Kate Bornstein's Amazing Voyage

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

There have also been quite a few books published recently by former church members. Nancy Many, in My Billion Year Contract (2009), wrote about the mental anguish she experienced after splitting away from the church she had served for decades. In Abuse at the Top (2010), former high-ranking church executive Amy Scobee wrote that she'd been raped as a teenager by a senior executive, but the crime had been covered up. Jefferson Hawkins had one of the most unique careers in Scientology—he marketed church founder L. Ron Hubbard's essential text, Dianetics, as the church experienced its greatest expansion in the 1980s. His account of becoming the man who sold Scientology to the world, Counterfeit Dreams (2010), is a fascinating tale. And perhaps the most dramatic of the bunch, Marc Headley's escape narrative, Blown for Good (2009), turns his years working at Scientology's secretive desert international headquarters in California into a cinematic yarn.

I've read them all, interviewed the authors, and talked to many other former members about their lives in the church as I've covered Scientology closely on the Voice's news blog.

And that's why I can say with some confidence that none of these recent narratives captures and conveys the hardcore Scientology experience quite like Bornstein's book.

Kate describes, perhaps better than anyone has before, what it was like to become a dedicated Sea Org member during Scientology's more freewheeling heyday.

Al Bornstein joined Scientology in 1970, sailed the ship Apollo with L. Ron Hubbard in 1971 and 1972, and was driven out and declared a "suppressive person"—Scientology's version of excommunication—in 1982. By then, his wife, Molly, whom he had met in the church, had left him and taken their daughter, Jessica, with her. Molly, Jessica, and Jessica's son and daughter are all still members of Scientology and are required by the church's policy to have no contact with any "SP," including Bornstein.

And that's why Kate has never met her own grandchildren.

In the early chapters of the book, as Kate describes growing up as Al in Interlaken, New Jersey, and trying to live up to the masculine expectations of her father, Paul Bornstein, she gradually introduces concepts about Scientology and makes Hubbard a sort of parallel figure to Paul who is lurking in the background (both manly, pudgy father figures).

Kate's relationship to both was consuming and complex. Dad, for example, wanted a sports-minded, skirt-chasing son and was alarmed enough about young Al's virginity that he paid a prostitute to do the honors. (Al balked and ended up talking to the girl instead.)

In college, Al fell hard for JoBeth Williams, but he slept around a lot ("I fell in love with every woman I had sex with") and was also cruising guys so that he could feel like a girl. Having discovered tranny porn, Al increasingly nurtured his desire to look feminine and feel pretty.

By the time Al stumbled upon Scientology—at a mission in Denver following a soul-searching mountain-climbing excursion that almost ended in disaster—he'd been questioning his own ideas about men, women, boys, and girls for years.

At the Denver mission, he met a woman named Molly who started to help him understand the basic concepts of the religion: L. Ron Hubbard had discovered that we are immortal beings called thetans and that we have lived countless times before in other bodies—male and female—spanning a past that is trillions of years old. Our minds are cluttered with obscuring material—the result of past traumas—and only through Hubbard's mind-clearing process called "auditing" could the thetan begin to see its true situation.

It was a lot to absorb, but Al was struck hard by one thing in particular about Hubbard's scientific-sounding ideas.

"Thetans have no gender. Can you imagine a more appealing theology for someone like me?" Kate asks.

It's hard not to feel Al's excitement when, in 1971, he was transferred to the Apollo, Scientology's flagship and home to L. Ron Hubbard himself. (Having found both American and British governments to be hostile, Hubbard the Navy veteran simply created his own armada, named himself its commodore, and ran Scientology from sea for several years as he and his crew of young believers got kicked out of one Mediterranean port after another. In 1975, after getting turned away by Portugal and then sailing around the Caribbean for a while, Hubbard's navy invaded little Clearwater, Florida, and took over much of the town. To this day, the spiritual mecca of Scientology is still in Clearwater, called "Flag Land Base" as a reminder of the days at sea.)

But along with his heady days as first mate and then missionaire, his sexual opportunities with pretty women (Scientology seemed to have a never-ending supply of them), and his numerous "wins" as a hardcore Sea Org member, Al also repeatedly ran into the less pleasant side of the organization. The paranoia, for example. Everyone was under suspicion at one time or another of having committed "crimes" against the Commodore. In that case, the same machine that supposedly helped a person locate and get rid of mental scars holding them back, the e-meter, was turned into an interrogation device.

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115 comments
Anon!
Anon!

Tony, thank you for sharing Kate's story with us.

Kate, thank you, for being yourself and continuing to make a positive impact on the world around you. I first heard of who you are from former SO's among my acquaintance, you have been spoken of with the highest regard.

You have all my best wishes,

Anon!

