Last week, I got a chance to sit down and have a conversation with Kate Bornstein, a trans activist, lesbian, gender theorist, and creative writer. We talked about her upcoming performance at Center on Halsted in Chicago, her most recent book, the Misfits, and needing more sex in trans literature.
So, tell me about your workshop that you will be performing on August 4th at the Center on Halsted?
I wanted to do something with queer youth, and usually I’ve done some survival tips workshop from Hello Cruel Worldˆ, but the folks at the Center said that the youth wanted to do something with theatre and I thought, “Wow! Far out!” So I’m going to do a gender-related acting exercise.
When I went through my first gender change what I was noticing about trans people is the people you could spot are the people who could keep stuff from their own gender and just wear different clothes. And that theory also applies to acting! If you’re going to be a character, you can’t really bring that character to life if your own self is taking up that space. So you’ve got to get rid of as much of yourself as you consider to be as possible. And this is an exercise to do that: to get an actor an idea of how to get to nothing and create from scratch.
Moving to your book that recently came out, A Queer and Pleasant Danger. Tell me why you began writing this memoir, and how is it different from your other books like Gender Outlaw, and so forth.
The other stuff I wrote, including my plays, was me talking behind various masks and bits of scenery. Call it theory, call it a character, you can call it fancy format on a page. It was never all me. And it was with the idea of giving agency to the reader rather than taking agency as an author. Those were the intentions of the first book. It was like, “You try – this is how I did it, but you try it. Give it a shot!” And the way I tried to do that was by making those books perform, and encourage readers to perform their own way.
This book is just me. It’s as naked as I’ve ever written about myself. And I did it for my daughter. She’s 39 and I last saw her when she was 9. I didn’t see her the day I left the Church of Scientology, I saw her a few weeks before that. But because she’s a scientologist and in good standing at age 39, I haven’t seen her these past 30 years — she’s not allowed to talk with me. And I understand she has two children, and they’re not allowed to talk with me. So, I want to leave her something in case any of them wondered about daddy or grandpa.
Most of the people in scientology, because of what they’ve labeled me, and because of my beliefs, think I’m a liar. Um, I seem to gravitate toward identities that get me called a liar. Actors are all liars, you can’t trust them. Oh, transgender! You know how we lie. We betray people by not telling people our “real” gender – blah, blah, blah! And my little borderline personality disorder – it’s a fact we lie!
So telling the truth was a pretty fucking hard thing to do. And I made myself do that because I want my daughter to read this. Will she ever read it? I doubt it.
But over the course of the last 20-some odd years, since I’ve started writing about gender, I’ve gotten a pretty big family of trans youth – and I use the word “youth” the way you would use the word “middle class.” How could you possibly define it? It’s a huge group of people. I’m 64, so youth is pretty much everybody under 50!
And these are my kids! And you are my kid! And I’m so fucking proud of you. If I actually sat down to write the book only for my daughter, knowing she ain’t gonna read the damn thing, or the odds are good she’s not going to. I’d be too broken-hearted to continue. People who pay attention to my work have the right to know where it came from. And this is, I guess, my attempt at telling people where I come from.
Yeah, and it is such a powerful and, like you said, naked book and I thank you on a personal level for sharing that. So, as you mentioned, Scientology, a large part of this book focuses on your experience with that. I was curious, have you heard anything back from the Church of Scientology since your book has been published?
Ah! Um, I think I wrote it well. I think when I wrote that part I reminded the reader that I could be lying! And what are they going to say about that? They already think I’m lying, so the Church of Scientology has to say I lie. And I think they have much bigger fish to fry than me! And they do fry fish! Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are one of the headaches they’re facing right now, and my guess is, the arrogance of the leadership is going to say, “who’s going to believe a freak like that?” I’m happy to have something said about me!
[Laughs] Yeah. Moving to broader topics I’d like to ask you. How do you feel transgender narratives function in queer literature currently?
For queer literature—give me the parameters of queer literature.
Like stuff that’s shown in women’s bookstores, around LGBT stuff, gay…
OK, yeah. Got it.
What is, in fact, happening is happy stories of well-adjusted trans people are making it into bookstores, and they’re being read by many, many people. And this needs to happen. This is a big part of moving trans forward.
This is a part, however, that I’ve run screaming from since day one. I haven’t really wanted to be happily adjusted in this culture ‘cause I don’t think it’s possible. Not and still be freaky-deaky me, who I like to be!
So I think that what needs to happen next is a lot more sex! Really good, queer trans culture in porn and in a lot of literature. But in queer literature, not so much, yet! In queer nonfiction abso-fuckin-lutely! In personal narratives of queers, yeah that’s coming in nice and strong! Good collection of that in Gender Outlaws: Next Generation.
But in queer literature, just storytelling, there’s not enough sex.
Amen to that!
Yeah, I’m very sex-positive and part of my coming out, I don’t know if you read my story online, but part of that was coming out through seeing different trans women having and how beautiful it was. And that was so integral for me—like that push forward to wanting to go through my transition. But, yeah. Amen to that. A-woman to that!
[Laughs] Yeah I read that you were a sex educator and I’m very proud of you.
Oh, Thank you! That’s so sweet of you! Yeah, I really feel strongly about re-envisioning our bodies, not just trans people but cisgender people and I feel like that’s an integral part of gender liberation, too. But yeah, enough about that!
What do you feel is the current state of trans women and transfeminine folks, gender non-conforming and genderqueer on the transfeminine spectrum, their roles in queer liberation and activism? How has it changed since writing Gender Outlaw? And I think you talk a little bit about this Gender Outlaws: the Next Generation.
