Kate Bornstein's Amazing Voyage

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

"Kate is an icon in our community," says civil rights attorney and lesbian activist Yetta Kurland. "She's really a national figure. She endorsed me when I ran for City Council, and it was one of the highlights of my campaign. What is so important about her is that she encourages people to think about difference, and she does so with such gentleness and humanity.

"I think of her as a gentle giant," Kurland says.

Kate inhabits a spacious apartment in East Harlem with Mollyanna the pug and Calla Lily the puggle, three cats, a turtle, stacks of books (some written by her and some by her girlfriend, Barbara Carrellas), and the wall hangings, mementos, and trophies of the life of a celebrated performer on the college talk circuit. When I noticed a golden trophy of a stiff cock with wings, she swiped it off the shelf and posed with it for a photo.

She's like that.

I've gotten to know Kate over the past year, mainly through Twitter and the Voice website, and meeting her in her apartment felt like an event. Smoking an electronic cigarette and wearing a Cheshire-cat grin, she sat in her living room as I got to know her and Carrellas and the animals.

Carrellas is enjoying considerable attention of her own for her 2007 book, Urban Tantra, and other sex writing. She spent years working in the theater and had been a general manager on Broadway. After the AIDS epidemic devastated the theater community, she left the large shows and took on edgier performance artists.

"She was representing all of the important ones in New York—except me," Kate says.

I asked how they met, and they credited Annie Sprinkle, who brought them together in 1997.

Sprinkle, the well-known former porn actress (today she's promoting her "eco-sexuality" performance art), says it was in San Francisco that the three of them came together.

Carrellas had booked Sprinkle at the Cowell Theater in San Francisco, and Kate came to the performance.

"There was definitely a spark between them. I was just thrilled to introduce them. I adored them both," Sprinkle says. "I'm a huge fan of Kate's writing. She's super famous in the sex world. There's probably no one in the world of sexuality who hasn't heard of her."

Kate and Barbara are both celebrities in the world of sexology, and it has them on a constant schedule of appearances, giving talks and workshops about sex and gender.

"Colleges bring me out to the campus. That's how I pay the rent," Kate says. And part of her notoriety comes from the dustups she gets involved in.

"There's a whole new generation of radical trannies coming up who won't let me use the word 'tranny,'" she says with a laugh.

Kate ruffled feathers when she would write that even though she had gender-reassignment surgery, she's still not a woman. "This was a big blow to trans people—trans women mostly—whose identity was legitimized by all those medical hoops. So what I said was taken as a direct attack on the validity of their identities as real women," she says.

"I got hit by lesbian feminists, then trans feminists hit me." For years, Kate says, queer and trans activists tried to separate sex from their activism in the post–AIDS epidemic era. But that's changing. "The scene has changed. It's not who's fucking whom; it's how cool can you be about people fucking each other."

Much of her memoir describes her changing ideas about her own body and the sexual politics she encountered as she transitioned. But this is not just another one of her books about gender.

The number-one reason she wrote the book (and she's clear about it in the book itself) was for her daughter and grandchildren. "I want them to see if they want to look. Writing the book has allowed me to let go of the need to reach out to them," she says.

Kate hasn't seen her daughter, Jessica, since 1980. She has never seen her two grandchildren. She's hoping that her book is popular enough that a copy will fall into their hands and provide them with a detailed explanation of how she got to be who she is today—a transsexual, Jewish, lesbian, bipolar, masochistic cutter.

I told her that it did seem like an odd strategy—that in order to reach out to a daughter who has shunned her for more than 30 years, she would do so with graphic descriptions not only of her gender transformation, but also of her s&m adventures.

She nodded, knowingly, and smiled. "It's not the transgender issue she would have a problem with—it's that I left Scientology."

There are many books on Scientology, but last year's Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion, by Rolling Stone writer Janet Reitman, was the first mainstream, journalistic telling of the church's history in many years, and the only one to have such reach. Well reviewed and widely read, it should remain the most popular book on the church for some time—at least until New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright comes out with the book he's creating from his giant profile on screenwriter-director and ex-Scientologist Paul Haggis, which the magazine published last year.

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