When Kate Bornstein, self-described as a non-binary femme-identified trans person, talks about their remarkable life journey, it’s clear that at 70, the trail-blazing author of the seminal work Gender Outlaw and subject of the documentary Kate Bornstein Is a Queer and Pleasant Danger is still a formidable force to be reckoned with. Bornstein isn’t content on resting on their laurels as a pioneer in transgender rights and acceptance, acknowledging that positions they once held are always subject to reassessment. As the reader will learn from our interview, Bornstein, who’s debuting on Broadway in the new Second Stage production of Straight White Men, is uniquely positioned to broaden our vision on gender in a rapidly evolving world.
What is your preferred gender pronoun?
For many people it’s very important to be acknowledged for a hard-won identity. I’ve been blessed with living my weird identity for so long that I don’t mind anymore. Your editor will probably be upset if I say, “Whatever you want,” but I think it would be fun to alternate “they” or “them” and “she” or “her.” Those are the two sets of pronouns that give me the most tickle. But if we need to be consistent, “they” or “them” is great. It’s an accepted way of saying this person isn’t revealing any particular binary gender. If you insist on “he” or “him,” that tells me more about you than it does me. My own view on pronouns: Is it that we want to know a person’s pronoun or that we want to know a person’s gender? I think it’s the latter. I’m Kate Bornstein. I’m a non-binary femme-identified person. That says it.
What can you tell us about the play Straight White Men? That’s certainly not a title one would associate with you!
Young Jean Lee wanted to write this play about straight white men from the point of view of someone who wasn’t one. It’s a beautiful, well-crafted play about three grown sons visiting their dad on Christmas eve. She doesn’t make fun of straight white men. She holds them to task, but she isn’t mean. And because she’s so subtle, very few people got it. So she invented a device whereby the play is framed by a performance piece. There are now these two performers—Person in Charge #1 and Person in Charge #2—and wherever it’s been done since the play was revised, these two roles have been written for the performers playing those roles. In my case, I get to say, “Hey, I used to be a straight white man.” And then I say, “Well I tried. It didn’t work!” The other Person in Charge is played by Ty Defoe, a Native American trans man. So, we’re two trans people framing this show. Young takes two different forms of theater—performance art and traditional theater—and breaks a binary that as far as I know hasn’t been broken to this degree on Broadway.
Is the performance-art section based on your own words?
When you come into the theater, we’re there to greet you. Our job is to make you comfortable, so we talk with you. We think people will have questions and we’ll be adlibbing for about half an hour before the show. Then we climb up on to the stage and have an introductory moment and [for that] we have a script. The way we wanted to talk about the show was more like docents.
So we get to look at the straight white men in the play with an anthropological eye?
Yes, but not a straight white male gaze. There’s no mistake that [these characters] are the insiders, that they have power and that the pressure in the culture on everybody is to either be a straight white man or be like a straight white man. Or, if you can’t do either those, at least be liked by straight white men. If you can’t be any of those three, then you’re totally on the outside. We’re looking at a group of insiders in their natural habitat if you will. And they are good guys, they really are. Each of the four characters, they’re lovely. They’re as liberal as you could be. You wouldn’t expect this.
Tell me a little about the journey that’s brought you to the Broadway stage?
Acting is what I trained for back in college at Brown. I went to Brandeis graduate school for acting, but then my journey took a major detour when I joined the Church of Scientology before I graduated. These were the days when hippies were trying to save the world and this was the way I thought I could do it. Twelve years later I hadn’t saved the world and found out that L. Ron Hubbard was embezzling the money we were making for him and so I left.
Soon after that I came to terms with what I had been living with all my life: that I am not a man. In those days, there weren’t many choices. You were a drag queen, a closeted cross-dresser, or a transsexual. I didn’t think I was fabulous enough to be a drag queen and a closeted cross-dressing route was just heartbreaking. So, I took a deep breath and moved for a sex change. Doctors told me, “Well, if you aren’t a man you have to be a woman.” Non-binary was not a word, let alone an option. So, I called myself a woman by default. I had been lying and pretending to be a man and acting like a man.
Then I discovered that I was repeating the same kind of behavior, only this time acting out as a woman. I had given up acting when I decided to go through the gender change, but this is when my theater stuff kicked back in for me and I wrote a play about that. This was the 1980s, the heyday of performance art and solo performance. Holly Hughes, Tim Miller, Karen Finley were out there. So, I started writing my own work and started acting again. But then the NEA was defunded by Jesse Helms and our venues dried up.
So, I cast around, wondering how I was going to pay the rent. I had been writing for the Bay Area Reporter, and that led to Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us. I said I wrote it to pay the rent, but it didn’t. But because the book did well and was taught in colleges, I started to get hired as a speaker and a performer on college campuses. That paid my rent for years. But when the offer came through for Straight White Men, I thought I could put my college speaking on hold a little bit for Broadway!
Has your thinking about identity evolved over the past couple of decades?
