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Meet Kate Bornstein: 'Gender Outlaw'

Photo: Courtesy of Santiago Felipe
“I wrote a memoir, wow, almost four years ago now,” Kate Bornstein smiles, as she leans back into her chair, coffee in hand. “It’s called A Queer and Pleasant Danger. The subtitle sums up my life pretty well: ‘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.’”

Kate is an author, playwright, artist and gender theorist, although "gender outlaw" is her preferred title. This month she’s in the UK, running workshops, performing shows, and working with young people on suicide prevention and mental health. Having arranged to meet Kate at a bike/coffee shop in South London, we settle down to talk, and I ask her to take me back to the beginning.

Her childhood was in New Jersey in the 1950s at the height of McCarthyism, and the accompanying lavender scare, whereby lesbians and gays were considered to be communist sympathisers, facing persecution. “The word transsexual hadn’t even been coined yet,” she tells me, as we chat about what life was like growing up; researchers point to a medical paper published in 1965 as an early use of the term “transgenderism”.

The thing I was sure of, from very early on was that I wasn’t a boy, and I didn’t want to grow up to be a man. The only other option I could think of was that I wanted to be a girl.

“The big deal in all the tabloids was Christine Jorgensen, 'ex-GI becomes blonde bombshell,'" recalls Kate, "but there was no humanity in the media presence of any trans people. It was mocking, and that was permitted, laughing at homosexuals and perverts was okay.”

At the dinner table, Kate’s father, a doctor, would joke about his patients; “I had another faggot in today, you can tell because when you do a rectal examination they’re all loose,” he’d laugh. Kate didn’t dare say a word about how she was feeling in terms of sexuality or gender.

“The thing I was sure of, from very early on was that I wasn’t a boy, and I didn’t want to grow up to be a man,” Kate recalls, taking her time as she speaks. “The only other option I could think of was that I wanted to be a girl.” Kate cross-dressed at every opportunity, a chance to explore what being a girl might mean, but it wasn’t the salvation she might have been hoping for.

“It’s not that I always wanted to be a girl, because I didn’t know what being a girl feels like! I only know what my version of a girl feels like, but I felt like I must be, because there were only two choices.” Kate turned to acting in the 60s and 70s, because for her, she says, “theatre just made sense.”

“There I was,” she smiles, “spending my whole life learning how to be a boy, how to be a man, watching men to see what they would do and then doing it, all the time. What else is acting?”

But soon Kate was restless, something still didn’t feel quite right. The solution? Get hold of a VW Microbus, and take a “hippy journey” across the United States, stopping at religious communities and looking for answers along the way. She spent time with the Amish, the Bahia, Cabbalists, but ended up drawn into the world of Scientology, dancing to the tune of L. Ron Hubbard.

When I ask what drew her into the notoriously cult-like ways of the Scientology Church, she pauses, and looks down for a moment to think. “They said we don’t have a soul, that you are your own immortal soul, you’re not your brain, body or mind, you are a spirit. They told me we have nothing to do with time, energy, matter or space. In my mind, that meant we had no gender.”

Kate was sucked in, but 12 years and two failed marriages later, she decided it was time to leave, to explore her gender more openly. “I’ve ceased regretting it,” says Kate, “and what I learned was how not to live my life.” She got out, at 35, and after another marriage disintegrated (this time to her childhood sweetheart), it was time for Kate to transition.

“Transitioning in the US in the 1980s was very different to now, it was mostly older folks [doing it] back then. People assume now that we did it when we were young, but that just wasn’t the case then. We were too scared, too frightened, and there was no Internet to find people who might support you.”

There were next to no services available, and Kate says there wasn’t much support coming from the lesbian and gay community either, “because they were dealing with the AIDS crisis, and didn’t know what the fuck I was.”

Over the last 30 years, Kate has become prolific in her field, creating theatre productions, editing award-winning anthologies, speaking out on gender, and writing well-received books, including the beloved Hello, Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws, which many trans people cite as an inspiration. Kate mentioned to me that after leaving Scientology she felt suicidal, and she’s written extensively about having anorexia, being a survivor of PTSD and being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.
Despite society becoming generally more accepting towards LGBT people in the West, there's still a pandemic when it comes to mental health issues among LGBT people. The legal system regarding transgender identity has moved on in this country, but the level of mental health problems among young trans people is at crisis point. According to The Trevor Project, nearly half of young trans people have seriously thought about taking their own life, with a deeply worrying quarter admitting to having made an attempt to do so.

“We need to make people feel welcome,” replies Kate, when I ask what the solution might be. “There’s so much vitriolic hatred and disgust for people who are LGBT. What’s promoted is tolerance, but is that the best that we can hope for? Is it the most people growing up in the closet can hope to expect?”

There’s been talk in recent years of a shake up within LGBT campaigning, and some are arguing that the trans community should break away from the lesbian, gay and bisexual community, separating the T from the LGB. I ask Kate, who’s seen as an elder within the community, what she makes of these arguments.

LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex and asexual) is a natural combination, it’s not been thrown together”, she argues. “It’s not true that LGB is all about sexuality and 'T' is all about gender and so we should steer clear of those people. LGB people define their sexuality by gender. T defines their identity by gender.”

The common ground? Not sex, says Kate; it's gender. “LGB people are gender outlaws, they’re breaking the rules that say ‘real men’ love women, ‘real women’ love men. If you don’t, people say you’re not a real man or woman. That’s exactly the same slur that trans people get.”

Kate sees people who have marginalised gender or sexual identities as natural allies, and would mourn any successful effort to break them up. With the UK’s largest LGBT charity, Stonewall, taking up the mantel of campaigning on trans issues back in February 2015, it looks like they will be focussing on holding the UK's LGBT community together.
Western society has long dictated that we are male or female, and nothing other; a quick check between the legs at birth dictates how we’ll be defined for the rest of our lives. But what does Kate, who’s lived as a man, a woman, and something in between make of this?

“I’ve come to see there is a gender binary: there are men, and there are women, there are boys, and there are girls. For many people that’s the truth of gender,” she replies.

It’s a topic she covers in her 1998 title, My Gender Workbook. As Kate sees it, the problem comes in when enforcing these structures on other people. “When you look at nature, everything is some shade of grey – it’s just not logical that gender isn’t the same. Some people see gender as a spectrum – I don’t – because you’re still positing two “real” genders, and then allowing spaces in between.”

As we say our goodbyes, she embraces me firmly. For someone with such a wealth of experience and knowledge, Kate is remarkably humble, both one to one, and at events where I’ve heard her speak, she seems continually open to learning, reassessing her position based on what is said.

While I make my way to the door, she calls out my name, a final thought having come to her. “All I want to say to people is just allow me to believe that gender has no binary,” she says. “My belief in that eases a great deal of my suffering. Celebrate me for that, please.”

Kate Bornstein will be performing at the Soho Theatre later this month. Tickets here.