Nina Packebush talks to Kate Bornstein about gender fluidity, writing from the scary places, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
by Nina Packebush
Reading Kate Bornstein’s A Queer and Pleasant Danger is like sitting down to coffee with any old friend. I found myself smiling, nodding my head in agreement, and crying more than a few tears.
Kate Bornstein is a self-described tranny, Jew, dyke, sadomasochist, adoptive Aunty to all the queer teenagers of the world, and lives with Borderline Personality Disorder. She calls herself a female, yet doesn’t identify as either a woman or a man and bucks most labels. In her new memoir, A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She Is Today, Kate talks candidly about her 12-year stint and eventual excommunication from the Church of Scientology, her battles with leukemia, anorexia, and cutting and her journey from “a good Jewish boy” to a transsexual icon.
Kate wrote the book as a sort of open letter to her estranged daughter and grandchildren who remain within the Church of Scientology. She wrote the book hoping that they will read it and come “to see a few more dimensions of their dad and granddad,” and possibly, reunite.
In the mean time, A Queer and Pleasant Danger is an inspirational, moving and funny must-read for the rest of us.
Nina Packebush: You said your PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) stopped or lessened after writing this book. Is writing a form of therapy for you?
Kate Bornstein: Yeah, yeah cuz one of the things that came with PTSD is memory loss and recreating a timeline of my life helped me plug stuff in. Not that I remembered much, but I was able to ask people who were around at certain gates, “Hey what happened?” And that got filled in. So yeah.
Nina: You talk about your anorexia and cutting pretty openly in your book and I love that. I think it’s really helpful for other people to hear you discuss these issues. Do you still struggle with anorexia and cutting?
Kate: From time to time of course I do. They never go away. I haven’t starved myself in over…well in about 6 or 7 years now. Not that I haven’t had the thoughts to or the ideation, sure of course I have. And I still struggle with self-image, but I’ve learned to trust other people when they say, “Kate you look so good.” And I think, okay I don’t believe you, but I trust you. I trust you have a decent pair of eyes in your head and you wouldn’t lie to me and I lean on that trust and it helps. As far as the cutting goes, I’ve folded that into my SM play. I like to cut myself during SM play or doing warrior marks, but never out of self-loathing or self-hatred.
Nina: Was it difficult to write so publicly about the SM stuff? In your book, I mean, knowing your daughter might read it?
Kate: Well in the book yeah, because it was for my daughter, but I wanted her to know, I still want her to know who I am. And I want all my kids to know who I am and I have lots of kids. Queer kids kind of own me as Aunty and I would like them to know who I am and I want to be respectful of people, so that is difficult. Of walking the line of respecting my reader and wanting to give enough detail, but not so much that it’s like that episode of South Park where he writes the book. No, I didn’t want that, so there is a fine line to walk. And where I think I learned to walk that line was in writing that book. I learned how to write about some pretty dangerous stuff in a way that wasn’t mean to my reader.
Nina: You use the word “tranny” and obviously that’s a controversial word in the queer community. Can you speak to that?
Kate: Well okay. I use the word because that’s how I self-identify. I learned the word from my first drag mom Dorris Fish who was an ultimate queen in San Francisco when I was there. She came from Sydney, Australia and I don’t know if you know the movie…the movie with the bus. Oh what was the movie with the bus?
Nina: Priscilla Queen of the Desert?
Kate: That’s it. You will notice in there the relationship between the one transsexual and the drag queen. That’s how it used to be. It used to be that every male-to-female that was transsexual or drag or whatever would do the drag shows. That’s how they’d make money. The transsexuals would save up money, get the surgery, and then say goodbye to the drag queens. And there was a hierarchy. They both thought they were better than the other, but they agreed that there was one word because they were family. And they called themselves trannies. And that’s a nice thing. That’s a family word. Now I understand that it’s been used as a hate word. I get that.
And then let’s take a look at why it’s so hateful. Whenever I ask someone why is it such a hateful word I get, “Well just google tranny and see what you get.” And I google tranny and I get all of this great tranny porn. Wow, yeah so what’s the problem there? Of course there are people who have been terribly wounded by the word and I’m sorry for them. I am truly sorry for them, but I think the vast majority of people hate the word because it’s so sexy and does imply there’s a lot of sex involved in a gender change and I own that and I think more people will be happier if they did too.
Nina: I have a grandson that’s very gender fluid. He identifies as a boy, but will only wear “girl” clothes and claims he’s going to be a girl when he grows up. It seems that recently there’s a lot out there about kids like this, especially boys that show more female traits. There are blogs, appearances on TV, news stories, and even books like The Princess Boy. What’s your take on the recent media focus on these kids? Do you think some of these kids are being pushed into claiming an identity too early?
Kate: I don’t think I’m qualified to speak on that. My point would be to if I were to meet your child I would simply respect his/her wishes and I would encourage the child to not make any drastic changes until their brain had fully formed at around 17 or 18 years old. There are, I understand, some really cool hormone blockers available and I would certainly be all for that. You got a child that’s insisting all along, “I’m another gender than you think I am,” well block the child’s hormones and when the child has become an adult in his or her own mind and in the reality of biology in the culture then let that person decide.
Nina: What is fear’s function in art? How does fear fuel art or does it?
Kate: It is the fuel. That’s why I make art, to get through. I think they’re symbiotic. I don’t think you can make art without fear. You can make great crafts. No, no I’m serious. It’s a different thing. It’s apples and orange. Sometimes I make very good crafts, I make comic books like that, but I wouldn’t call it art. But when I go and make crafts with the intention of walking through my fear it turns into art somehow.
Nina: What can queer artists, or artists in general, do to change the world?
Kate: Nothing. Not a damn thing. That’s just the way it is.
Nina: Do you have any advice for writers?
Kate: Yeah, I guess. Write every day. Every. Day. Write. And write into the scariest parts. When you’re faced with the decision of writing this or that, write the scarier choice.