Gender Outlaw moves into New Territory

Tangling with Self-Destruction

by Dave Ford, San Francisco Chronicle External Link
Article appeared in Polare magazine: April 2003 Last Update: October 2013 Last Reviewed: September 2015

Kate Bornstein

Like many social outsiders, Bornstein has grappled with self-destruction for decades ...

Kate Bornstein leans her slender body against a wall in a dim alley behind Theatre Rhinoceros in San Francisco's Mission District, on break from rehearsals for her new play Strangers in Paradox; The True Story of Casey and the Kidd. She changes angles for a photographer. She burbles happily when complimented and takes direction without resistance. She is at ease; she has done this before. For Bornstein, shape shifting is second nature, if not first.

Albert Bornstein, born fifty-five years ago, underwent a gender reassignment operation in 1986 and bloomed into Kate, who considers herself neither male nor female. Bornstein has challenged society's expectations ever since, zeroing in on restrictive dualistic gender roles.

"I'm all for walking in the grey areas," she says with a laugh.

A child of the 1960s, Bornstein has explored such transgressions as books (Gender Outlaw, My Gender Workbook) and plays and performance pieces (Hidden: A Gender, The Opposite Sex is Neither). Her work is studied in universities worldwide; she has performed nationally and internationally. Strangers in Paradox impishly describes the adventures of Casey and the Kidd, lesbian serial killers who are the subject of a murder reality show. Bornstein does not act in the play.

As in most of her work, the narrative is but an excuse to delve into deep personal issues. Her most autobiographical work to date, Strangers ... took her seven years to write. "This one is a painful one for me," she says.

"As with all public people, there is Kate-in-the-Box, trailed by invisible labels and the assumptions they imply." Then there is plain Kate, although Kate doesn't seem plain this day, dressed in pink striped sweater over a red shirt, an ankle-length denim skirt with flames licking up the back and trendily chunky black shoes.

She is very tall; she looms, birdlike, and carefully observes her surroundings from behind oversize tinted glasses. Hers is the gaze of the afflicted, alert to danger. Yet, when seated and comfortable, she softens. By turns she is pointed, poignant and funny as she freely details, without self-pity, past struggles with alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorders, self-mutilation - and suicide, a theme threading Strangers ....

"I know very few queer people who haven't gotten close to the edge of that chasm," says Bornstein, who lives in New York with her girlfriend, writer and performance artist Barbara Carrelas. "I think it's the common experience of 'freaks' to consider suicide. And what do you do when that urge comes up?"

Bornstein posits that the suicidal urge is no different from, say, the anger urge. Personal growth, she says is the measure of how a person deals with each.

"The healthy thing with suicide is ... not taking my own life, but taking the life of a persona that needs to die," she says.

Strangers ... implicitly condones alternatives to suicide, Bornstein says, including self-mutilation. "Cutting is a whole lot better than killing yourself," she says, but is quick to add that something as harmless as, say, shopping is better yet.

Like many social outsiders, Bornstein has grappled with self-destruction for decades - a result, she says, of cultural messages suggesting that those like her deserve to die.

"I don't think we're born self-hating," she says, "It's how we respond to bullies. And if any place in the world grows tough bullies, it's this country. They're our chief export. George Bush cut his bully teeth on people like me."

Bornstein's variegated past includes a dozen years spent in the Church of Scientology and immersion in Buddhism and other mystical religions (she now swears by Tarot Cards).

She spent years exploring sado­masochistic sex, where, as a 'submissive slave' she challenged every role she'd ever been assigned as a one time upper-middle-class heterosexual man.

"I had all these entitlements and chains of responsibility," she says. "It was very easy to go, 'Goodbye. I'm turning everything over'. Remember I'd come from this whole point of view of anorexia and bulimia and cutting. You go right against the fight-or-flight option the lizard brain gives us: My body wants me to eat; I won't. My body wants me to run away from this person hitting me; I won't. See how good I am?"

"Mostly what (the experience) gave me was the understanding that, for me, an effective way to deal with the experience of a binary life is to fully explore both sides before jumping into the grey area."

Among other projects, Bornstein is now collecting stories for a book aimed at helping teens who feel suicidal. After all, she says, young people, especially those confronting gender roles, hold the promise of a cultural swing away from dualistic bullydom. "In another fifteen years, when those folks stretch their power, the pendulum will swing back again," she says.

Until then, there is Strangers ..., a darkly humorous work Bornstein says is perfect for adventurous Bay Area theatre goers. "It is a dangerous, in-your-face play," she says, "But please trust me - it has a lovely ending."

Kate Bornstein

From Wikipedia: External Link Born in 1948, Kate Bornstein is an American author, playwright, performance artist, and gender theorist. Having been assigned as male at birth, zie underwent sex reassignment surgery in 1986 and says, "I don't call myself a woman, and I know I'm not a man". Bornstein has also written about having anorexia, being a survivor of P.T.S.D. and being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. Kate has chronic lymphocytic leukaemia and in September 2012 was diagnosed with lung cancer. Kate and partner Barbara Carrellas live in New York City with three cats, two dogs and a turtle.

