Published in the Fall 2008 issue • Arts Profile
Kate Bornstein travels beyond binary
Kate Bornstein walks onstage looking a bit like an older, punk Julianne Moore. She’s tall with shiny red hair; her round glasses are bold and colourful; tattoos spread across her arms beneath a black-and-white gingham dress. It’s the only black and white thing about her. In a performance that’s part classroom, part theatre and part therapy session, one message is clear: things don’t always fall into one of two categories.
Born a boy, Bornstein became a man (and a husband and father) and then a woman (and a lesbian) before deciding that the truth lay somewhere in the middle of all these identities. A writer, performer, teacher and self-described gender outlaw, her work mixes personal experience and intellectual analysis to help people move beyond the idea that you are only one thing or the other: male or female, young or old, black or white.
“Are you a man or a woman? It doesn’t sound like a ridiculous question,” she says. “But over the years, I’ve found it to be more and more a silly one. It’s just a way of dumbing down your imagination.”
Two years ago, Bornstein took this message to teens with her book Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks & Other Outlaws, and the popular book is now in its third printing. Written for teen outlaws in despair over their identities, the book is at times subversive, entertaining and consoling (“It gets better,” she writes). She encourages readers to do whatever they need to do to make life worth living. The only rule? Don’t be mean.
“The world needs more kind people in it, no matter who or what they do,” she writes. “The world is healthier because of its outsiders and outlaws and freaks and queers and sinners. I fall neatly into all of those categories.”
“We don’t learn to shift identities for purely whimsical reasons,” she writes, “or because we’re bored or want to entertain people. It’s something we do in order to survive. The ability to control who and what we are or seem to be in the world is a life skill we learn through practice, just like any other life skill. Have you been practicing?”
Now 60, Bornstein came to these epiphanies honestly. In her performances, she talks about going to her mother’s funeral, and having to deal not only with her grief, but with the raised eyebrows of others demanding to know who she was. “I’m Mildred’s daughter,” she offers, gently. “Mildred didn’t have a daughter,” she is told. When she reads it in performance, the audience is stunned in heartbroken silence. Some wipe away tears.
“I know exactly when the audience is going to laugh, I know when they’re going to cry,” she says, later. “It’s a great joy for me to be able to create a space that is safe for people to do that: when you’re laughing or crying, ideas are easier to grasp because you’re in a much freer state.”
These days, in between a busy touring schedule that takes her to dozens of campuses each year, Bornstein is hard at work on her memoir — aptly called Kate Bornstein is a Queer and Pleasant Danger, due out next year. “It’s the most difficult writing I’ve tried to tackle,” she says. “It’s scary as hell.”
“I’m trying to tell the truth,” she says. “But you also have to tell the bad stuff you did and that sucks. You don’t want anyone to know you were a real rat, but that was part of your life. And then there’s the dumb stuff you did, like more than 11 years in the Church of Scientology: that’s much more embarrassing than saying I’m transsexual.” Her spiritual side is much more Buddhist these days — giving her work a philosophical element. (“That’s what happens when you become an old fart,” she says.)
“I’m in search of becoming the sexiest, funnest, wisest and most of all kindest me that I can possibly be,” she told one interviewer. “Utopia to me would be a world where anyone could do stuff like that without being afraid someone’s going to beat them up or send them to hell for it.”
Megan Griffith-Greene is the editor of Shameless.