Kate Bornstein: Embrace the Outlaw
“…Stardom. It’s a greedy goal and it comes with lots of traps of arrogance, but the way I justify it is by giving back. But, I’m not a star yet. I call myself a sub-lebrity, maybe this book has bumped me up and now I’m a starlet.”
Kate Bornstein embraces hir outlaw status. Hell, Bornstein’s turned it into a brand. A pioneer who sets hirself outside the conventional gender binary, Kate first caught the world’s attention with hir groundbreaking book Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us, a literary portmanteau combining theory and theatre with a fair amount of autobiography. In Hello, Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws ze tackled teen suicide by offering unorthodox survival strategies. Bornstein maintains an open dialogue with hir fans via social media (Kate has over 13,000 Twitter fans) and an ambitious touring schedule. With hir new memoir, A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She is Today (Beacon Press), Bornstein continues to blaze a trail for freaks and outlaws everywhere.
Lambda sat down with the iconoclast to chat about the new book, the future of the Queer movement, Scientology and fame.
Your new book describes an early love of sci-fi. Have you ever thought of giving the genre a shot?
I’ve actually written some sci-fi as part of an autobiographical porn novel I’m working on. It takes place in outer space. But I don’t think I’ll ever do a serious sci-fi novel. There are people who can do that so much better than me.
Did your desire to write grow out of your exploration of gender?
I’ve always written. It’s been the way I can express myself best. I don’t think I started to want to be a writer, though, until I’d gone through my gender change and started seriously writing reviews for the Bay Area Reporter. Before that I was a playwright. I kind of always wanted to do that. And I always wanted to do acting.
You mention “the sin side of vanity.” What are the virtues?
Vanity and narcissism are part and parcel of human life. The question is: can you put it to use? If I just want to be pretty and have a lot of people focus their attention on me, okay. I’ll own that, if I can use it for a better purpose. Same goes for my writing. If I want to write something that makes people cry, which I think is the height of vanity, then I owe it them to also make them laugh. That sort of evens the scale and takes the sin out of it.
You talk a lot about being “sexy and cute.” Why is being girly-girl so appealing?
It’s part of the survival strategy I developed as a kid. Little boys can get away with being cute – you’re supposed to grow out of it, but they can get away with it for a while. For me it was a question of how am I going to fucking survive. And also it makes people smile. I like to see people smile. The whole gender of girly-girl – genitals aside – is a pleasing thing. It’s why we like Audrey Hepburn or Julia Roberts, or who is it today?
There you go. It’s also an expression of my beta-wolf side, the submissive side. Now, I also like the serial killer side of that. This kind of person could be packing a gun in their pink Prada purse, to borrow a lyric from “Our lady J.” High femme serial killers have always drawn me in, and I can see myself as that. [Laughs] If I was going to have a character in a game it would be that.
Your work is all about the various shades of gender – “boy” versus “man,” “girl” versus “woman,” et cetera. Is there an easy way to define gender?
The short answer is: Desire, Identity and Power. That’s how gender plays itself out in the world.
Do you see drag as a gender?
Drag queen is a gender; drag king is a gender; drag fuck royalty is a gender. But everybody does drag, and it’s not all about gender. Some people do drag for corporate reasons. Some people do drag for racial reasons, or age reasons. It’s a masking technique. Mx. Justin Vivian Bond is currently in a show, Jukebox Jackie: Snatches of my Life at Lamama in NYC, about Jackie Curtis. Mx Bond is one of four actors playing Jackie. Actors all do drag, but Mx. Bond has transcended [the] drag queen. That’s not the right word. What’s a better word? Transfabulous! Mx. Bond has gone from drag queen to transfabulous. That’s a new frontier, and it’s something that Jackie Curtis pioneered in saying that he wasn’t a boy and he wasn’t a girl.
Would you consider being a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race?
Fuck yes! Oh my god! What I really like about that show is they’re not mean to anybody. Well, a little bit, but RuPaul isn’t and I think he sets a really good example of how to judge without being judgmental. I really fucking appreciate that – to see all that fabulousness without the hurt. So, yes, I would. Please. Pretty please. Anything. Call me. You can print my fucking phone number! Actually, no, don’t do that.
On Twitter you’ve referred to Siri as “ze,” so I was wondering what’s your take on the gender pronoun issue?
I think the word “they” will return to its earliest roots as both a singular and plural pronoun. I like to use ze to step outside the binary, and I insist upon it whenever I want to be snarky or troublesome, but people make up their own. For example, Justin Vivian Bond uses “V.” And when you speak of V, you use V, and this focuses the speaker in a way that says: oh my god this is a gender I’ve not had experience with before. It’s a way to step outside the gender binary. In the trans world, especially, as it evolves people will step beyond it. And that’s what’s beautiful about it. I’m old school right now. Even when I say ze and hir, I’m fucking old school.
It’s one of your “outlaw” attitudes.
Yeah, it’s like wearing buckskin and boots and a six-gun.
What does outlaw mean to you?