I do, but I’m trying to figure it out—it’s a good puzzle! Because in just one generation, the face of transgender to the world that’s looking at us went from middle-aged man in a dress to hot, young trans man. That’s what people think of trans, they think of “female-to-male.”
Part of this is beautifully theorized and documented in Whipping Girl by Julia Serano, the transmisogyny. But part of it is also: we died. In the 80’s, most of the transfeminine sex workers, drag queens, and performers died in the AIDS epidemic, and there was a big hole. And I guess part of that rush to fill the hole was FTM and drag kings, and that has led forward.
So now there’s an emergence of a fierce transfeminine, young presence. It’s just starting to take over the edge of the culture, I think! And it’s really heartening to see young trans women that part of themselves much younger than when I did. Roughly same age as Andy Warhol’s girls in the day of the Factory days. Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling… Your generation is starting to bring that fierce transfeminine presence back and it’s great.
Yeah, I feel similarly, too, about that. OK, moving on to the next question. What are some of your favorite writers and artists and why?
Wow! Um, Holly Hughes! Best performance work I’ve ever encountered. Best playwright I’ve ever met, and most fiercefully sex-positive feminist playwright that I know. She’s really hot.
Um, Neil Gaiman! If you ever read the Sandman series, have you?
I have not.
Trans girls all the way through it. 75 comic books and we are on almost every page. Well, we’re in every book. Let’s put it that way – positively so. Really cool. And that gave me a big hope, not normalization of trans, but “Ok, trans. That’s park of life.” And that will be a nice place to be.
Who else? I’m a fan of the Wachowski’s [filmmakers]: V for Vendetta, the Matrix, Bound.
Who else do I talk about, I don’t know! I haven’t read anything for some years now. I spent the last three or four years writing almost tirelessly. As soon as the memoir was off to the press I began writing an update to My Gender Workbook that came out 15 years ago, and now it’s going to be a new edition. But I don’t read much when I’m writing because I’m a terrible thief!
So I’m just now starting to read again and I love Drift by Rachel Maddow. I wondered what the fuck is going on with this country and that lays it out really, really well. I’m currently reading Cloud Atlas. There’s a fuck of a postmodern book for ya! Take a look at that someday!
I’m a big fan of Dr. Who. Are you into it?
Um, I have friends who are into it! I dunno, it’s a little bit campy with the old ones. I kind of want to see the new ones, but we’ll see.
See the new ones! Start with the 1995! Watch the ones with Christopher Eccleston scripts.
I love the Misfits, the TV series. I think that’s really smart and cool. Battlestar Galactica—
Yeah, I really love the Misfits episode where Curtis goes through that gender transformation with his power and he turns into a woman to masturbate!
Yeah!!! It’s really awesome! And it’s really catching on.
And that get backs to: we need more sex. There’s one segment of the trans world that likes to distance—there’s the same segment in the LGB world that likes distance sex from their identities and how their seen, but to watch an episode like that and wonder what it feels like, it’s cool.
Yeah. Well thank you for sharing that. Lastly, I have a question about some of your upcoming projects you’re working on.
Well, the My Gender Workbook is in the pipeline. It’s a complete revision of the book. You know, when it first came out, it said “Did you know you could go online? Did you know you could go on the internet? And be other genders?” There’s like 40 pages of that in the book! I’m going to put in more about sex, and more about politics.
I tried to end the last Gender Workbook with a politic of values, but that was too general. And I want to talk about a politic of compassion and a politic of desire. And I think the people most familiar with desire—guess what? That’s us!
Hopefully someone will come up with something to replace the politic of democracy, of theocracy… But first we have to get together as a subgroup of sex and gender freaks and I think we need to practice an activism of radical welcoming to one another and stop building up walls. We don’t need that. So that book will be out Valentine’s Day next year!
I know right!
And, let’s see. I’ve started working really in the infant stages of this, but it’s going to be a young adult novel. You know Sally Bowles in Cabaret?
And do you know Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s?
Do you just love them to pieces?
Right, everybody does! Those are two girls written by two gay men! Christopher Isherwood and Truman Capote—flaming fags! I think that gives me a leg up on writing a girl people can really fall in love with. Only I want her to be a fierce young tranny working girl in the city.
That sounds wonderful!
Well, I am very very excited for that book.
Me too. It’s something I’ve wanted to write for a while. I’ve put it off for a while, like the one for my daughter, the workbook for everybody else, but this one’s for me.
Well, that’s all the questions I have. Thank you so much for your time!
Kate requested one last thing. If anyone knows her daughter, Jessica Lea Baxter, please let her know that her daddy wrote her a book.
Check out her next performance!
Saturday, August 2, 2012
Kate Bornstein: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us
6:30pm-8pm / $10 / Center on Halsted (Hoover-Leppen Theatre) / 3656 N. Halsted St
On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us is an entertaining introduction to the notion of sex and gender beyond the binary—as well as a deeply moving affirmation of spirit for sex-and-gender outlaws. If you don’t mind the f-word every now and then, the show is even child-friendly. Campuses and conferences alike have chosen this piece for both celebrating and increasing the awareness of trans identities.
6:30pm: Doors open and Trans* Community Resources
7:00PM Kate Bornstein takes the stage
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Dee is a transgender woman, queer dyke, and political activist who lives in the Andersonville neighborhood. She has worked at Early to Bed as a sex educator, and is a writer who performs at All the Writers I Know, a monthly queer literary event. She loves movement-building and organizing for civil liberties, accessible education, queer liberation, and against U.S. wars. One day she hopes to bring home a hairless cat to live with her and her girlfriend.