Born in Neptune City, New Jersey, U.S.A. into a middle-class conservative Jewish family of Russian and Dutch descent, Bornstein studied Theatre Arts at Brown University in 1969 and joined the Church of Scientology, became a high ranking lieutenant in the Sea Org but later became disillusioned and formally left the movement in 1981. Bornstein's antagonism toward Scientology and public split from the church have had personal consequences; Bornstein's daughter, herself a Scientologist, no longer has any contact with Bornstein per Scientology's policies.

Bornstein never felt comfortable with the belief of the day: that all trans women are "women trapped in men's bodies". Zie did not identify as a man, but the only other option of the day was to be a woman, a reflection of the gender binary, which required people to identify according to only two available genders. Another block in hir path was the fact that zie was attracted to women. zie had sex reassignment surgery in 1986 and settled into the lesbian community in San Francisco, and wrote art reviews for the gay and lesbian paper The Bay Area Reporter. Over the next few years, zie began to identify as neither a man nor a woman. This catapulted hir back to performing, creating several performance pieces, some of them one-person shows. It was the only way Bornstein knew how to communicate life's paradoxes. Bornstein also teaches workshops and has published several gender theory books, and a novel. Hello Cruel World was written to derail "teens, freaks, and other outlaws" from committing suicide. "Do whatever it takes to make your life more worth living", zie writes, "just don't be mean".

This short video is courtesy Tufts Daily and You Tube

Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us
Author: Kate Bornstein
Publisher: Publisher: Vintage (1995)
I.S.B.N.-13 978-0679757016

From Amazon Books: External Link A thoughtful challenge to gender ideology that continually asks difficult questions about identity, orientation, and desire. Bornstein cleverly incorporates cultural criticism, dramatic writing, and autobiography to make her point that gender (which she distinguishes from sex) is a cultural rather than a natural phenomenon. The chapters range from "fashion tips" on her writing style to dialogue between herself and another about the "nuts and bolts" of the surgical process of a gender change (which she has undergone). Confronting transgenderism and transgendered people is not easy for many individuals, but Bornstein does it in a way that sparks debate without putting her audience on the defensive. She suggests that "the culture may not simply be creating roles for naturally-gendered people, the culture may in fact be creating the gendered people". Her discussion of the "parts" of gender is based on respected sources and includes analyses of gender assignment, identity, and roles. Things get mixed up, according to Bornstein, because "sexual orientation/preference is based in this culture solely on the gender of one's partner of choice", in effect confusing orientation and preference. Seeing queer theatre as a place in which gender ambiguity and fluidity can and should be explored, she includes in the book her play, Hidden: A Gender. Bornstein uses the term "gender defenders"' to describe those who work hard to maintain the current rigid system of gender, and she claims that her "people" (i.e., the transgendered) are just beginning to challenge the system and to demand acceptance and understanding. Bornstein's witty style, personal approach, and frankness open doors to questioning gender assumptions and boundaries. - Copyright ©1994, Kirkus Associates, L.P. All rights reserved.

Nearly Roadkill (High Risk)
Author: Kate Bornstein and Caitlin Sullivan
Publisher: Serpent's Tail (1996)
I.S.B.N.-13 978-1852424183

From Amazon Books: External Link Nearly Roadkill apparently takes place in the not-so-distant future, where Internet users are required to register online and all transmissions can be policed by government agencies. Big brother is watching our hero/heroines (you make the call), Winc and Scratch, as they lead the charge against government intervention in cyberspace. The text is written as a series of online dialogues, much like what you'd see in a chat room. You'll also get a fly-on-the-wall experience reminiscent of Nicholson Baker's Vox as these rebels with a cause take time out to participate in graphic cybersex. But except where the sex thing gets in the way, Nearly Roadkill's intent is to raise questions about gender issues, censorship, and who should have authority over the Internet.

My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, a Real Woman, the Real You, or Something Else Entirely
Author: Kate Bornstein and Diane DiMasa
Publisher: Routledge (1997)
I.S.B.N.-13 978-0415916738

From Amazon Books: External Link Gender isn't just about "male" or "female" anymore - if you have any doubts, just turn on your television. RuPaul is as familiar as tomato ketchup with national radio and television shows, and transgendered folk are as common to talk shows as screaming and yelling. But if the popularization of gender bending is revealing that "male" and "female" aren't enough, where are we supposed to go from here? Cultural theorists have written loads of smart but difficult to fathom texts on gender, but none provide a hands-on, accessible guide to having your own unique gender. With My Gender Workbook, Kate Bornstein brings theory down to Earth and provides a practical approach to living with or without a gender. Bornstein starts from the premise that there are not just two genders performed in today's world, but countless genders lumped under the two-gender framework. Using a unique, deceptively simple and always entertaining workbook format, Bornstein gently but firmly guides you to discover your own unique gender identity. Whether she's using the food group triangle to explain gender, or quoting one-liners from real "gender transgressors", Bornstein's first and foremost concern is making information on gender bending truly accessible. With quizzes and exercises that determine how much of a man or woman you are, My Gender Workbook gives you the tools to reach whatever point you desire on the gender continuum. Bornstein also takes aim at the recent flurry of books that attempt to naturalize gender difference, and puts books like Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus squarely where they belong: on Uranus. If you don't think you are transgendered when you sit down to read this book, you will be by the time you finish it!

Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws
Author: Kate Bornstein and Sara Quin
Publisher: Seven Stories Press (2006)
I.S.B.N.-13 978-1583227206

From Amazon Books: External Link Celebrated transsexual trailblazer Kate Bornstein has, with more humour and spunk than any other, ushered us into a world of limitless possibility through a daring re-envisionment of the gender system as we know it. Here, Bornstein bravely and wittily shares personal and unorthodox methods of survival in an often cruel world. A one-of-a-kind guide to staying alive outside the box, Hello, Cruel World is a much-needed unconventional approach to life for those who want to stay on the edge, but alive. Hello, Cruel World features a catalogue of 101 alternatives to suicide that range from the playful (moisturize!), to the irreverent (shatter some family values), to the highly controversial. Designed to encourage readers to give themselves permission to unleash their hearts' harmless desires, the book has only one directive: "Don't be mean". It is this guiding principle that brings its reader on a self-validating journey, which forges wholly new paths toward a resounding decision to choose life. Tenderly intimate and unapologetically edgy, Kate Bornstein is the radical role model, the affectionate best friend, and the guiding mentor all in one.

Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation
Author: Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman
Publisher: Seal Press (2010)
I.S.B.N.-13 978-1580053082

From Amazon Books: External Link In the fifteen years since the release of Gender Outlaw, Kate Bornstein's groundbreaking challenge to gender ideology, transgender narratives have made their way from the margins to the mainstream and back again. Today's transgender people and other sex/gender radicals are writing a drastically new world into being. In Gender Outlaws, Bornstein, together with writer, raconteur, and theatre artist S. Bear Bergman, collects and contextualizes the work of this generation's trans and gender-queer forward thinkers — new voices from the stage, on the streets, in the workplace, in the bedroom, and on the pages and websites of the world's most respected mainstream news sources. Gender Outlaws includes essays, commentary, comic art, and conversations from a diverse group of trans-spectrum people who live and believe in barrier-breaking lives.

A Queer and Pleasant Danger: A Memoir
Author: Kate Bornstein
Publisher: Beacon Press (2012)
I.S.B.N.-13 978-0807001653

From Beacon Press: External Link Scientologist, husband and father, tranny, sailor, slave, playwright, dyke, gender outlaw — these are just a few words which have defined Kate Bornstein during her extraordinary life. For the first time, it all comes together in A Queer and Pleasant Danger, Kate Bornstein's stunningly original memoir that's set to change lives and enrapture readers. Wickedly funny and disarmingly honest, this is Bornstein's most intimate book yet. With wisdom, wit, and an unwavering resolution to tell the truth ("I must not tell lies"), Bornstein shares her story: from a nice Jewish boy growing up in New Jersey to a strappingly handsome lieutenant of the Church of Scientology's Sea flagship vessel, and later to 1990s Seattle, where she becomes a rising star in the lesbian community. In between there are wives and lovers, heartbreak and triumph, bridges mended and broken, and a journey of self-discovery that will mesmerize readers.

My New Gender Workbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Achieving World Peace Through Gender Anarchy and Sex Positivity
Author: Kate Bornstein
Publisher: Routledge (2013)
I.S.B.N.-13 978-0415538657

From Amazon Books: External Link Cultural theorists have written loads of smart but difficult-to-fathom texts on gender theory, but most fail to provide a hands-on, accessible guide for those trying to sort out their own sexual identities. In My Gender Workbook, transgender activist Kate Bornstein brings theory down to Earth and provides a practical approach to living with or without a gender. Bornstein starts from the premise that there are not just two genders performed in today's world, but countless genders lumped under the two-gender framework. Using a unique, deceptively simple and always entertaining workbook format, complete with quizzes, exercises, and puzzles, Bornstein gently but firmly guides readers toward discovering their own unique gender identity. Since its first publication in 1997, My Gender Workbook has been challenging, encouraging, questioning, and handholding those trying to figure out how to become a "real man" a "real woman" or "something else entirely" In this updated edition of her classic text, Bornstein re-examines gender in light of issues like race and class. With new quizzes, new puzzles, new exercises, and plenty of Kate's over-the-top style, My New Gender Workbook promises to help a new generation create their own unique place on the gender spectrum.

Polare Magazine is published quarterly in Australia by The Gender Centre Inc. which is funded by the Department of Family & Community Services under the S.A.A.P. program and supported by the N.S.W. Health Department through the AIDS and Infectious Diseases Branch. Polare provides a forum for discussion and debate on gender issues. Unsolicited contributions are welcome, the editor reserves the right to edit such contributions without notification. Any submission which appears in Polare may be published on our internet site. Opinions expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect those of the Editor, The Gender Centre Inc., the Department of Family & Community Services or the N.S.W. Department of Health.

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