RungoTing
RungoTing

Sounds like a prety good plan to me dude. Wow. www.Total-Privacy dot US

Rudabaga
Rudabaga

I've met Kate a few times and always walked away saying, "that's about the nicest person in the whole world." Totally true. Can't wait to read the book. Big love to you Kate.

Mimsey_borogrove
Mimsey_borogrove

Hi Kate - I remember you and Molly from the Hotel Martinique days - your office I think was upstairs from the rest of the org. Looking at your pictures you look like you have lost some weight. You look good but I have a time making the pictures fit with my memories of you in a SO uniform. Ah well. I'd ask how Molly was doing but since you, like me, are no longer part of the Scientology world, I guess I'll let that slide. I know how the undeclared sort of slip away as life continues on without them. I must admit reading Tony's article was a bit of a shock as went from: Bornstein? I knew someone like that, to That Al! to Kate? But, you know, it's cool. I have come to realize that life is much like that old Sly Stone song -Everyday people. So good! I wonder where the people in my life went to, and it always a happy moment to find a lost thread of the fabric of my life.

Best,

Mimsey

Heather Grace
Heather Grace

Sensational. It's good to know you, Kate. <3

Rabbi Ruth Adar
Rabbi Ruth Adar

Back about 1990 I had the pleasure of lunch with Kate. I had my own journey of transformation ahead, and meeting her gave me courage.

Blessings to you, Kate, if you read this. You are a blessing.

Jared
Jared

I just finished Kate's book. So amazing, funny, surreal, and touching. I have so much respect and love for the life of Kate Bornstein.

The journey of life is often difficult, and winding. To see someone else's path in such intimate detail reminds me of the type of bravery I only hope to have as I move through my own illusion.

I hope only the best for Kate in the future, and what a great article.

Kate Bornstein
Kate Bornstein

Holy smoke. I made the cover of the Village Voice. Holy freakin' smoke.

It's taken me a few days to get it together enough to comment on this story. Tony Ortega is a brave man, a great writer. When he asked to do this story, I was floored. I'm even more floored by the story itself. It would have been easy for Tony to focus solely on the Scientology part of my life, and I'm glad that he *did* write as much as he did—most all of the people who know my work, know little or nothing about how much of an impact Scientology has had on my life. Tony did a great job laying that out.

AND Tony, you totally got the idea of not-man, not-woman. You totally got the idea of the changing definitions of queer and straight—how queer means less and less *who* you're having sex with, and more and more how cool you are about people having (or not having) sex. Sure, queer is a lot about transgressing gender rules—but it's more important that queer includes the celebration of people who do transgress gender, even if you yourself don't do that. So, Tony has written an awesome queer positive, sex positive, gender positive, trans positive story. AND HE MADE IT FUNNY!!!!!

Tony Ortega, you are one of this country's most accomplished investigative journalists, and I'm proud to have been investigated by you in this piece. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

big love & respect

Kate

Jgg
Jgg

I'm confused: why was she declared suppressive after a full year aboard Appollo? Was it one bad e-meter reading?

Trip
Trip

what would be more admirable would be if people dressed and acted however they like without involving the medical industry and/or constantly fighting back their true sex.

Kim O'Brien
Kim O'Brien

You are amazing Kate ! Thank you for sharing your story ~ great coverage at The Daily Beast too ;)

BB53
BB53

This is an example of sexual confusion caused by mental illness. And this person obviously had a lot of other problems not related to gender.

RE
RE

outlaw how? this seems to be the common trajectory for male-to-trans, no? not comfortable at playing 'masculine' so switches to playing 'feminine' YAWN

scilonschools
scilonschools

Tony, Did you switch off the Scientology Tag on this one on purpose, it doesn't come up on Scientology News feed .

DodoTheLaser
DodoTheLaser

Even though I personally don't relate to this kind of transformation,I do respect anyone who does and their universal right to go through it.And then share it with anyone who is willing to listen. Thank you Al/Kate.Sending love your way!

DeckardCain
DeckardCain

I got the book today. I couldn't put it down.

Kate, you ARE A STAR.

Tony, thank you. I wouldn't have known about Kate without your work. Thank you.

jensting
jensting

Sounds pretty awesome - the book I mean. Oooh, and it's available on Kindle. I bought one :)

(It almost went without saying that Kate is awesome, but I thought I would add it anyway :D )

Jon
Jon

". . . queer and trans activists tried to separate sex from their activism in the post–AIDS epidemic era," . . .

Food for thought.

Ivy Mapother
Ivy Mapother

To paraphrase Winston Wolf, Kate is a character with character. I hope she reconnects with her family soon.

MarkStark
MarkStark

Kate went from thinking she was saving the planet as a Scientologist, to a journey of self discovery that through her books and talks would shake up the way people think about gender, and especially help that category of unique individuals who struggle with gender issues on a daily basis and need to learn from someone who has also lived it. It may not be clearing the planet, but as she knows from the letters she gets, she has made an important difference in the lives of others. That is no small thing at all.

scilonschools
scilonschools

When I first read a review on Kates new book about 10 days ago I thought "This is a book I would NEVER have thought of reading, but I can't wait to get a copy", Thanks Tony, now I am more keen than ever to!!Great work both of you.

