Tangling with Self-Destruction
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."
From Wikipedia: 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
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