"If Kate Bornstein didn't exist, we would have to invent her," writes Dan Savage in his glowing account of Bornstein's new memoir "A Queer And Pleasant Danger." It's hard not to agree with Savage about Bornstein and her life story, subtitled "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."
You might think the title and subtitle say it all, but it’s nearly impossible to encapsulate Kate Bornstein’s transition from small town New Jersey boy Al to world-renowned gender theorist and playwright Kate. Bornstein's life can be characterized by a series of attributes that might win her the crown in a Miss Marginalized USA contest: Jewish, transgender, anorexic, former Scientologist, tattooed, S&M practitioner with borderline personality disorder. Oh, and lesbian, too. We'll get to that in a minute, but first consider this: Kate Bornstein's life and work challenge us to consider that really not much in our lives or identities is fixed if we don't want it to be.
Even as a child, writes Kate, she knew she was born in the wrong body. As a young Al Bornstein, she writes, "Whatever it was that boys did, I couldn't do naturally. I learned how to act…I wanted to grow up to be Audrey Hepburn: skinny, graceful, charming, delightful, smart, talented, a star and a lady." Suffering from gender dysmorphia, Al first sought comfort in theater, where he could take on a variety of bodies, and pursue an undeterred path of destruction in anorexia. And then, following a suicide attempt, in Scientology.
Al was initially drawn to Scientology because of its belief in thetans -- bodiless, genderless beings that considered to be manifestations of “pure thought.” Thetans gave Bornstein a framework from within Scientology to practice his own confused gender identity, and he quickly excelled within the organization. Stationed at first on L. Ron Hubbard’s personal yacht, Bornstein developed a critical bit of recruitment technique for the group, moving quickly up through the ranks. He even married a fellow Scientologist, with whom he had a daughter. But twelve years after entering Scientology, Bornstein was ex-communicated from the group amid a scandal. He hasn’t seen or spoken to his daughter (or the children he’s heard she now has) since then and explains: “I’ve been too afraid of the Church of Scientology to even try to mend bridges with my daughter.”
As strange and harrowing as her time in Scientology was, her post-L. Ron Hubbard life would prove to be even more curious. In the years after leaving Scientology, Bornstein launched herself into therapy, and moved forward with sexual reassignment surgery, eventually choosing to transition from Al to Kate. She moved from Philadelphia, where she helped launch a theater company, to San Francisco. She came out as a lesbian (which may be the punchline of one too many straight male jokes -- “I’m really just a lesbian trapped in a man’s body”) and had several long-term loves. She also became the slave girl of a lesbian couple in Seattle, engaging in violent hardcore S&M sessions. There were more bouts of depression, suicidal feelings and self-doubt -- and one comically protracted life lesson from the movie Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion.
If it seems like a lot to cover, that’s because it is, and some of the book's stories suffer at the expense of others. We don’t hear much, for instance, about how she deals with her diagnosis of chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Nor does she go into much detail about how she’s currently dealing (or not dealing) with her lifelong battle with anorexia. We can imagine, however, how she might choose to excuse away the behavior; Kate is largely unapologetic for who and what she is, which is refreshing and invigorating to read. Especially considering the large swath of the population she must offend simply by daring to exist.
Thankfully, as Dan Savage notes, Kate does exist, and she continues to change lives through her plays and her books like "My Gender Workbook" and "Gender Outlaws." We can’t all push so many boundaries -- and all at once -- but we can be moved and inspired by someone who does.