BORNSTEIN 500It was His Holiness, the XIV Dalai Lama, who put gender into a universal perspective for me. I attended a public teaching with him, last fall in New York. And now I’ve got me a whole new way to look at gender.

The three-day teaching I attended bore the mesmerizing title, “Profound Wisdom and Vast Compassion: the Essence of Eloquence.” Tibetan Buddhism’s take on eloquence requires both profound wisdom and vast compassion. True eloquence is telling a truth in such a way that its telling helps end suffering. The more eloquent you are, the more suffering is alleviated. So, is it possible to eloquently tell a truth that could help to end all gender-based suffering?

Tibetan Buddhists acknowledge a myriad of truths, but for the purpose of teaching eloquence they break truth down into two basic categories—a binary, if you will. There’s a definitive truth, and there’s an arguable truth. Definitive truth is a bottom line that everyone can agree upon. It’s a truth that doesn’t need proving, because it’s simply that basic.

Everyone dies.

Can’t argue that. There are very few definitive truths, and most of them can be expressed as concisely as everyone dies.


Szechuan food is delicious! That’s an arguable truth. If you love double-cooked pork, then it seems to be a rock solid truth. But, my partner Barbara feels physically assaulted by the mere scent of Szechuan cuisine. She’d call our truth a downright lie. Vegetarians who might agree with us, would have to parse our truth, and vegans would parse a vegetarian’s truth even further. So, Szechuan food is delicious is the truth. And it’s a lie. This is basic to the Tibetan Buddhist concept of relativity: the paradox that something can be both a truth and a lie at the same time. Westerners call it postmodern theory.

Back to the task of eloquently articulating a truth that could end all gender-based suffering…
Gender is a binary of two and only and forever two genders, fixed and attracted only and forever to each other, and defined by biology.

That’s a rock solid truth to a lot of people. And it’s being argued well by a growing number of people.

Gender is what an individual perceives and understands themself to be, and so there are many more than two genders. 

That’s a rock-solid truth to a growing number of people, and it’s legitimately arguable.

Believers of one truth are rarely persuaded to believe the truth of the other. So my question is: is there a definitive truth of gender that everyone could, if only grudgingly, agree upon? YES!! I found one!!

Gender is relative.

Or, the expanded academic version:

Gender is relative to context and point of view.


It’s clear as daylight to anyone that there’s more than one reality—i.e. truth—of gender in the world. Sure, we can claim that ours is the real truth, and everyone else’s reality of gender is a lie or at best a misconception. But the fact remains that there’s more than one arguable truth of gender in the world, and that means that no matter what else it is, gender is unquestionably relative to both context and point of view.


The challenge is to eloquently articulate that truth with the intention to end all gender-based suffering, because we as a gender-based global community are tearing ourselves apart, and it’s all done in the name of the truth of gender. It’s breaking my fucking heart. Drag queens and transfolk are throwing some serious trash shade at one another. Transfolk and trannies come near to hatred for each other. And what about the solitary cross-dresser who’s been looked down upon by nearly every other gender-variant identity in the book? And so on. We are eating ourselves alive.

I think we can all take a moment, breathe, and understand the unarguable definitive truth that gender is relative. We could acknowledge—however grudgingly—that our arguable truth of gender is no more rock solid than another’s arguable truth of gender. We all—on all sides of our many gender debates—hold on to our arguable truths of gender, because it eases some of our own suffering to believe so. Perhaps we could be more compassionate about another’s gender stance. Perhaps then we can learn to give each other the benefit of the doubt. And if we all did that… about everything? Bingo! World peace.

And that’s the truth. Arguably.

Kate Bornstein is an author, performance artist and public speaker who has written several award-winning books in the field of Women and Gender Studies, including Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and The Rest of Us, and My New Gender Workbook. Her 2006 book, Hello, Cruel World, propelled Kate into an international position of advocacy for marginalized  and at-risk youth. The title of her memoir sums up her life: A Queer and Pleasant Danger: the true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today. Kate lives in New York City with her girlfriend, author and sex educator Barbara Carrellas, along with their cat, two dogs, and a turtle.

Photo by Dinty W. Moore