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Gender Rebel: An Interview With Kate Bornstein

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Kate Bornstein is the keynote speaker at this year’s Transgender Unity Banquet.
By Lucy Doyle

During the past two decades, the Transgender Unity Banquet has solidified itself as Houston’s largest annual transgender community event. And for the biggest city in one of the biggest states in a country whose own motto may as well be “Go big, or go bigger,” that’s saying something. Not only can you eat, drink, and dance the night away on Saturday, September 19, at one of the most fabulous events of the year, but you can put your money to work by making a donation to educational scholarships, Pride events, the Transgender Hotline, and more.

I had a chance to talk about intersectionality, Caitlyn Jenner, and tea parties with the banquet’s keynote speaker—the incredible life-force that is Kate Bornstein.

In the Spotlight: Author and gender theorist Kate Bornstein is the guest of honor at this year’s Houston Transgender Unity Banquet taking place on September 19.
In the Spotlight: Author and gender theorist Kate Bornstein is the guest of honor at this year’s Houston Transgender Unity Banquet taking place on September 19.

Lucy Doyle: With your extensive background in social activism, “intersectional” is the word that comes to mind as I try to grasp the scope of your work. As you think about community and coalitions, what alliances with other marginalized communities do you see being most beneficial to the modern trans movement?

Kate Bornstein: Great question, too rarely asked. Trans has the spotlight now—we’ve got media attention. Well, it’s mostly binary aligned trans people, but still it’s trans people in the spotlight. It’s amazing-cool that the world’s first trans star is Laverne Cox, a trans woman of color. The literary face of trans is Janet Mock, a trans woman of color. [So the intersectionality of gender and race] is up in everyone’s face now. Eighteen trans women of color have been murdered over the last seven and a half months. Eighteen. And those are only the reported murders. Eighteen. And that’s only in the U.S.A. So, many trans activists and race activists are merging hashtags—#blacklivesmatter, #translivesmatter, #blacktranslivesmatter. I think it’s the first time there’s been a coalition of the margins that’s been this passionate, and it’s not being forced.

The other alliance we’ve got to make is with youth activists, and that would include parents and schools. Trans youth are being driven to suicide at alarming rates. The latest estimate is that 41 percent of trans youth attempt suicide. What the flaming f–k! In a nation that claims to care about its children, we are seeing too many parents bully and abuse trans kids. Too many of those kids are thrown out of their homes as tweens. And of course, it’s not just trans youth who are killing themselves, and it’s not just trans youth who are homeless—most all homeless kids are those who didn’t live up to their parents’ expectations for how a kid “should” look, act, talk, and what they should believe in. Parents toss these kids out! So, trans [activists] could form some terrific alliances, I bet, with most any other activist group. We could come together to protect all our at-risk kids.

You recently made an appearance on Caitlyn Jenner’s new show, I Am Cait. As a celebrity, she’s seen harsh scrutiny for not being an accurate representation of trans experiences. But as a celebrity with a reality TV show, she hosted a conversation with you, and she appears to make an effort to educate her audiences on trans lives. Do you think she and similar celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Ruby Rose—both of whom identify as genderfluid—can do anything to be taken more seriously by queer activists?

It’s not up to Caitlyn Jenner, Miley Cyrus, and Ruby Rose to do something in order to be taken seriously by queer activists. It’s up to queer activists to do whatever needs to be done to educate trans and nonbinary celebs while they’re running interference for the rest of us.

How might their experiences—as surreal and star-studded as they may be—provide learning points for the rest of us?

We’re watching these people transition. That’s amazing—they’re allowing us to look inside the cocoon as they make their gender odysseys. We’re watching them f–k up under public scrutiny, and we’re watching each of them learn from their f–k-ups. They’re doing the best that they can, given the restraints of what the mainstream media will bear. I’m doing the best that I can to be patient with their learning curves—the same way I’d hope people are patient with me and my own learning curves.

Do you see them joining you for a future panel in the years to come?

