20 Questions: Kate Bornstein

Kate Bornstein, in her current, carbon-based, life-paradox-ifying, defiant form of the so-called ‘norm’, is the embodiment of so many things that it’s almost as if she’s something more than just human. It’s as if she’s from the future and we, in our primitive state, don’t yet have the language to describe her; ‘her’ illustrating our present-day limitations in language and perception. Lest you begin to think otherwise no, I’m not a Scientologist — and neither is Bornstein, any more — I don’t think she’s really from the future, nor do I think she’s an alien and I don’t think she does, either, although she must certainly feel like an alien in this world, at times. In the time of Gender Outlaw‘s publishing, ‘women born women’-identified lesbians fiercely guarded their ‘territory’ from the likes of Bornstein; gay men had zero interest in a former man become woman (or on the way to becoming — it’s a long journey), and the straight world? Well, ‘nough said. Indeed, Bornstein has something more than a religion of any sort going on — it seems much more terribly raw and human than any sort of mysticism can contain.

Many years ago I found a copy of Gender Outlaw on the shelves of Women & Children First, a feminist book store in Chicago, and somewhere in that timeline of discovering Bornstein’s early work I was exploring my city’s world of ‘gender variants’, if you will. In book stores, in bars, in theatre spaces and in some cases, in private homes, I would meet some of the most intelligent and compassionate people I have ever known — all inhabitants of another world that exists right next to the ‘straight’ world, like a parallel quantum universe. Where did I stand with these people? On the inside? On the outside? Or perhaps I stood in both places at once? My fascination with FTMs / MTFs / trannies, bi, queer, straight-acting and certainly not so ‘straight’ straight people was of anthropological origin, initially (so I told myself, as I was putting myself through college), but one can’t help but look at one’s own self and question where, on the gender spectrum, one may fall — or may wish to step into — by choice, by chance, by luck or design. Thanks to brave people like Bornstein our vocabulary, and our perception of what is human, has been broadened considerably — although we still have quite a ways to go.

Embodying not just gender — but the range of gender — is just a fraction of Bornstein’s complex, complete, utterly compelling persona; she is also the embodiment of a mind steeped in pop culture, past and present. Keep up with her as she responds to PopMatters 20 Questions with wit, intellect and the world of pop culture at the tip of her (pierced?) tongue — if you can.

(See our review of her new memoir, A Queer and Pleasant Danger, Beacon, May 2012, here.)

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

The very first thing you wanna know about me is what makes me cry? That’s deep.

OK— does RuPaul’s Drag Race count as a book or a movie? Of course it does. Well, I cried when Latrice Royale had to sashay away—she is a queen of color, size, and age. She has amazing grace, and she lip-synchs like an earth angel. That was the latest show that made me cry.

I cried when Dream died in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series. Actually, it wasn’t because Dream died—it was more because it made his sister, Death, cry.

I have a tat of her crying on my left forearm, just above the wrist. I mention that because it’s really easy to cut yourself on the forearm, and sometimes Death is bleeding while she’s crying.

PS — I am really really really happy that Sharon Needles is this year’s America’s Drag Superstar. I adore her, and she speaks up for all the freaky people and for that I’m so grateful.

PLUS, Latrice Royale was voted Miss Congeniality AND she’ll be back as a faculty member of RuPaul’s Drag U.

So all’s well that ends well. Except for Death. It never ends well for her, and that’s making me cry again right now thinking about it.

2. The fictional character most like you?

Most of the time, I feel like Candide. (Candide, ou l’Optimisme, Voltaire, 1759.) I can’t count the number of times I’ve set out in my life with a smile on my face and a song in my heart, knowing that I live in the best of all possible worlds—only to get hit with a pie in the face, or a piano falls on my head while I’m walking down the sidewalk, or maybe it’s an anvil, or maybe it’s a bullet in my gut. Candide walks through his life and discovers that every institution he was taught to believe in ends up fucking him in the ass—not literarily.

Terry Southern wrote a smart porn adaptation of Candide, called Candy. Walking the fine line of farce and misogyny, Southern’s Candide is a teenage girl, a beauty who walks through life and discovers that every man she was taught to believe in ends up fucking her in the ass and everywhere else. Loved the book, but I think the film fell flat.