It means freedom and it means breaking laws that don’t hurt anybody. When you get really good at being an outlaw there’s no guilt. It’s really fucking cool! Now, there’s a danger to it. If I get read outside my house here in New York City I wouldn’t get put in jail, but I might get killed. The sad truth is that in many parts of the world it’s dangerous. There’s risk in being an outlaw, but there’s no guilt. That’s the difference.
The day you discovered Scientology you were on your way to climb a mountain to fast and meditate. Do you ever regret abandoning that plan?
Writing the memoir helped me come to terms with what I got out of that life in Scientology. I needed that kind of dunk into totalitarian rule to break the great big rule of gender. Scientology was keeping me alive and I broke their biggest rule. I left! After that, there was nothing left to lose.
You enlisted with Scientology’s Sea Org for a billion years. Did you ever stop and think: Now, hold on, guys. This is crazy?
Today they call it a holy order, but when I joined we weren’t a religion. We [the Sea Org] really saw ourselves as the elite core, the enforcers of L. Ron Hubbard’s “technology.” It was our job to make sure people didn’t fuck with that. But, no, I believed I was an immortal being. Simple. And I could come back as a girl. I saw that as a carrot.
I don’t want to give too much away, but your departure from Scientology wasn’t entirely voluntary.
It was voluntary: a bully offered me an either/or option and I took the “or.” That was a big deal. Not everyone who was offered that option took it. Scientology has a version of prison called “the hole.” There are people who have been in the hole for ten years getting screamed at daily. These are people my age and older. Would I still be there today? No, I don’t think so. I would’ve ended up in a similar situation where I had to choose between prison and leaving. I wouldn’t have chosen prison.
You mentioned bullying. Are we making progress?
I think we’ve reached a tipping point. Bullying is on the way out. The big problem in theUSAis that we keep voting for them. The next step is: No votes for bullies.
That sounds like a political slogan.
It’s one of the steps in the new edition of My Gender Workbook. Start a campaign.
You’ve criticized the focus on marriage equality, claiming it doesn’t address the larger issues facing the Queer community. Where would you like to see a greater focus?
It comes down to triage. The first goal should be how do we stop people from being killed. As soon as we embrace that we find allies everywhere: in class communities, disability communities, etc. You can create a coalition of the margins. When you do that the first question you’re going to come up with is: Who is getting hurt the most? Well, women and children, but more broadly anyone who isn’t a “real” man. That includes boys, black men, men in wheelchairs, etc. Those are the ones that are getting hurt. Marriage is selfish because nobody wins but gays and lesbians, and purely strategically it’s wrong. It goes against every principle in The Art of War. And it is a “war” not a “struggle.” I don’t use that word.
You speak candidly about your lifelong struggle with anorexia and cutting. I really admire that.
Starving myself kept me alive. That’s true for many people. In that way, it’s always been a source of strength, but these are very addictive things, and the important thing to discover about any addiction is its meta. With anorexia it’s about controlling the body. Ok, so it comes down to how else can I control my body in a way that won’t endanger my heart, etc. Oh, I know, I can change my body into a girl body! The closer I come to my ideal gender expression the less my inclination is to starve myself. As far as cutting, I’m often in a position where people want a whole lot from me, sometimes it’s so frustrating that all I can give is my blood. “Here, I’m cutting myself for you. Take my blood. ” I haven’t felt the need to do that in about four years.
Throughout the book you consistently misdirect the reader, often lying before telling the truth. Why?
That’s how I live my life. I love telling whoppers! I like to make up stories and then watch people’s reactions. For instance, I grew up in Asbury Park, New Jersey. One thing that wasn’t in the book is that Bruce Springsteen and I dated in high school.
Are you lying to me right now?
Nope. It’s true. We dated in high school. We didn’t date each other –
That’s a good one.
See, that’s art! You can lie to set people free or you can lie to enslave people. Scientology lies to enslave people.
You wrote this book, in part, to reach out to your daughter and grandchildren who are still in Scientology. Have you heard from them?
No. The terrible responsibility I’ve had to assume is that to the degree that I succeed I put them in a position of danger from the only thing they’ve ever known.
But your work has helped so many.
I feel so good about that. Queer kids are my kids. I’m old enough to say that without diminishing you in any way.
So what’s next for Kate Bornstein?
Stardom. It’s a greedy goal and it comes with lots of traps of arrogance, but the way I justify it is by giving back. But, I’m not a star yet. I call myself a sub-lebrity, maybe this book has bumped me up and now I’m a starlet. I’m also working on a new book. It’s loosely based on Breakfast At Tiffany’s. It’s about a tranny working girl. Half of it takes place in New York City and the other half takes place online in a place I’m calling Worlds of Lovecraft. I think it’ll be fun.
That sounds amazing. I’m sure it’ll elevate you to literary stardom. You’ll be like Jackie Collins.
[Laughs] You say such nice things. Thank you. I hope you’ll say more. I’m also doing a lot of traveling. I’m getting older and traveling hurts now, but it keeps me alive and on the forward edges of the queer world, so I’m not abandoning it yet. Hint. Hint. Bring me to your city!
Photo Credit: Barbara Carrellas