Hmmmm . . . let’s see . . . me on a couch with Caitlyn, Miley, and Ruby. Oh, my stars and whiskers! Please, soon! But really, yep. I can see myself on a panel with Miley Cyrus and Ruby Rose. The three of us have queer in common. Caitlyn, for all her genuine kindness and generosity, leans toward straight, not queer. To clarify, straight and queer no longer simply mean hetero and homo, respectively. Today, straight and queer now bookend a spectrum that runs from sex positivity and gender anarchy on one end (queer); and an equally radical sex negativity and binary-gender obedience on the other end (straight). In this way, there are many straight lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and trans people. They just want things to be normal, like everyone else. Nothing wrong with that! We all want that, to some degree. But straight and queer is a genuine division in the world of LGBTQ, etc. It’s a division I’m doing my best as an elder to help heal. But for now, Caitlyn is resting on the conservative side of that divide, while Miley and Ruby lean more toward queer. I do think that Caitlyn just might reveal an adorably kinky side in the not-too-distant future.

You have made a conscious effort to embrace and accept the “freak” identity that comes with being a gender rebel. Auntie Kate, do you have any words of encouragement or favorite books, music, or visuals (including your own, of course) for those who are feeling freakish themselves?

Ha! Well, most folks who embrace a freak identity fall on the queer side of the aforementioned sex/gender spectrum. We are the faggots and dykes, the drag queens and drag kings, the trannies and the genderqueers. We are the sex workers, the adult entertainers, the sissy men, butch women, and visibly sexual high-femme women. We are agender and asexual, polyamorous, and unmarried. We are the usual suspects who hang out at the intersection of gender anarchy and sex positivity. We’ve always called each other family; we’ve always had each other’s backs. And I will always stand up for my freak family, and I know that my freak family watches out for me. I know that self-described freaks are an embarrassment to some in our shared LGBTQ, etc. community. If it’s any comfort, the people we embarrass are usually people who embarrass us.

As to books and music and visuals, I wish you a wonderful time discovering those. Films by John Waters are a good start. It was albums by The Mothers of Invention that set me on the yellow-brick road of freakdom. Books? Gotta be your very favorite porn—have a fun time learning from that stuff. And if you’re not into porn, most anime manga, hentai, and science fiction make excellent breeding grounds for queerdom.

Do you mind sharing what you think the most effective forms of activism may be for a new generation of activists following in your footsteps?

Well, I don’t consider myself an activist. I’m an artist in service to activism. I’d advise any new generation of activists to make good use of their artists. And pay them as well as you can. Please. We have landlords, too.

The feminist and queer movements, particularly in the ’70s and ’80s, were often at odds with one another. How have you seen their relationship change? Has the age of the Internet done anything to remedy or worsen the situation?

There are still trans-excluding radical feminists (TERFs)—most of whom are vitriolic in their expression of hatred and contempt of trans women and—to a different degree—of trans men. On the trans side of things, there are people who want to engage with TERFs, and people who choose not to engage. I’m one of the latter. Those people scare me. So I’m not in a good position to name what’s changed since the advent of the Internet.

Suicide prevention and mental-health awareness are issues that seem intrinsic to your activism. Do you mind sharing what your favorite forms of self-care are, whether it be tea parties, cat fashion shows (I can only imagine how fierce your cats would look in sequins), or simply dismantling the patriarchy?

[Laughs] It’s the pugs who dress up, not the cat or the turtle. I have considered turtle-shell art, but my girlfriend would not be amused. As to my favorite method of self-care, it would be time spent with my Siberian kitty in my lap. We’re good for each other—she has deep, rich purrs. Maui (that’s her name) is an old soft butch—you’d never catch her in sequins. It’s hard on the road without Maui. That’s when I rely on the kindness of strangers.

Have you been to Texas yet? And if not, what is the first thing you’ll be doing when you get here for the Trans Unity Banquet?

I’ve visited Texas many times. Most memorably, I shared a stage with Governor Ann Richards at Queers and Steers. First thing I’m going to do when I land there? I’m thinking it’s got to be barbecue. If you have any other suggestions, please tweet me @katebornstein, or tag me on an Instagram post @katebornstein. Thanks!

In five words or less, what is your battle cry?

Allons-y! (Ask a fan of Doctor Who).

What: Houston Transgender Unity Banquet
When: September 19, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Sheraton Houston Brookhollow Hotel, 3000 North Loop West
Details/Tickets: unitybanquet.com/home.html

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Lucy Doyle

Lucy Doyle is a frequent contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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