David Lynch could make a great remake of Terry Southern’s book. Candide as archetypal trusting fool has got me writing an autobiographical porn novel with the working title, “Hard Candy”. My Candide is a wide-eyed tranny girl hippie chick who believes in the goodness of humanity. She dies at the end of every chapter, always at the peak of the best of all possible orgasms. So yeah—Candide.

3. The greatest album, ever?

Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club BandSergeant Pepper was the first time I’d experienced art that said fuck you to what would later be called the straight, white, male patriarchy and its evils in Viet Nam. It was hopeful music. It was comforting. It was cornball.

I wasn’t just afraid of the male white patriarchy at the time that album came out, I was afraid of everyone. I was a sophomore in college, just beginning to come to terms with my life’s gender conundrum. Sergeant Pepper culture let me be pretty and still be a boy, and that filled my life with wonder.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

Star Trek. What’s Star Wars? But you need to ask which Star Trek, and mine was The Next Generation. I always identified with Ensign Ro Laren—a complete traitor. Or Ishara Yar, Tasha’s sister. She’s only on for one episode, and she betrays Data, coming as close as anyone did to breaking the part of his neural net that was his heart. And both Star Trek and Star Wars are in the past.

I’ve moved on to Firefly and finally on to Battlestar Galactica. And Doctor Who. My Death tattoo, the one on my left forearm, is one of a whole sleeve of Neil Gaiman’s Endless as drawn by Jill Thompson in The Little Endless Storybook. But I’m working on my right sleeve now, and it’s all about Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who. I wanna add that Pat Sinatra does all my ink. I am secretly crushed out on her.

5. Your ideal brain food?

Check out the field of neurogenesis, where scientists have discovered that when we learn something new, we actually grow new brain cells and we can heal the scars of the brain cells we’ve screwed up with drugs and depression and heartbreak and even real physical trauma.

Well, I have fucked up my brain so badly over the course of my life that I need to learn something new every day. That’s what I live on, that’s sort of what I live for. Every new thing I learn is another piece in the puzzle that is the Meta of life itself. My life’s path has been a road called gender, and each time I’ve learned something new about gender, my heart feels lighter and that’s told me I’m getting closer to the truth of the phenomenon.

6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?

I wrote a book called Hello, Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and other Outlaws, from Seven Stories Press. I get letters every day, or tweets or comments, or text messages, or any other of the ways people get messages to me these days—thank you for saving my life. That’s a hard thing to own when you hear it, but I feel proud when I do own it, so that has to be it.

7. You want to be remembered for …?

I’d like my daughter and grandchildren to one day get out of Scientology long enough to read my memoir, A Queer and Pleasant Danger, and remember me with a smile. I know it’d be a sad smile, and I’m sorry for that. Ummm, okay, this questionnaire has me crying again. The sign of great questions. Thank you.

Right, so I’d like to be remembered by my daughter, my grandchildren, and all the freaky geeky kids and grownups who read my books and it helps them live another day. I’d like them all to remember me as having been a good auntie, or a good teacher—a Hogwarts professor type, perhaps Sybill Trelawney. She taught divination but could never divine very much herself, except every now and then when it was important.

That’s what I hope all my books do for all my kids—shine a light on a future bright enough that they don’t want to kill themselves.

8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?

Right then, in no particular order: Lao-Tse, Abbot & Costello, Doris Fish, Mark Twain, Candy Darling, International Chrysis, Fredric Brown, The Beatles (together and separately), P.T. Barnum, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Holly Hughes, Laurel & Hardy, Norman Rockwell, Suzanne J. Kessler, Wendy McKenna, Laurie Anderson, Robert Altman, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Hermann Hesse, Dorothy Parker, Diane Arbus, Andy Warhol, Joss Whedon, Steve Jobs, Sojourner Truth, William S. Burroughs, Frank Zappa, Lucille Ball, Martin Scorsese, Carol Burnett, Ferron, Valerie Solanas, Heather Lewis, Steve Allen, Audrey Hepburn, Christopher Isherwood, Aphra Behn, Bob Fosse, Rachel Pollack, Truman Capote, Salvador Dali, the Dalai Lama, Caroline Cossey, Shirley MacLaine, Hugh Hefner, and James Joyce. I’d like them all to be proud of me.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

All That Jazz, the film by Bob Fosse. Oh god, I want to make a musical out of my fucked up life. I wrote a play called Strangers In Paradox about a pair of lesbians who are serial killers. It’s 100 percent autobiographical and true. My dream is to turn it into a musical and a film.