Kate Bornstein
Kate Bornstein

Thank you—and big love right back. Next time we meet, please let me know it's you. xoxo

Kate Bornstein
Kate Bornstein

Hahahaha! Yep, I was a very chubby guy back then. Did we know each other? Thanks for your wide open heart. xo K

Kate Bornstein
Kate Bornstein

And blessings back to you, rabbi. We've come a long way, haven't we?

TonyOrtega
TonyOrtega

Read the book, Jgg. She was only on the ship circa 1971-72. Later, in 1982, she ran into the infamous "Financial Police," who only existed a short time. She got declared because she stumbled upon LRH's Swiss Bank connection. It's a fascinating story.

DodoTheLaser
DodoTheLaser

It pops up all over the Internet now. Good.

Kate Bornstein
Kate Bornstein

True! I've got LOTS of mental/personality issues. It's my journey through gender that's been keeping me sane and balanced.

Kate Bornstein
Kate Bornstein

Really? You can yawn at this story? What an awesome life you must lead.

TonyOrtega
TonyOrtega

It's not a blog post. It's the cover story of the Voice. So it will probably hit the web differently.

Kate Bornstein
Kate Bornstein

Taking your love happily into my heart, and sending some of mine back to you. xoxo

ReRe
ReRe

I got myself the Kindle version yesterday and read almost all night long. I always wondered what happened to them after Al and Becky came back to FSO. They had lended their condo to me until they came back. But after that we didn't meet anymore there. Al and Becky were humorous, warmhearted while in the Sea Org - opposite of the common anal retentive Scientologists. I'm glad I read her well written, moving, humorous and very special story! Thank you, Kate!

Kate Bornstein
Kate Bornstein

And this is part of the brilliance of Tony's article—he got in so much more than the simple tranny-in-a-cult thing. He analyzed a subculture and gave it some context. A lot of people have written stuff about me. This is my favorite piece ever.

DodoTheLaser
DodoTheLaser

Indeed and I hope so too. Having a book/s out is a very wise move.

Kate Bornstein
Kate Bornstein

You ALWAYS have good words. Thanks for aiming some of them at me.

Jgg
Jgg

I WILL read the book! The library here in Santa Monica is getting a copy.

My point is that I keep seeing dedicated scientologists "declared" because of one mistake--all their years of commitment didn't buy them any slack (Tory Magoo is another good example--she complained about the OT VII docs not saying much and got booted; so is Shelly Miscavige--one hiring mistake. Tommy Davis--let someone record him admitting that disconnection exists. This could be a book in itself). It is a very heavy handed, cruel organization.

DodoTheLaser
DodoTheLaser

If in doubt about US Banks, use Swiss Banks. Communication formula defined. Cash and gold rules.Every time. Just speculating here.

Jgg
Jgg

" LOTS of mental/personality issues" so did Hubbard, but he would never admit to them

Aardvarking
Aardvarking

'gender' seems like such a meaningless thing to build one's life around.- doesn't strike me as progressive.

Kate Bornstein
Kate Bornstein

Omigod, I so want to get in touch with you. Yes, isn't Becky a remarkable woman? I still miss her. Please do get in touch with me—easy to do on twitter—and let's share stories. Please?

Jgg
Jgg

It's quite complicated: being effeminate, gay, transgender, trans dressing ang misogynist are all separate, ie a man can be hetero but effeminate, gay but macho, etc. among other things. I think it really depends on what the person likes, ie some people are happy with simple role playing, some not, etc.

Kate Bornstein
Kate Bornstein

Ah, then by all means please accept my sincere apology for any assumption that may have offended you. I tried to speak in the spirit of welcoming, no more than that.

Gdp
Gdp

not every homosexual wants to be included in this tribe; not every homosexual thinks in tribal terms

Kate Bornstein
Kate Bornstein

I am SO SORRY if I used queer in a way that made you feel on the outside of some cool club and that you were excluded. I use queer as a tribal political identity. You're gay? Darling, you're tribe. Gays and drag queens were the first ones to stand up and lead the revolution. You're not being left out as "just gay" when people like me say queer. You (like me) have passed the torch on to a new leading edge. You're family to me. And darling, gay has *always* been hip—a jewel of our subculture. Queer is just a weird I use to mean all of that, and I wanted to make sure you know I mean you too.

Aardvarking
Aardvarking

(but I'm not 'cool' enough to be 'queer' (which even heterosexuals can be now) anyway- I'm just gay)

ReRe
ReRe

I'd love to, got to get familiar with Twitter though

 
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