Kate Bornstein's Amazing Voyage

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

It was a long road to this new book, and along the way, Kate told her story in different ways in various theater pieces. It was after one of those in San Francisco that brought her another adventure.

"She tends to get holes in her clothing. Her shoes. Her tights. There's something about that," says David Harrison, a trans artist who first met Kate in 1989 after a performance of Hidden: A Gender, which also featured Justin Bond.

"I thought it was amazing. Here was this theater artist who was baring all, and not only writing about her experiences but also playing a person indeterminate in gender. I thought this person must really be in control," Harrison says. "I just had to go backstage and say hello."

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

At the time, David was Catherine, and he hadn't yet transitioned from female to male. "We were together for four and a half years," Harrison says. "It was a very important relationship for both of us. She made it safe for me to look at my own gender stuff."

When they met, Catherine was a lesbian. "I'd never had a romantic relationship with a man," Harrison says. "She knew before I did that I would transition. And she knew that I'd be gay. 'If you transition, you're going to want to be with men,' she said. And she was right."

"I was now a lesbian with a boyfriend, but I wasn't a real lesbian, and he wasn't a real boy—so did that make us a heterosexual couple the other way round? Don't talk to me about paradox," Kate writes.

"We never broke up. It just transitioned into something else. I love her deeply," David says.

I asked him if, as a trans artist, he'd experienced some of the same difficult politics that Kate did. "There are politics in the trans community like there is in the gay community, and I try to stay away from that," he says, and notes that trans men picketed Kate at a Portland, Oregon, appearance. But Kate was more confrontational about things in articles that she wrote about transgender politics.

"She really got slammed from trans nation," he says. "I don't know if she got death threats, but she's gotten more flak from the trans community than from anywhere else.

"There are a lot of people who disagree with what she says, but she's not asking everyone to agree with her," David says.

"When I met Kate in the late 1980s in San Francisco, she was the first trans person I had ever met who wasn't trying to be a 'real' woman and didn't see herself as having been a 'real' man," says feminist publisher Amy Scholder. "Kate exploded all those categories for herself, and I learned how radical—and brave—it was to defy the binaries and be truly queer.

"Kate is not only completely radical and original, she has also had amazing prescience. In her novel Nearly Roadkill, which I published in 1996, Kate predicted the kind of takeover the Internet and social networking would have over our lives. She understood the sort of gender-free possibilities that could exist in the cyber world and depicted the loneliness and finally the sensual vacuity of relating online only."

But it was her 1994 book, Gender Outlaw, that really made her name in the sexology industry, Annie Sprinkle says.

"Kate's book is a bible for differently gendered people," Annie says. "But Kate is also kinky. She writes about sexuality. She's put her body out there in ways that are controversial. She's being herself."

Writing for a more mainstream audience in A Queer and Pleasant Danger, Kate warns readers about that controversial material and even recommends that they skip a certain chapter about her days as a slave to a couple of Seattle women she calls Sailor and Lula in the book.

Tony Lioce, Kate's old friend from Brown, says that material still makes him wince.

"The slave stuff. I was surprised by that. Kate had told me about that," he says. "And I still don't get the cutting, and I'm a little bothered by it. It doesn't seem like the kind of thing a happy person does. But what do I know. Maybe I should try it."

Over the years, Kate has drawn upon her experiences in Scientology for several of her shows, and she admits that she used to worry it might get her in trouble with the notoriously litigious organization.

But in recent years, Kate has started to relax as she has noticed the press and popular culture increasingly expose the church.

"South Park was the first time I started to breathe easy," she says, referring to the infamous 2005 episode "Trapped in the Closet," which revealed Scientology's bizarre upper-level teachings involving the galactic overlord Xenu.

"And I also loved the South Park tranny episode," she says, referring to that year's "Mr. Garrison's Fancy New Vagina."

Some in the transsexual community were offended, Kate says. But not her. "Most trans activists have no sense of humor."

I asked Kate if she is still concerned about some form of retaliation from Scientology over the book.

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