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.

“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.

“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.

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.

“If you had mental charge [on the e-meter] and no crimes this lifetime, you had to look at your past lives and confess those crimes,” Kate writes.

After about a year on the Apollo, Al was assigned to the fledgling “org” in New York City. He was sent there with instructions to take it over and “make it go right,” in the tradition of the Sea Org. From time to time, Hubbard himself would come to town, and Al would cater to his needs. “He knew his New York pizza. He would only buy the original Ray’s in the Village,” Kate says.

Describing what it was like to be sent by Hubbard to whip into shape the New York org at the Hotel Martinique, Bornstein again makes the reader feel the excitement of Sea Org life. Sure, they were paid almost nothing, had few resources, and worked ungodly hours, but they were young, they loved the challenge, and they were helping transform the state of mankind itself.

When they were inevitably mocked by outsiders—Scientologists refer to the rest of us as “wogs,” Hubbard’s co-option of a derogatory British term for people of color—Bornstein writes that it only egged them on further. “Wait till we take over the planet,” Kate remembers thinking. “Then we’ll see who’s laughing.”

As a Sea Org lieutenant and then busted down to sales, Al Bornstein knew what made Hubbard’s orgs work: money, money, and more money. “In Scientology sales, we were taught to find a person’s ‘ruin’—whatever it was that was making a person’s life miserable and keeping them from achieving their goals. I could find anyone’s ruin in minutes—and in less than an hour, I’d’ve sold them thousands of dollars worth of Scientology services to handle it,” Kate writes.

“I saw Al once when he was in Scientology,” Tony Lioce says. “That was a little scary. I was still in Providence, and he was in New York being the king of Scientology. That was the one time I saw Al when he wasn’t Al, like he wasn’t in the right body. He was distant. He was glad to see me, and he was welcoming, but you couldn’t talk to him. It was the only time I’ve known him when you couldn’t just drop the bullshit and talk. Every time I’d ask him about it, he’d say: ‘You have to be audited. You don’t get it.’

“And the thing that was especially strange about it was how military it was and doctrinaire, all the things in the ’60s that we opposed. There was no room for questioning, no room for being antiauthoritarian. Of all people to adopt that? Al? It was very off-putting. I was glad to see that end.”

Bornstein’s tale of disaffection from Scientology has a sense of intrigue—it involves Swiss bank accounts, a rogue group of executives leading a series of purges, and hours of intimidating interrogations—but really, it’s the same story we see repeated again and again. After years of superhuman dedication, financial sacrifice, and hermetically sealing themselves from outside influences, one by one, longtime Scientologists tend to reach the same precipice. Forced out through interrogations, disconnected from family members, and simply exhausted by the constant fundraising, many veteran church members go into free fall as they are declared suppressive or simply break away. Some then become the targets of retaliation known as “fair game,” which is a well-documented history of using church-hired private eyes and legal harassment.

But Al had other concerns after being suddenly kicked to the curb. He returned home to New Jersey and, three years later, was ready to become Kate. In this revealing book, we learn some particulars about her surgery. And then, there’s this rather remarkable little detail: On January 24, 1986, Kate legally changed her name—and remained unaware until much later that on that same day, L. Ron Hubbard died.

Officially, it was a transition for both of them. The church has maintained to this day that Hubbard chose to leave his corporeal body in order to pursue even higher levels of spiritual training somewhere in the galaxy. And Kate—well, she had her own new frontiers to explore.

‘I met Kate when she applied to be the advertising director at On Our Backs in the late ’80s,” says Susie Bright, the well-known sex writer. “I was the editor: ‘Entertainment for the Adventurous Lesbian.’ It was such a thankless, exasperating job—no one could imagine selling anything to dykes or that gay women had any erotic or material concerns whatsoever. Our whole magazine was a contradiction in terms to most people.

“I remember sitting with Kate on Castro Street on the steps of a local ice cream store. I was so delighted to meet this person—talk about charismatic! She told me that post-surgery, she could orgasm in three different ways, and I was so impressed and envious. This is completely normal interview material for a lesbian-sex magazine.

“Being a former Hollywood resident, I knew all about Scientology, and we cracked each other up with a few war stories. I remember thinking then, When are you going to write your memoir?

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.”

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.

“My publisher is aligned with the Universalist Unitarian Church,” she says. “If Scientology comes after me, they’ll have to go up against the UUs.”

The title of her book is the same as her last performance piece, which she put on at Brown University to sold-out audiences.

“At every performance, I’d look into the audience for a girl—is that you, honey?” But her Scientologist daughter never did show up.

Carrellas says the show drained Kate so much that it made her ill. “It was driving the trauma into you,” she says, and Kate nods. She had to stop performing and rest, and that’s when she got more serious about social media and built a considerable Twitter following as she worked on her memoir.

Kate says some Scientology critics gave her a hard time for not being vocal enough about the church. “They wondered if I was a spy. That kind of anger scares me.”

But doesn’t she want to warn people about the abuses in Scientology?

“Yes, in the same way you do—with a smile and a giggle and a belly laugh,” she says.

Kate believes that Scientology can only reform if it starts to talk more openly about itself. “Xenu—talk about it. Stop the fair game. Back off the disconnection,” she says. “It’s their insecurities that I wanted to highlight. I think it’s mostly sad.”

In the meantime, though, the church’s policies keep her cut off from grandchildren she has never known. When I asked her how that made her feel, she told me something I didn’t expect.

“I have kids. Tony, I have kids all over the world who read Gender Outlaw and tell me I saved their lives. You think Jerry Lewis has kids? I have kids.”

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