More selections from S/HE
Holly Hughes: "This book is hot!"
"Kisses" for Leslie from S/HE
rave about S/HE
S/HE stories in German
information for S/HE
"Minnie Bruce Pratt: Femme, Poet, Activist"
by Isa Leshko
from Sojourner (February 1996, Vol. 21, No 6)
As an ally to the transgender liberation movement, Minnie Bruce Pratt challenges the
stifling dyadic construct of sex and gender that pervades Western culture. "We're
trained to see only male or female and to plot people into those categories when they
actually don't fit neatly at all," she says. "But if we pause, watch, and listen
closely, well see the multiplicity of ways in which people are sexed and gendered.
There exists a range of personal identifications around woman, man, in-between--we
dont even have names or pronouns that reflect that in-between place, but people
certainly live in it."
Pratt is a femme-identified poet, essayist, educator, and activist. She has
written We Say We Love Each Other (Firebrand, 1992), The Sound of One Fork, Crime
Against Nature (Firebrand, 1990), Rebellion: Essays 1980-1991 (Firebrand,
1991), and S/HE (Firebrand, 1995). In addition, she co-authored, with Elly Bulkin
and Barbara Smith, Yours In Struggle: Three Feminist Perspectives on Anti-Semitism and
Racism. These books have received significant acclaim both in and out of the feminist
and queer communities. Crime Against Nature was distinguished as the 1989 Lamont
Poetry Selection by the Academy of American Poets and also won an American Library
Association Gay and Lesbian Book Award for Literature in 1991. Pratt was also granted a
creative writing fellowship in poetry by the National Endowment for the Arts.
What makes Pratt's work so striking is its insightful blending of theories derived from
feminism (particularly writings by women of color) and the les/bi/gay and transgender
liberation movements. "Doing women's liberation and antiracism work has taught me to
question the various categories surrounding sex, gender, and race that I had been taught
were 'natural,' if not 'God-given,'" she says. "In particular, the work done by
women of color is a good, stiff education in the ways that ethnicity and race can
complicate womanhood and manhood and the way we come to those constructs." From this
theoretical marriage also comes twenty years' worth of refining political and
psychological approaches to fighting oppression.
It is tempting to eliminate sex and gender categories as a means of shedding the pain they
cause. "I have certainly felt that impulse, because sex and gender are set up as
iron-jawed traps in this culture," she says. "No matter who we are, we're always
criticized for doing our sex and gender wrong. We're told: you're not enough man, you're
not enough woman, you're too much man, you're too much woman, you're contradictory, etc.
So many people have been so shamed, which leaves us wanting to escape from it all."
She sees this goal, however, as problematic, both theoretically and practically. "The
solution is not to seek escape by homogenizing everyone, which is impossible and no
fun," she says, laughing. "There really is no escape: we lead sexed and gendered
lives, we just do." Discarding gender and sex categories also denies the current
oppression that is centered upon these gender categories. "There must still be
organizing around those categories to resist oppression against women or people viewed as
feminine," says Pratt. After all, discarding gender categories alone does little to
On the other hand, focusing too much on these categories can also be dangerous. Pratt is
weary of viewing womanness as a "fortress" that needs to be protected from
intruders. In S/HE, she points out that this approach historically has resulted in
the "exclusion of women who blurred the edges of what was considered legitimate as
woman--because of race or class or sexuality or gender presentation." For example,
lesbians who are "too butch" are criticized for imitating (or worse, becoming)
their oppressors. Those who are "too femme" are told they act like unevolved,
heterosexual women. Dykes who sleep with men are not deemed "real lesbians."
Neither are those who have sex with women that is "too rough" or "too
kinky." And these are examples that apply to women born women. Transgendered or
transsexual women have an even greater difficulty in gaining acceptance.
In her story "Border," Pratt criticizes the use of the concept "woman born
woman" as a criterion for entrance to women's events. She writes:
Surely, I can't be the only one who fears a sisterhood based on biological definitions,
the kind that have been used in the larger world to justify everything from job
discrimination (because women have smaller brains and aren't as smart) to hysterectomies
(because women's wombs make us hysterical). And I can't be the only one who grew up
trained into the cult of pure white womanhood, and heard biological reasons given to
explain actions against people of color, everything from segregation of water fountains to
lynching. If this gathering of women in the dusty fields beyond the gate is a community
based on biological purity, then it offers me, a "real woman," no real safety. .
. . I want to fight women's oppression, not make a place in which I can be
According to Pratt, the healthiest approach for fighting oppression is to cherish the
multiplicity of sex and gender, particularly within yourself. "Feeling proud and
strong and good about who we are means leaving ourselves open to change and fluidity and
thinking about that as a place to move from, to struggle from--not as place to retreat
to," she says.
Defining your own gender expression is an act of self-love and political defiance. This
perspective has helped Pratt achieve peace and pleasure from being a femme. "It's
only been in the last couple of years that I finally was able to say that I love [being a
femme], even though it's trivialized and made as a dumping ground for people's anti-women
ideas," she says. "I don't have to accept those judgments that degrade
femininity. I can feel proud of myself and grounded because I no longer feel tenuous and
unsure of my own worth."
This acceptance extends toward others and stimulates the formation of strong and lasting
coalitions. "Once we no longer view identity as a fortress, we can use it as a site
of resistance that we move out from, toward a future that we want to share with other
people," she says.
Pratt is currently working on Walking Back Up Depot Street, a collection of poems
that subvert traditional gender and sex roles. "We learn these categorizations so
deeply as infants and as children coming through this culture through images and language
that are embedded in our bodies," she says. "Poetry is a deeply felt way to help
usto help memove out of this place that I was conditioned into as a child and
to enter a new space where movement back and forth across these [gender] categories is
really loved and found joyful and intriguing. This new landscape is full of possibilities
for a more human way to live."
Isa Leshko is a writer, activist, and cybergeek who needs more sleep and less caffeine.
Her virtual doorstep is: email@example.com.
SOJOURNER, 42 Seaverns Ave., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130. (617) 524-0415
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