Chatting up: Kate the Great
Why we love transgender icon Kate Bornstein.
Kate Bornstein is my heroine. Her books have been milestones in my life, offering advice, ideas, and inspiration at key moments when everything seemed destined for doom. My first great Kate encounter was Gender Outlaw, which served as my bible in the early to mid 1990s, when the war on the frontlines of gender politics was particularly fierce, and I felt like an outsider in my own community. Kate’s soothing words assured me that she’d always be there with a cup of tea and a well-padded shoulder to cry on. The fact that Kate grew up—as Al—just a few miles away from me in New Jersey made me feel an even closer kinship.
I then encountered Hidden: A Gender, a performance piece based on Kate’s own life experience and that of the 19th-century intersex Herculine Barbin. Though I never saw it performed live (originally starring Mx Justin Vivian Bond), I would read the script over and over, as if my very next breath depended on it.
“Hidden: A Gender wasn’t welcomed with open arms by the gay and lesbian community,” Kate recounts. “Men who were getting into metrosexuality and straight housewives loved it, though,” she deadpans. “Most people are oppressed by a gender rule.” If the message of hope for a gender utopia was lost on her own community, it certainly caused parts of Middle America to leap out of their La-Z-Boys and take notice.
When a dear friend was struggling with her gender identity, I headed straight to my local LGBT bookshop (yes, such things still existed!) and bought her a copy of Kate’s My Gender Workbook. Years later, she passed it on to her niece, who was questioning her identity and is now in the process of transitioning. It is comforting to know that Kate’s depth of knowledge, breadth of experience, and big-hearted approach to life is impacting generations of queerlings across the globe.
So, with Kate’s latest book, A Queer and Pleasant Danger (Beacon Press), I was expecting life-changing stuff and I wasn’t disappointed. It is punchy and provocative, full of mirth and melancholy. From growing up male on the Jersey Shore (eat your heart out, The Situation!) to marrying, becoming a Scientologist, transitioning, moving to San Francisco to live with radical sex-positive femmes and then to New York to follow love, Kate’s journey is a blueprint for how to live without compromise but with heaps of compassion.
In fact, it is more than a memoir. A Queer and Pleasant Danger is a love letter to Kate’s daughter, who remains a member of the Church of Scientology, though Kate left in 1981, after 12 years of membership. “Since the day I left, my daughter has not been able to talk to me,” she says. A feeling of sadness rises in Kate’s voice when she admits, “I can’t tell her how much I love her…and I hold no hope she will ever read it.”
Indeed, her daughter doesn’t know anything of Kate’s life in the past 30 years. Was Kate having a gender crisis while she was a Scientologist? “Absolutely. I thought I was such a freak and a pervert, and I wanted it to stop. I would cross dress in hotel rooms when I was traveling for the church. But it never went away.”
Bizarrely, it was the church’s teachings on genderless society that gave Kate the courage to leave and seek reassignment. She then became a sex-positive femme dyke. “I wore jumpsuits and power suits when dungarees were in style, but Susie Bright gave me the courage to wear dresses. I even wore three-color eye shadow! That felt radical in the 1990s.” Kate quickly adds that things have changed since then. “Curve now makes it OK for girls to be feminist and sexy. We have to remember, the lilies of the field are there to delight. It’s part of our gender expression.”
Her outspoken sexiness has certainly won her many admirers, but she admits to being “good at sex, but bad at politics.” She may not know the ins and outs of Capitol Hill, but just being Kate is political, and she has found her political and spiritual home among women. “I have found common ground with lesbians—and a lot of fun in the dyke community.”
So how does Kate identify? “I call myself a tranny. It’s never been a controversial word for me,” she declares. “It means anyone who is fucking with gender, and that to me means family.” And, she adds with a flourish, “I’m a diesel femme.”
Writing her memoir has been cathartic and enlightening. “The one thing I have learned from A Queer and Pleasant Danger is surprising—the more I write about my own life in detail, the more diverse my readership becomes.” I think replacing the Gideon Bible in every hotel room with A Queer and Pleasant Danger would be a good start.
Kate is brave for writing her memoir; the Church of Scientology has been known to be less than lovely to those who break ranks and tell of their experience. Her recent cancer diagnosis will require even more bravery. Kate has the scars—and tattoos—that mark an amazing life lived on the edge of the precipice. Long may she live in that queer and pleasant danger.