Five Questions With… Kate Bornstein

Kate Bornstein is an author, playwright and performance artist. Her latest book, Hello, Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws, came out last month. Kate’s published works include the books Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us; My Gender Workbook; and the cyber-romance-action novel, Nearly Roadkill, written with co-author Caitlin Sullivan. Kate’s plays and performance pieces include Strangers in Paradox, Hidden: A Gender, The Opposite Sex Is Neither, Virtually Yours, and y2kate: gender virus 2000. It was both a pleasure and an honor to get to speak with her.

1. I love that you mention in Hello, Cruel World how trans folk are separating themselves into “male” and “female” by using terms like MTF and the like, because I’ve noticed that those of us who are hot for trans folk seem to like the transness, not the ‘target gender’ (or really even the ‘birth gender’) alone. It’s the chaser’s dirty secret. Do you think trans people will start to enjoy being trans, sexually or otherwise?

There are lots of un-named, unclaimed desires that are free from the male/female gender system. Desire for sex with oneself is a sexual orientation in itself, and you can be any gender or no gender in order to have that desire. My former partner felt the most important component for his desire was that his partner be the same gender as him. When he was a woman, he was with women; when he was gender-exploring he was with someone who was also gender-exploring; now that he’s a man he’s with men. I think what you’ve got is an as-yet-un-named sexual orientation: the desire for sex and romance with someone who’s neither male nor female.

Give your desire for transness a name. Then, speak your desire loudly, and proudly and seductively. I think if people hear that, that you’d like them the way they are, they’d be more encouraged to live that place of neither/nor.

As to using terms like MTF/FTM – yeah, I’ve been complaining about that for years. In this new book, I’m just a little less patient about it. It’s amusing and humiliating to admit it, but I still work hard to pass in public. I’m an old fart, and that’s still important to me. Out in the world, I pass to avoid the shame and the danger. But intimately with friends, community, or our lovers? The not-passing is the dance of love. No need for male or female, what luxury!

kate bornstein & betty crow1b. But I seem to upset some transsexual people when I recognize that Betty’s masculinity turns me on – even if it’s in addition to my being turned on by her femininity.

Upset them! When you go beyond either/or, people think you’re a radical, that you’re less safe because you’re less predictable. Speaking or writing down the truth of your desire unlocks the political and moral shackles of desire.

2. If I hear one more crossdresser or tranny tell me they want to “feel like a woman sexually” I’m going to spit nails. What they mean is that they want to bottom. Tell me a little about how your transness intersects – or doesn’t – with being a masochist.

I was a real guy when I was a guy, I had a good time. I liked my penis, I liked how it felt, I liked sex with my penis. (I didn’t like the expectations that came with my penis.) When I was a guy, I dreamed about submission in terms of being a guy. I didn’t think about masochism in terms of SM play back then. I had a form of masochism—anorexia—in high school; maybe you’d call it auto-masochism. But I only drew the parallels between my anorexia with my masochism much later on. Both are a form of control over biology as destiny. Anorexia bucks the biological imperative to eat; masochism flies in the face of fight or flee.

So, it’s not just women who are doomed to being some specific cultural icon of sexuality. Both genders are ruined, in part, by the sexual mores that permeate gender identity: the restrictions placed on sex and enforced by the bully culture of the theocratic patriarchy that’s currently got power in this country. In the early days of feminism, women come to see that morality had screwed up their gender and they created a movement to change that.

A great deal of my gender change was about accessing different sexuality. As a guy, I kept falling for women who were dykes. That’s where I liked my romantic life to be. Sex was one thing, but romance never worked for me in the days I had a penis. I was madly in love with all three women I was in love with, but I wasn’t receiving the kind of love from them that I wanted. Understanding the object of my desire meant understanding my own gender and sexuality, not just figuring out who I wanted to be with but who I wanted to be when I was with them.

As to my masochism, I’m older now and frankly – ouch. I’m still into blood sports, and I imagine I’ll always enjoy being cut and cutting, but otherwise my body can’t seem to take it the way it used to, and honey? I’m much more into comfort.

3. The last time we ran into your lovely partner, Barbara Carrellas, Betty and she decided they needed to start a support group for “partners of writers” because there are things that are particularly difficult about living with writers. What’s the hardest thing about living with you, do you think?

I get really depressed. I go to dark, dark places. We write about what we must need to learn, and hello? I wrote a book about alternatives to suicide. I’ve always skated on the edge of manic-depression, so I was either depressed or I had these periods of near-mania, which was probably hard to live with, too.

4. Sometimes I get the impression from people who are trans, before they transition, that they expect basic personality things – like being depressive, or insecure, or self-destructive – to go away because of transition. But I don’t get the feeling those things do go away. Can you comment on that?

