Sunday, 28 May 2017

Interview with Kate Bornstein

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Kate Bornstein, an American author, playwright, performance artist, and gender theorist, the author of many influential books, including: “A Queer and Pleasant Danger: A Memoir”, “My New Gender Workbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Achieving World Peace Through Gender Anarchy and Sex Positivity” and “Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us”. Hello Kate!
Kate: Hello, Monika. Thank you for welcoming me into the amazing company of trans folks that you’ve pulled together here.
Monika: My first question must be about your health. Are you felling OK now? The media were full of information about your fight against cancer, and the $100,000 crowdfunder campaign…
Kate: Ah, you’re sweet to ask. Thank you. Yep, I’m feeling very well thank you. In 2012, I was diagnosed with lung cancer. And this was on top of a leukemia diagnosis from back in 1996. Surgery didn’t get all the cancer out of my lung, so the next step was chemotherapy and radiation. But because of my two cancers, there was no approved chemotherapy being used by any doctors on my health plan. The only doctor who was working on that kind of combination of cancer was not covered by my insurance, and cost a lot of money that I didn’t have.

Photo by Barbara Carrellas.
So my girlfriend, Barbara Carrellas, and our friend Laura Vogel put together one of the very earliest crowd-sourcing campaigns, and within a week thousands and thousands of people gave me over $100,000 and sure enough it worked! After two years of chemotherapy and radiation, I am now cancer free for three years. I see this time of my life as time gifted me by love. And I’m spending this gifted time returning that love the very best ways I can.
Monika: You were one of the first gender theorists that refuted publicly the binary concept of gender. I am curious about one aspect. In one of the interviews, you mentioned that except for the first six months post-transition when you regarded yourself as a woman, you have always identified as non-binary. What happened during those 6 months?
Kate: Ha! Nice question. In order to answer, I need to go back to when I was trying to live my life as a boy and as a man. I was always conscious of the fact that doing “boy” and “man” never felt natural to me. I had to watch boys and men to see how they did it. I practiced. Sometimes in the mirror. And gradually, I could perform “boy” and “man” easily and without much thought. But inside, there were always doubts.
Fast forward to six months after my SRS. I’m conscious, every day, of the fact that doing “girl” and “woman” does not feel natural. I was watching girls and women to see how they did it. I practiced. Sometimes in the mirror. I wasn’t expressing myself. I was expressing myself—mind, body and soul—as the boy, man, girl, woman that the culture expected me to be. I finally threw up my hands in despair, and went into a deep depression. I guess I wasn’t a woman after all. (I wasn’t regretful of the SRS—I was having an awful lot of fun with my new vagina.) 
OK, so if I’m not a man and I’m not a woman, what the fuck am I?!?! To this day, 31 years later, I haven’t been able to answer that one. Oh I’ve called myself a lot of things: dyke, femme, trans woman, manic pixie dreamgirl tranny, and so many more things that I’ve enjoyed being. But none of them are me. So now I go back to the only way I learned to express my identity thirty-one years ago: I’m not a man, and I’m not a woman. The best way I can express myself is through the complete negation of the binary.
"Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and
the Rest of Us" is available via Amazon.
It’s a whole new version of the book,
which came out 6 months ago.
Monika: Being a non-binary person, you decided to be closer to being a woman rather than a man. I am just wondering how the non-binary concept is influenced by some elements of the man and woman paradigm because you could have been a non-binary person, being in the semi-male mode too … ☺
Kate: HAHAHAHA! Great, here we go… I said earlier that I was happy with my new vagina. Well, I was happy with everything girly I was able to be in the world. I love being pretty girl. That’s my gender expression, not my gender identity. Jenny Boylan once told me she never felt feminine, but she always felt female. I thought about that and realized that I’ve never felt female, but I’ve always felt feminine. My transition has been wonderful in part because I’ve been able to be feminine more openly.
My gender identity is queer: not-man, not-woman.
It gives me freedom.
My gender expression is straight: cute little old lady.
It gives me pleasure.
And I’m comfortable being femme boy,
In the company of other femme boys.
Monika: The transgender community is said to be thriving now. As Laverne Cox announced “Trans is beautiful.” Teenage girls become models and dancers, talented ladies become writers, singers, and actresses. Those ladies with interest in politics, science, and business become successful politicians, academics, and businesswomen. What do you think in general about the present situation of transgender women in the American society? Are we just scratching the surface or the change is really happening?
Kate: Sigh. People like to think that trans has reached a tipping point into mainstream popular culture. Nope. Not yet. Transgender has reached a tipping point, hell yes! But trans has not, because to most people in the world, transgender doesn’t mean what it has meant to so many trans people: transgender used to be the inclusive term. It’s not, anymore—well, not to mainstream popular culture: they use transgender to mean boys and girls and men and women who have transitioned out of another gender. That’s what an increasing majority of binary-identified trans women are calling themselves. And nonbinary trans people thereby are not transgender. It’s complicated, I know. It’s language in transition.