Fosse told his fucked up life story with All That Jazz, a truly entertaining film. How awesome is that?

10. Your hidden talents …?

I’m a scary good Tarot card reader. It’s my Professor Trelawney side. I see things that can happen, but not always. I’ve been working on designing my own deck for years. I also know how to stop myself when I get the hiccups—every time.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

“The way you do anything is the way you do everything.” Zen master, Cheri Huber, came up with that koan. I’ve been working on it for over 20 years, now. Essentially, it means that everything I do is practice for everything else I’m going to do. So, if I do something mindfully—anything at all—I’ll be better at doing something else mindfully in the future.

Knowing and using this koan helped me use all across my life the principles I learned in navigating gender—breaking binaries, disobeying hierarchies, staying alive, telling fun stories. If fractals were a life path, this koan would be the roadmap.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

The very best thing is the idea that we are immortal spiritual beings, and as such we have no gender. I got that from L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. I was a Scientologist for 12 years, which is a lot more embarrassing than saying Hi, I’m a transsexual SM dyke living with borderline personality disorder. But for all the nuttiness of Scientology’s beliefs, this one stuck with me. They told me I’m not my body, I’m not my mind. They said I don’t have a soul, I am a soul.

Their word for soul is thetan—an immortal spiritual being of unlimited powers. Well, I’m not so sure about the unlimited powers part but I’m going to hang in there with immortality. It fits nicely with a lot of Eastern and pagan spiritual paths.

When I first got into Scientology, I asked them if there were male thetans and female thetans. They laughed merrily and told me that no, thetans have no gender. Gender is for bodies.

Now, you’d think that with a philosophy based on that strong of an idea, that homophobia and transphobia would be non-existent. Sadly, both are rampant in Scientology and it makes no sense.

So yeah, I borrowed the idea that none of us have a gender, and I’m very happy to give it back to Scientology any day they’d like to accept it from me.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or …?

A mix of Free People anything, and Diesel sweats. I love being girly girl hippie chick, but there’s always this bad girl side of me that has to come out at the same time. And Fluevogs—they make any outfit work.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

Of everybody, it’d have to be Chuang Tzu. He was the world’s first slapstick Taoist master, one of the first great fools in the world whose work got written down. I’d like to trade jokes.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

Oh, now see… this question unlocks my uber secret desire to be a Time Lord. I want a TARDIS.

I’d like to be a fly on the wall in the room where Henry Miller and Anais Nin were fucking. I’d like to follow them both to wherever they went to write after having fucked each other. Or before they were going to meet, and while they were still longing for a great fuck.

Mind you, I’ve never given that a moment’s thought before you asked me the question. But if I had a TARDIS, and a cloak of invisibility, that’s what I’d do first.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

Dialectic Behavioral Therapy (DBT). I live with Borderline Personality Disorder, and it’s the only damned thing that helps me regulate my emotions. Like this piece I’m writing right now—it’s two days past deadline. Before DBT, I’d be panicking and I wouldn’t be able to write it. But hey, voila!

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?

Nicotine, caffeine, and THC. I drink Diet Pepsi, not alcohol, and I do enjoy my e-cigarettes and other smokes.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

Portlandia. It’s got such a high percentage of freaky, geeky people. I’ve always felt at home there whenever I teach or perform there. I’ve always felt most at home most anywhere in the Pacific Northwest, and I like to think I’d move there in a flash but my girlfriend would never go for it—she’s too much of a sun bunny.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

I’ve got nothing to say to President Obama. I have a lot of questions I’d like to ask him, and I’d like him to seriously consider.

I’d start with, what’s a man? what’s a woman? who says we have to be one of two only?

I’d like to talk with him about church and state and how very collapsed they’ve become in my country to the point where so many of our laws are little more than the enforcing of some fundamentalist Judeo-Christian system of morality.

I like that he calls himself a mutt. I’m a mutt of gender. I’d like him to see the connection. And once that’s been made, I’d ask him to do whatever it takes to make this country safe for mutts of all kinds.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

Becoming a star. Thanks for the leg up.