was recovering from surgery for my shiny new lung cancer. Right this minute, I’m on my laptop while getting chemotherapy. 15 years ago, there were no tiny workable laptops, or Wi-Fi. It was all good old modems and tower stations with SCSI drives, which meant that back then if you wanted to be socially interactive you had to do it from your home. Or if you were brave (or reckless) from your office. There were no blogs. Live chats were accessible through arcane IRC confabulations, or oppressively-monitored corporate user-interfaces like CompuServe and AOL. Now, anyone with a not-so-smart phone can access, contribute to, and be nurtured by an instant social network. That’s a big wow, and I think it’s reflected in the book with a deeper, more interactive level of participation of my twibe—that’s why the book is dedicated to them this time.