Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation (Book Review)

Authors:  Bornstein, Kate and S. Bear Bergman
Publisher:  Seal Press, 2010, 302 pp., Berkeley, Calif.
Reviewed by:  Jessica E. Wilson

Gender Outlaws: The Next GenerationGender Outlaws: The Next Generation serves not only as a follow-up to Kate Bornstein’s revolutionary text, Gender Outlaw (1994), but as a window into the struggles, joys, and lives of those who exist outside of binary gender identities. This text gathered writings, poetry, and artwork from 53 outside contributors involved somehow in gender variance, allowing a unique and multifaceted perspective on this equally unique and multifaceted community.

Opening with a dialogue between the editors, the two discuss the book and how the community has evolved since the publication of Bornstein’s inaugural text. They highlight the strength and potential within the non-binary community, and the hope they each feel for further positive developments in upcoming years. Following this, the book is loosely divided into five sections, each containing a collection of writings and art that somehow fit into the theme suggested by the section’s title.

The first section “Do I look like an outlaw to you?” is a collection of writings that describe living as a transgender person in a cis-sexist and binary-minded society. Each of the stories shared in this segment describe experiences with others as a gender variant person.

“Being reconfigured is not the same as being re-imagined” is a more personal collection, focusing on the internal experience of gender identity. The third section, “. . . which is why I’m as cute as I happen to be” includes personal writings about romance and sexuality being navigated outside the gender binary. “It might not be a picnic, but there’s a great buffet” primarily features writings on the unique issues of the trans community, including pregnancy as a father and voice therapy. Finally, “And still we rise” features writings of hope and change, highlighting the cultural power and progress of the transgender community.

One of the unique features of this book is the wide range of opinions expressed. Because the book is written by 55 authors, 55 different experiences and belief systems are communicated. Often the stories and arguments contradict one other. For example, one author argues that the suggestion that gender is performance is both discriminatory and belittling, while another suggests these issues are ultimately moot because all gender is essentially performance. One author states on no uncertain terms that her sexual practices are none of anyone’s business, while two other authors describe their sexual encounters in detail. As each contradiction appears, it reminds the reader that there is no singular truth when discussing transgender culture. Each individual defines his, hir, or her own identity, preferences, and personal truths. Reading this text, I often found myself having to set the book down and process the contradictions and how each fits with my own preconceived beliefs about gender.

For cis-gender counselors and therapists, truly understanding the experience of transgender individuals can be difficult. Yet when prior training has focused solely on binary transgender identities, working with non-binary transgender clients can become especially challenging. Given the growing visibility of non-binary identities within the transgender community and the break from binary language within the DSM-5 criteria for gender dysphoria, it is more important now than ever for mental health professionals to be sensitive to this often underserved population. This book is a valuable tool for any clinician interested in further developing that sensitivity.