I first wrote Gender Outlaw to explain the idea of my identity as not a man and not a woman. But my great joy is to walk through the room as a woman. We didn’t have any word for it back then, but my “gender expression” is woman. And that I wasn’t able to express in the first edition of the book. Also—I use today’s language for it—there were binary identified trans people and non-binary identified trans people. Because I was just staking out new territory, I made the big mistake of creating a new binary by saying non-binary is good and true and binary is bad and false. This laid in an enmity with binary-identified trans people which lasted 20 years.
That first edition of Gender Outlaw, while it was very eloquent about a non-binary identity, partially did so by putting down a binary identity. Thank goodness Vintage asked me if I would be interested in revising and updating the book. They thought it would be just a few words here and there. I said, “Please let me correct this,” and it became a lot more inclusionary. I think it will last another 25 years before it becomes cringe-worthy. I think I said in the first edition that I can’t wait ‘til this just becomes history and people will go, “Wait, in the old days you mean there were only two genders? Really?”
And sure enough, here we are to the point where people who aren’t men and not women are performing on Broadway. Ty Defoe, Peppermint, and myself are on Broadway. Justin Vivian Bond was the first non-binary trans person on Broadway. It fills my heart. It makes me cry happy tears that I had the opportunity to say all this stuff 25 years ago and that now I’m able to benefit from having said it. I’m very, very lucky.
Why do you think knowing a person’s gender is important for people?
Straight White Men doesn’t address this directly, but it does address the fact that it’s the gender “man” who’s in charge. And it’s not just man, it’s straight man. And it’s not just straight man, it’s straight white man who’s in charge—who has got all the money, who has got all the power. So, gender becomes an indicator of “Have you got power? How am I supposed to react to you, power-wise? Am I supposed to bow to you, or am I expecting you to bow to me?”
There’s also a completely different way. There used to be this heteronormative imperative: If you said you were a woman it was assumed you were attracted to men, and if you said you were a man it was assumed you were attracted to women. When I went through my gender change in the 1980s, in order to qualify for surgery I had to say I was attracted to men, that I wanted to get married and that my regret was that I’d never be able to give birth. In fact, I saw two different doctors and they turned me down because I didn’t say that. I went to a third who said, “I can give you some depth here in your vagina,” and I said I didn’t need that. And then we went around and around. It was like a little vaudeville routine until he went, “Oh, yeah, you’re a lesbian, oh, okay!” But he was in the minority.
So, for reasons of sexuality and for reasons of power, gender has been important. Not so much anymore for sexuality. But still for power. This play Straight White Men examines how very deep that goes and what it does to straight white men who think about it.
What’s coming up next for you?
I’m working on two books. I have the title and subtitle for one of them: Trans Just for the Fun of It: Compassionate Gender Strategies for a Divisive Age. But, honestly, it’s acting that I love. I’m involved with two other shows that are aimed at New York. They’re both in different stages of development.
There seems to be more of a call for trans actors. I think we’ve passed the age where we need Jeffrey Tambor to play us. More people are writing trans characters and writing them respectfully, with as much love and care as they would any other character. This is a change. It’s no longer all Silence of the Lambs. We’ve been through that phase and someone doing that today would be called out. So, we’ve entered a new phase and I’m just glad I’m alive to do it.
In 2012, when I found out that I needed chemo for my lung cancer, I didn’t have the money for it or that kind of insurance. My girlfriend and a dear friend put together one of the earliest crowd-sourcing campaigns and within a week people who knew me and people who didn’t know me raised $100,000. I went through two years of chemo and radiation and came out on the other side. My lung cancer and leukemia are both in remission. I owe each and every one of those people my life. And I’m dedicating my performance and my writing now to those people who helped me stay alive for this.
As an elder in the trans community, how do you see your role today?
My role today is, once again, informed by what I claim my identity to be. Chemo therapy basically poisoned my bones—and as you get older they collapse anyway. I was close to six feet tall and I came out of it five-foot-eight. You wouldn’t call that little, but in my mind I’m a lot littler than I used to be. And, certainly, I’m old. People tell me 70 is the new 50. No, 70 is the same old 70. Believe me, it is! So, I’m old. What I have always wanted to be is the gender that my mum modeled for me: a lady. My two favorite genders are gentleman and lady and I think neither has a damn thing to do with biology because they are just elegant ways of dealing with others. So, I aspire to lady and I’m little and I’m old. I’m a little old lady! This is how I define myself these days.
Well, usually little old ladies are helped across the street by others. In your case, you’ve been helping other people across their lives.
That’s very sweet of you to say that. People just think I’m a little old lady—maybe feisty because I have tattoos all over my arms. There’s an invisibility that frankly I’m grateful for. And here’s where there’s a difference between a non-binary identity and a gender queer identity. Gender queer is mixing it all up in both identity and expression. My identity isn’t man or woman and that’s why I overlap with gender queer, but I’m not gender queer. My expression, my great joy, is walking through the world like a little old lady. I don’t mix it up very much, but in this play I will. When I was asked what type of costuming I wanted, I said I’d like the audience to know that I’m non-binary. I said, “I’d like it to be reminiscent of some non-binary. Oh, I know, Bowie!” So, I’m pretty damn Bowie in this show! That’s very cool.
Straight White Men is now playing at the Hayes Theater.