Katherine (Kate) Vandam Bornstein is a pathbreaking transgender lesbian activist, theorist, and performance artist. Known for tackling social ills and personal pain with joyful optimism, she asserts that “real gender freedom starts with fun!” (Bornstein 2016, 87). This playful style infuses her website and even the title of her 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 (2012).
Born a “nice Jewish boy” to Ashkenazi parents Paul and Mildred Bornstein in Asbury, New Jersey, on March 15, 1948, Bornstein knew by preschool that she did not identify as a boy. This gender dysphoria (the mismatch between her assigned sex and internal gender identity) often expressed itself in a recurring dream that pitted an army of men against an army of women. To end this faceoff, the men would tie Bornstein to a wooden cart and wheel her across to the women as a peace offering. In the waking world, Bornstein also constructed an imaginary gender change machine in her basement at age ten by decorating an old chair with wires and dials. Yet Bornstein quickly realized that she could not discuss her gender identity in the conservative climate of 1950s America. In her words, “I was a lonely, frightened little fat kid who felt there was something deeply wrong with me because I didn't feel like I was the gender I'd been assigned” (Bornstein 2016, 12). On the rare occasions when Bornstein could find any writing about transsexuality, it appeared in pornography or medical texts that depicted her gender dysphoria as a freakish mental illness. From middle school onward, Bornstein’s sense of isolation often caused her to experience depression, suicidal ideation, and anorexia. Yet the constant pressure to lie, to present the boy that others expected, also sparked Bornstein’s lifelong interest in acting, which she sharpened during her undergraduate studies at Brown University. While in college, Bornstein received a psychiatric deferment from the Vietnam draft after hinting about her transgender identity to the military intake physician. Because Brown historically refused to grant degrees to women, Bornstein is now one of just two women to hold Brown diplomas from before 1971. The other is composer Wendy Carlos, who, like Bornstein, was publicly presenting as a man during her college years.
After graduating from Brown in 1970, Bornstein embarked on a cross-country road trip that led her to wander by chance into a Scientologist recruitment center in Denver, Colorado. Though Bornstein is now an outspoken critic of Scientology’s abuses, she was initially drawn to the Scientologist notion that souls have no gender, a notion that seemed to offer respite from her own gender dysphoria. From that first encounter, Bornstein spent twelve years in the Church of Scientology (1970-1982), married a Scientologist woman, and fathered one daughter. In the late 1970s, when Bornstein was based in New York but traveling often for Scientologist recruitment events, she began using hotel rooms to experiment with dressing as a woman, always throwing away the evidence before checking out. However, in 1982 Bornstein faced excommunication when she accidentally discovered the church’s financial malfeasance. Labeled a “Suppressive Person” (an enemy of Scientology), Bornstein has never since been able to communicate with her daughter Jessica, nor (in later years) with her grandchildren, Christopher and Celaina. However, on the chance that Jessica, Christopher, or Celaina may read her publications, Bornstein consistently mentions her love for them throughout her books.
While recovering from her twelve-year ordeal in Scientology, Bornstein found a supportive therapist who was a lesbian, with whom she could start to openly discuss her lifelong gender dysphoria. With her therapist’s support, Bornstein transitioned from 1984 to 1986 to live as a woman. While Bornstein’s father had already passed away by this time, her mother initially rejected her transition. Eventually, though, her mother came to accept Kate’s new openness about her lifelong gender identity. (Kate’s older brother Alan passed away in 2009.) Though transitioning has eased Bornstein’s gender dysphoria, she emphasizes that her gender identity is actually nonbinary, meaning that it does not fit within the dichotomy of man/woman. One of Bornstein’s many quotes on this topic states that “I’m not a man, and I’m not a woman. I break too many rules of both those genders to be one or the other. I transgress gender. You could call me transgressively gendered. You could call me transgender. Me, I call myself a traveler” (Bornstein 2006, 22).
Writing, Performances, and Activism
Since transitioning, Bornstein has emerged as a self-described “sub-lebrity in the pantheon of America’s queer and postmodern subcultures,” often traveling to give lectures on her life and her views of sexual and gender liberation (Bornstein 2013, xv). She has stated that her time in Scientology equipped her to better recognize the cult-like dynamics of gender in everyday American life, like the way American society shames, excludes, and even kills individuals who challenge its dominant beliefs about gender. Bornstein’s queer community stardom began with her many performance pieces about gender and sexuality, such as Hidden: A Gender (1989), Virtually Yours (1996), and Strangers in Paradox (2003). Alongside playwriting, Bornstein also stepped into a literary career in 1992 after publishing a review of the academic book Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing & Cultural Anxiety, by the Harvard scholar Marjorie Garber. This review prompted Garber’s editor, Bill Germano, to ask Bornstein about penning her own book. His question led Bornstein to publish Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us (1994), one of the first mainstream books to speak “accessibly about the notion of not being a man or a woman” (Bornstein 2013, 207). Since then, Bornstein has published many books on gender and sexuality, which have been translated into five languages and used in over 300 high schools and universities worldwide. Bornstein also proudly notes that her publications have been condemned by Pope Benedict XVI. As of 2020, Bornstein is composing her next educational text, Trans! Just For the Fun Of It: Compassionate Gender Strategies for Divisive Times. Describing her mentorship role in the queer community, Bornstein has expressed the hope that younger LGBTQIA people will view her as “eccentric Auntie Kate” (Feder 2014).
