Many people probably recognize Kate Bornstein’s name from her books, including Gender Outlaw and My (New) Gender Workbook. She was also the second woman to ever receive a degree from Brown University. An author, performance artist, gender theorist, activist, and self-proclaimed trans-dyke, Bornstein has been an inspiration to many in the gender non-conforming community for decades.
Sam Feder has recently completed a documentary about Bornstein’s life, entitled Kate Bornstein Is a Queer and Pleasant Danger, a play on the title of her recent memoir. The film combines animation, interviews, verite, and archival footage of Bornstein’s performances and lectures.
Instead of following a linear progression from childhood to the present day, the documentary is fluid and organic, making it feel like a conversation rather than an explicit narrative. I felt like I had gone to visit Bornstein in her home, and to chat with the people in her life closest to her. The film left me with the sense that I’d really love to meet Bornstein in person.
The film doesn’t focus on Bornstein’s transition as a life event, in the sense of a clear before-and-after narrative. Bornstein does, however, discuss her place on the gender spectrum.
Bornstein said she identified as a woman for the first six months after her transition. But then, she says, smart lesbians started to question her about how she could identify that way when she wasn’t raised or socialized as a woman.
Now, Bornstein opts out of the male/female binary altogether. Bornstein explained that post-modern theory is the idea that things have more than one meaning at the same time, and queer theory is post-modern theory applied to the body. Which means that people can have more than one meaning – or more than one gender – at the same time, too.
“We teach what we most need to learn….When I wrote Gender Outlaw, I needed to learn about gender,” Bornstein said. “I know I’m not a man, and a lot of people told me I’m not a woman, so I extrapolated.”
Bornstein is one of the individuals who self-identifies as a tranny, though she’s been accused of being transphobic because of it. Bornstein believes that “tranny” is to trans what “fag” is to gay or “dyke” is to lesbian. “It’s a more queer form of sexuality – more bent,” she explains; the aversion to words like tranny “is a class thing – a sex-negative thing.”
Bornstein is also honest about her involvement in the Church of Scientology. She says that what first drew her to Scientology is the idea that “people are not minds, not bodies, but immortal spiritual beings with no gender.” Bornstein left Scientology after 12 years. But now, since she is considered a “suppressive person,” she can have no contact with her daughter, who still practices Scientology, or her grandchildren.
Another important theme in the film is how we find a reason to stay alive. The son of one of Bornstein’s dear friends committed suicide. “I couldnt answer question of why to stay alive,” Bornstein said. Instead, she attempted to answer the question, “What makes life more worth living?” which was the impetus for Hello, Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws.
Bornstein identifies three keys to making life worth living: identity (Who am I? Who do I want to be?), desire (What do I want? Who do I want to fuck?), and power (Do you have access to the resources you need to make your life worth living?)
The documentary also touches on Bornstein’s own brush with lung cancer, which caused her to come face-to-face with her own reasons for living. “For the first time in my life, I realized I wanna stay alive,” Bornstein said. “I don’t know why.”
At the end of the film, Bornstein provides an imperative to her viewers. “You do whatever it takes to make your life worth living. Anything at all. It can be illegal, immoral, self-destructive. There’s one rule – don’t be mean.”
The film makes it clear that Bornstein’s life is full of colorful, creative, and loving people who support her. Bornstein’s unique sense of personal style extends to the décor of the home she shares with Barbara Carrellas, her partner of 14 years. “I reveal more and more of myself and I’m surprised by how many people still welcome me,” Bornstein said.
Bornstein said her talks used to be full of straight people, with maybe one trans person in the audience. “Now, talks are full of trans and genderqueer kids, butch lesbians. Look how far you’ve come. You’re living my dream and I’m so proud of you.”
We’re proud of you, too, Auntie Kate.
Kate Bornstein Is a Queer and Pleasant Danger made its Southwest debut at aGLIFF Friday, Sept. 12 at 5:15pm at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar.
This review was originally published by The Horn on 09/11/2014.