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"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, we’ll 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 don’t 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 eliminate sexism.

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 "woman."

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 us—to help me—move 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:

SOJOURNER, 42 Seaverns Ave., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130. (617) 524-0415

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