Questioning the Rules of Respectability
Just as Bornstein rejects the constraints of the man/woman binary, she also rejects respectability politics. Respectability politics is the notion that lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people must act “buttoned-up” or obey the rules of middle-class decorum in exchange for social acceptance. One way that Bornstein rejects respectability politics is by embracing the label “tranny,” a term historically associated with impoverished transgender sex workers, and which many transgender people now condemn as an unacceptable slur. By reclaiming the word “tranny” and its confrontational edge, Bornstein refuses to sanitize her identity to suit middle-class propriety. She chooses instead to question how classist rules of respectability stigmatize people who can’t or won’t obey them. Despite criticism from some other transgender writers, Bornstein has affirmed that “I’m a tranny who does wanna call myself a tranny” (Feder 2014), and even once dubbed herself “the tranny Martha Stewart” (Raymond 2003). As another example of rejecting respectability, Bornstein writes proudly and pleasurably of her identity as a sadomasochist, and her memoir A Queer and Pleasant Danger (2012) includes her experience as a consensual sex slave to a lesbian couple in Seattle in the 1990s. Bornstein also explains that when practiced ethically, sadomasochism (S/M) gives only the appearance of abuse, and should actually be “safe, sane, and consensual” (Bornstein 2016, 123). In fact, Bornstein draws on this tenet of S/M communities to argue that gender itself should become “safe, sane, and consensual,” unlike the current nonconsensual system that imposes stigma, discrimination, and violence on people who question gender norms.
Mental Health Advocacy
Because Bornstein’s early experiences with gender dysphoria led to depression and anorexia, her activism now also addresses mental health and suicide prevention, including the specific challenges facing people like herself with borderline personality disorder (BPD). This focus on suicide prevention led Bornstein to pen Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws (2006), a book that exemplifies her upbeat approach to painful problems. In Hello Cruel World, Bornstein explains to her readers that “I wrote this book to help you stay alive because I think the world needs more kind people in it, no matter who or what they are, or do. The world is healthier because of its outsiders and outlaws and freaks and queers and sinners” (Bornstein 2006, 17).
Perspectives on Judaism
Though Bornstein is not religious, she has often addressed Jewish identity and anti-Semitism in her publications. In the 2014 documentary, Kate Bornstein Is a Queer & Pleasant Danger, she also self-identifies as Jewish. Bornstein’s parents came from Ashkenazi Jewish families, and her Uncle Davy was a Holocaust survivor with a concentration camp tattoo on his arm. Bornstein’s family practiced Judaism in accordance with the Conservative movement, and Bornstein became a Lit. "son of the commandment." A boy who has reached legal-religious maturity and is now obligated to fulfill the commandmentsbar mitzvah on March 4, 1961. However, as one of few Jewish families in Interlaken, New Jersey, Bornstein recalls that they took care not to “shout about” their Jewishness—for instance, they celebrated Christmas rather than Chanukah (Bornstein 2013, 5). Alongside the struggle of her gender dysphoria, Bornstein often faced anti-Semitism in school, and this difficulty only grew worse when she attended the prestigious (and largely Protestant) Pennington Prep boarding school, where a classmate prominently hung a Nazi flag in his bedroom. In her later writing, Bornstein has integrated this awareness of anti-Semitism into her explanations of race and racism. For instance, while noting that North American society defines her as white and bestows her with white privilege, Bornstein also notes that most other parts of the world would define “my race as Jew” (Bornstein 2006, 74). Regarding Jewish theology, Bornstein has written that Judaism would traditionally define her gender and sexuality as abominations. In response, she writes that “When God says no to your harmless desires, it’s time to find another God” (Bornstein 2006, 71). Still, Bornstein finds value in the Talmudic tenet that every concept has multiple interpretations, and that wisdom comes through examining each issue from multiple perspectives.
Plans for the Future and Beyond
Bornstein’s syncretic approach to spirituality includes her musings on the afterlife. With her signature good humor about religion, gender, and sexuality, Bornstein has written that she aspires to come back in the next life as “a golden retriever that belongs to a great, butch lesbian” (Feder 2014).
Selected Works by Kate Bornstein
My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, a Real Woman, the Real You, or Something Else Entirely. New York, NY: Routledge, 1997.
Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws. New York, NY: Seven Stories Press, 2006.
A Queer & 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. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2013.
My New Gender Workbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Achieving World Peace Through Gender Anarchy and Sex Positivity. New York, NY: Routledge, 2013.
Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us. 2nd Revised Updated Edition. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2016.
Feder, Sam. 2014. Kate Bornstein Is a Queer & Pleasant Danger.
Raymond, Gerard. 2003. “No Stranger to Controversy.” The Advocate, April 1, 2003.