Transgender as a term now describes two different phenomena. There’s transgender as inclusive of everyone for whom thinking about gender occupies a lot of your life. And there’s transgender as binary-identified trans people. Trans is now the generally accepted inclusive term, and frankly I like it better. And look, I’m not saying there is ANYTHING wrong, damaged, less than, or untrue about being binary-identified trans. I used to think that. But no… we each of us has an understanding of gender that just by believing in it, it eases our suffering and increases our chance for happiness. For some that’s binary. For some, it’s not.
And bless Laverne Cox a thousand times over for so clearly insisting that trans is beautiful. Ah, what a day it will be for the world when we all of us understand that.
Monika: On the other hand, the restroom war is raging on and transgender women are killed on the streets…
Kate: It breaks my heart.
Monika: As for Caitlyn Jenner, the transgender community espouses a binary view. She is either cherished as an icon or rejected as a wrong example of transgender celebrity. What is your (probably non-binary ☺) view on her?
Kate: She’s a champion. She’s a good friend. She’s my age—well I’m one year older, so I call her my kid sister. She’s got a great sense of humor. She can laugh at herself and her foibles. She’s unafraid to make mistakes in front of people, and she always… always… apologizes and manages to do better next time. My goodness, what more could you ask from any human being? CJ and I have come to respect each other’s gender paths and political choices, and we look beyond that to what friendship and allyship really means.
Photo by Santiago Felipe.
Monika: Once you said “We have looked for myths that include us in great novels, music, the latest comic book, or even some stupid advertising campaign. We'll look *anywhere* for a mythology that embraces people like ourselves.” I must say that unintentionally I am doing this myself… Is there any other way to highlight the existence of transgender rights?
Kate: Hmmmm, when I wrote that I was referring to the fact that in early transition, or early coming-out, nearly every trans person goes through a period of learning how to identify as and/or express ourselves as the genders we want to embrace. We want mainstream popular culture to embrace us in our new genders, and the best way to do that is to be or express ourselves as genders that the mainstream already embraces.
Now… you’re saying you’re unintentionally doing this yourself. Heh. Not any more you’re not. From the moment you recognized that, it’s become to some degree intentional. Yay! That’s called mindfully navigating gender.
As to highlighting the existence of transgender rights… well, that’s not my way of doing things. People call me a transgender activist. Ha! I’m not transgender, and I’m a piss-poor activist. I’m an artist in service to activism. How about you, Monika? You’re doing an amazing job of highlighting trans arts and activism through this website. Thank you!
Monika: I have read somewhere that cisgender women were liberated thanks to the development of contraceptive pill whereas transgender women are free now thanks to the development of cosmetic surgery, so they are no longer prisoners of passing or non-passing syndrome …
Kate: Well yes and no. The majority of trans people don’t have the money to pay for cosmetic surgery. So it becomes necessary to understand trans bodies as mixes, degrees of the beauty of man, and the beauty of woman. That’s its own kind of beauty, and it’s time we taught the world to acknowledge how very beautiful we are just the way we are. 
"A Queer and Pleasant Danger"
via Amazon.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?☺
Kate: I wish I was beautiful enough to be in one! Y’know, pretty gets a bad rap. So do events and media that welcome pretty. That’s an attitude born of and tinged with misogyny. The bad part of institutionalizing pretty is that the organizers get to define what pretty is, instead of radically welcoming all the different kinds of pretty there are in life.
Monika: I have interviewed many transgender ladies with very devout religious backgrounds: Catholicism, Judaism, and Protestantism. What strikes me is that these religions do not embrace the existence of transgender people, placing them always on the margin of the community? Is the Church of Scientology different in this respect?
Kate: Scientology sees LGBTQ people as literally evil.
Monika: Is it why you left the Church in the 1980s?
Kate: Oh golly, no. In those days, I basically hated myself for being trans, so I agreed with Scientology when they said I was evil. I left them because I accidentally found out that L. Ron Hubbard was pocketing all the money we were supposedly earning for the church. After I left, that’s when I finally decided that evil or not, I’ve got to move forward with my gender transition—I’ve got to find out what I really am. It was what you might call a leap of faith. And here I am today because I leapt.
Monika: You wrote once: “The differences in the way men and women are treated are real. And the fact is this difference in treatment has no basis in the differences between men and women. I was the same person, and I was treated entirely differently. I got real interested in feminist theory ---real fast.” Would you call yourself a feminist?
Kate: Hell yes!
Monika: Even if some cisgender feminists deny you this right?
Kate: Look, no one gets to say what we call ourselves. The price of calling ourselves feminists is living feminism as fully as we can.
And hey… I also call myself a tranny. Some transgender feminists deny me that right. We need to learn more about how to allow people to call themselves what they know themselves to be.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed? Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Kate: Growing up and pre-transition, there was Christine Jorgensen, Jan Morris, Canary Conn, Wendy Carlos, Renee Richards. But the trans woman who lit a fire in my heart was Caroline Cossey. She was known to the world then as Tula, the high fashion model and James Bond Girl. Her books, "Tula" and "My Story," changed my life. She was a trans woman I could identify with.
Today? Oh darling, I’m 69 years old. At my advanced age, I’ve finally learned that there is something to admire and respect in every person that I meet, transgender, cisgender, or nonbinary. You know what the word namaste means? It’s an old old Sanskrit word, meaning roughly "the deity in me recognizes the deity in you, and is pleased". So, Namaste, sister Monika. Namaste, dear reader.

Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBTQ communities. Being the last letters in this abbreviation, are the transgender and queer communities able to promote their own cause within the LGBTQ group?
Kate: Not yet. It’s a real problem and challenge for all of us out here on the edges of sexuality and gender. I’m writing about that now, in a new book I’m working on. It’s got the best title I’ve ever thought up…. “Trans, Just For the Fun Of It! — Compassionate Gender Strategies for Divisive Times.” There’s far too much in-fighting in the numerous and disparate LGBTQ communities. And there’s far too much in-fighting in the numerous and disparate trans communities. I’m writing this book as an elder, in hopes of giving all my family some grandmotherly advice.
Monika: Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics? 
Kate: I have no idea. Politics is something I don’t understand very well.
Monika: Do you think that in our lifetime we could live to see the day when a transgender lady could become the President of USA? Or the First Lady at least?☺
Kate: Heh. Sooner president than first lady. It’s a lot easier for the world to understand transgender in politics and leadership than it is for the world to understand transgender in love and romance.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Kate: It’s almost as important as compassion.
Photo by an audience member.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Kate: I mentioned my new book. That’s got all my time and energy these days. Thank you for asking these great questions, it’s helped me learn to better articulate what I’m trying to say.
Monika: What would you recommend to all trans boys and girls struggling with gender dysphoria, or coming to terms with the option of nonbinary gender?
Kate: Please stay alive. Stop struggling. Start navigating. Just keep swimming. I love you, and I have great respect for you. So do lots of people. Just don’t be mean. 
Monika: My pen friend Gina Grahame wrote to me once that we should not limit our potential because of how we were born or by what we see other transsexuals and transgender people doing. Our dreams should not end on an operating table; that’s where they begin. Do you agree with this?
Kate: yup
Monika: Kate, thank you for the interview!
Kate: Bless your heart.

Main photo by Sam Feder.
All the photos: courtesy of Kate Bornstein.
Done on 28 May 2017
© 2017 - Monika 

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