The first thing my therapist told me was that my gender change was not going to solve any issue but gender, and that would be about as much as I could handle. I remember during my transition I needed every bit of energy, every resource I had, because my gender change was within a couple of years of having left the Church of Scientology and giving up alcohol. A dear friend whom I knew from college, from well before my gender change two decades ago, recently asked me if I was happy at last, that I’d always been so sad… I thought I was a laugh riot, but like I said, I’ve always gotten really depressed. That didn’t change with my gender.

5. You can only write so many books about gender, but somehow, it’s still a main point of focus. I keep expecting I’ll get bored of talking about gender, but I never do – and it’s been years now, since long before I met Betty. I get the feeling Hello Cruel World came out of the news, too often, of trans folk who have committed suicide – if so, why did you decide to open it up to talk about “teens, freaks, & other outlaws” too?

I think the statistics say that suicide is still 3 or 4 times more likely for LGBT youth. But 70% of teen suicides are not LGBT kids. With Hello, Cruel World, I wanted to approach teen suicide from beyond being an LG or BT issue, or even beyond being a Q issue, to more of a teen issue. When your identity, desire, and power are messed around with, that can set you on a path to suicide. That’s what teen years are about: discovering their identities, their desires, and where their power lies! But when my publisher, Dan Simon at Seven Stories Press, read what I’d written for teens, he suggested I open it up even further, that it applied beyond teens. I didn’t agree at first, until I realized that there’s a social adolescence that hits everyone who makes a major shift in their identities that requires them to foreground desire and re-evaluate what power they’ve got in their lives.

The most important thing we can teach people about sex, gender and desire is that it’s a journey, that’s explorable. You don’t have to fit the mold you were expected to fit into. You can choose it. But no one’s been talking to youth about stuff like that. Why aren’t we talking more openly about sex? How come so many of the people who enjoy sex don’t talk about it? Sex gets talked about only where sex is allowed to be talked about. Otherwise it just sits there, gathering its own moss, I guess. What this country needs is a rough and tumble coalition of sex positivists, gender pro-activists, anarchists, socialists. And they need to be facilitated by artists and spiritualists.

5b. So what do you see as making the difference? How can we change that?

With art. It’s time for the next wave of radical lefty artists to take the lead, to energize the left wing of the USA. On the other hand, democracy has had its day; we need a new form of government. What we have now in this country isn’t democracy—it’s theocratic capitalism: the more money you have the more right you are with God. The only thing that’s ever worked in the face of the despotism of the wealthy is silliness. Look at the Dadaists, look how Brecht and Weill responded to tyranny.

Theory and politics are currently leading the T community. The artists haven’t had their say yet, nor have the ethicists, philosophers, scientists or spiritualists. Post-modern theory has been taught for what – 15 years now? Time enough for theory to take hold in whatever tributary of reality it can find, like art, like spirituality, like right here in cyberspace (bless our geeky hearts). There’s a whole new generation coming up, the trans and genderqueer artists; they’re making the art out of their postmodern understanding of their own paradoxes. What could make for yummier art?

**Bonus Question** wherein the interviewee, Kate Bornstein, asks the interviewer, Helen Boyd, a question:

6. When I went through my gender change, I was almost completely self-absorbed to the point of being careless with the feelings and wishes and needs of others around me. Then, when David went through his transition the tables were turned and I had to deal with a partner who was way off in his own world almost all the time. With more and more people consciously changing their identities, what advice do you have for people who are partnered to a person who’s going through any kind of transition?

Make sure you have a life and stuff to keep you busy. I feel like I took on way more about gender and trans stuff than any partner would want to, but it’s helped me stay occupied. Basically, I wrote books to keep my mind off what Betty was questioning. Doing things, empowering other partners, helped me empower myself sometimes because I couldn’t be a hypocrite and tell other women to make sure they can support themselves and not to stay out of a sense of dependence if I wasn’t make sure I wasn’t doing that myself.

But I also used Betty’s gender stuff as a way of reclaiming being a tomboy, which I wrote about a lot more than I expected in the new book. It was an opportunity to revisit things I had shoved aside and thought I’d grown out of. And of course I hadn’t really grown out of it; I’d just conformed. I like to joke that I “passed” for a regular person. My friend Guy told me years ago I was queer, and I had no idea what he meant; now I do. So in some ways I’ve used Betty’s struggles with gender as a kind of permission to explore my own, which has been really, really satisfying, as well as terrifying. But in some ways too that has helped us relate to each other better, too, which helped. Every partner is going to figure out their own way, ultimately, but mostly people should be in the relationship because they want to be there and are getting something out of it, too.