The ambiguities of gender captured the spotlight on Monday night at the Askwith Education Forum, sponsored by the Graduate School of Education (GSE).
Transgendered playwright and performance artist Kate Bornstein, wearing a skin-tight brown dress, gold-hoop earrings, striped pantyhose, and $40 elevator boots, delivered a stirring and passionate message of gender tolerance to a capacity audience at Askwith Lecture Hall.
Having lived 37 years as a man before undergoing surgery to become a woman eight years ago, Bornstein spoke eloquently of the cultural forces that threaten those who face gender identity confusion.
“We have to face the fact that we are locked by the culture into these impossible-to-live-up-to categories,” she explained. “Those of us who are questioning gender ought to be able to name ourselves apart from the troublesome language of the institutions that oppress us. … Naming ourselves just might be the first step toward freeing ourselves from the thralldom which we’ve been held by so many oppressive institutions.”
According to Bornstein, junior high school is often the most oppressive institution for many teenagers struggling with their gender identity. “Fortunately, most of the time, they don’t kill the class freaks,” she said, referring to the 30 percent teenage suicide rate among gay, lesbian, and transsexual youth. “But they know how to make the class freaks kill themselves.”
Bornstein assailed those who attack people because they’re different. “Sure we’re weird. Sure we’re freaky, but there are more and more freaky people in the world these days,” she said. “It’s time we stop allowing the stretching of a few gender boundaries from making us queasy. … It’s time for all of us to put aside our childhood ways.
“Gender, for so long, has been a system that has not been questioned,” Bornstein said. “We must no longer bind ourselves to a system that would rather see us dead.”
Borrowing a phrase from a recent academic seminar, Bornstein posed the rhetorical question “Why two genders?” Audience members were asked to examine their own assumptions about sexuality and gender in a comical but provocative 12-page questionnaire that touched on topics ranging from flirting behavior to the male/female dichotomy.
Bornstein laced her performances with quotations from her books and plays. She concluded her talk by reading from the Bible and the Declaration of Independence, stressing individual freedom, and sounding the call for gender activism. “Let’s help ourselves and our kids learn real life, real liberty, and real ways to pursue our happiness.”
The audience responded with a standing ovation.
Kate Bornstein’s performance was the latest in a series of Askwith Education Forums scheduled this fall. More information is available on the Web at www.hugse7.harvard.edu/gsedata/calendar_pkg.forums. The discussions are free and open to the public.