Kate Bornstein's Amazing Voyage

America's gender outlaw takes us on a wild tour of trans-formation

Kate Bornstein's Amazing Voyage

To set up his story of the night he met Kate Bornstein for the first time, Tony Lioce wants me to know some background about a different person—named Al—he had known previously.

"The thing that always surprised me was that Al was the last person in the world who would have been 'trapped in another person's body,'" Lioce says. "Al was a guy's guy. He got more ass than a toilet seat. He was the Richard Burton of Brown's theater program. He was gentle in a way that could now be seen as almost feminine, but it was the 1960s, and everyone was caught up in the hippie scene. He wasn't a tough guy, is I guess what I'm saying."

Lioce was a couple of years ahead of Al at college, but there was just something about the younger man. For the members of Brown University's theater scene in the late 1960s, such as actress JoBeth Williams—who would go on to gain fame in movies like Poltergeist and The Big Chill—Al was a transfixing figure. Someone you naturally looked up to, Lioce tells me.

Photographs by Santiago Felipe; Makeup artist: Shain Kish; Stylist: Leo GuGu; Clothing and accessories: Patricia Field NYC
Photographs by Santiago Felipe; Makeup artist: Shain Kish; Stylist: Leo GuGu; Clothing and accessories: Patricia Field NYC

"I smoked my first joint with Al," he says. "He said, 'Here, smoke this,' and then put on the Mothers of Invention." But after college, they drifted apart—until the big night nearly 20 years later that Lioce wanted to tell me about.

"It was a party for the head of the theater department, who was retiring," he says. "It was a gathering in New York. At that time, I had just heard that Al had become Kate. Nobody saw it coming.

"A lot of us thought Al was so outrageous and would do anything; maybe this was just another of his routines. Maybe he'd be in drag just to be the center of attention. But Al was also one of these guys who would go all the way to the end of the pier before jumping off, you know? Someone who would do anything to the limit. And if Al was going to do that, he was going to go all the way."

Al had indeed gone all the way—and had undergone gender-reassignment surgery.

"Nobody was bothered by it at all," Lioce says. Al was still Al—or rather, Kate—the focus of the party and someone who put everyone at ease. Well, except one person who Lioce remembers took it a bit hard.

"I remember running into JoBeth at the bar downstairs," he says. "She was hammering down the vodka." She wasn't upset, Lioce points out. She was just trying to assimilate what had apparently taken her by surprise. And he remembers what she was saying.

"Jesus! That was my first boyfriend!"

Kate Bornstein tells me she has a different vision of that night in 1986.

"In the musical-fantasy version of my life, JoBeth and I would burst into a Kander and Ebb love song. Generations of talented Brown University–theater folks would sing and dance in chorus to our happiness and our reunion. JoBeth would come out as a lesbian. We'd jump in a cab and live happily ever after in the West Village."

At least, that's the version Kate daydreamed in a draft of material that didn't make it into her memoir, A Queer and Pleasant Danger, which was published this week.

Early in the book, Kate pauses to discuss the somewhat complex relationship her memoir has with the facts of her life. To begin with, she's 64 and admits that her memory is for shit, at least regarding parts of her life. (It has been hell trying to get specific details from her when I have questions about her time on a certain yacht sailing the Mediterranean in the 1970s, for example, but more on that later.)

On the other hand, when she fact-checked certain memories with the people involved and found the versions to be different—as in the case in which her brother has another take on how their grandparents met in Russia—Kate has decided she likes hers better and is just going to stick with it.

Kate's approach, then, is pretty much the opposite of what New York Times columnist David Carr took in his recent bestselling memoir, The Night of the Gun, in which he investigated his own life and printed the facts in his notebook rather than the legend in his mind.

But if Kate remembers some things differently than do the people in her life, it probably is best that she print the legend.

Because the result is some amazing trip.

After her reunion with her old Brown classmates, Kate Bornstein went on to become one of the country's most famous transsexuals, and certainly one of the most controversial.

Author of the 1994 book Gender Outlaw and a veteran performance artist of her own shows, such as Hidden: A Gender, Bornstein has managed to both anger and delight most camps in the LGBTQ universe; a male-to-female transsexual lesbian, she has felt rejected by both the transsexual and lesbian communities at one time or another while she has tried to educate the rest of us that people don't have to be either men or women. It was one of the many revelations in Bornstein's revelatory life that she came to the stunning notion that she was really neither.

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