Thoughts: On Kate Bornstein and Language

TW: Potentially Transphobic Language

Last week the University of Pittsburgh welcomed Kate Bornstein as the keynote speaker to their GSWS “Gender and the Body” conference. She talked about herself, Tibetan Buddhism, postmodern theory, gender theory, and going deeper than tackling patriarchy, but rather society’s all-encompassing hierarchy that includes mental health, religion, gender, race, sexuality, intelligence, etc.

There was a lot of really good stuff here, and as somebody who hasn’t been in a University class in close to a full year, it was really stimulating. I need to be presented with new, challenging ideas like this.

And quite frankly, all of us young GSWS students could use a lesson from historical figures like Kate Bornstein.

I’ve had a copy of Kate Bornstein’s “A Queer and Pleasant Danger” for over half a year, and seeing her in person is going to propel me to finally read that, but during her keynote I realized I had read her work before in GSWS 101, Gender Outlaw. Excerpts at least.

Seeing Kate is like seeing a Trans Treasure, an icon, and I count myself very lucky to be able to hear what she had to say. Hypothetically, even if I didn’t understand or agree with what she was saying, I would have respected the ?#@* out of her opinions (but I often understood and agreed).

Towards the end though, Kate veered into a subject that I think may have offended some, and as she noted, some people left the room at this point.

I want to talk with those who were offended, rather than triggered by her comments, and I’ll clarify the difference.

Kate Bornstein talked about why she identifies with the word Tranny, and the history and etymology of the word. Tranny, largely understood to be a  Transphobic slur, had friendly communal roots, according to Kate. I found her perspective so refreshing and interesting. Perhaps there are some similarities to gay men who can use the f-word endearingly, or black people reappropriating the n-word; I’m not sure – neither of those words originated with positive connotations as Kate claims the “t-word” did.

But if the t-word triggers you, sends you into an emotional spiral, and you had to leave while Kate used it, I’m not taking up any issue with you! You do you, you do what you have to do to stay safe. But the hypothetical situation of people being critical of how Kate identified, and explaining her identity, and the history of her identity, is disappoints me.

Instead of learning from Kate, some must have left hoping to send a message that her language was offensive.

Like I said earlier, Kate is a Trans Treasure, somebody who’s been around the block and seen some ?#@*. The idea of some 18-21 year old young inspired idealistic person walking out to show Kate “you shouldn’t use that word” is so disappointing, because that same person is walking out on an explanation, something that might expand their view on a situation. Context matters here! This is Kate Bornstein, keynote speaker at the GSWS conference, do you really think she’s here to stir things up, or cause harm?

Kate humorously flip-flopped on those who left, “I’m not sorry. I’m a little sorry… I’m not sorry.”

I just think it’s important to hear some radically left ideas, especially if you’re painting yourself as a radical. Kate’s 68 and a cancer survivor, and we were all so lucky to hear her speak. Now, would I be here advocating that we all listen to old Trans-exclusionary-feminists just because of their years of experience? No. Would I advocate that we all go listen to MRA’s on campus because they’re also radical? No. All I’m advocating for, is for some young GSWS majors who think they might know everything about what words we should and shouldn’t use, and consider language to be the be-all-end-all, to reconsider.



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