A Serial Suicide Spree with Kate Bornstein

Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

In April, Kate Bornstein, author of Gender Outlaw and My Gender Workbook, was scheduled to appear at Fox Lane High School in the posh suburb of Bedford, New York.  She was invited to the annual Wellness Day to speak about her new book, Hello, Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws (Seven Stories Press).  Following a complaint by a local businessman, however, Bornstein's invitation was revoked.  According to The Journal News, a local paper, the businessman asked, "Why would a person, who is neither man nor woman, who is obviously confused, come to speak about gender, much less teen suicide?"  For obvious reasons, says Kate Bornstein, who shares nearly 60 years of her own strategies and struggles to stay alive, in order to make it a little less difficult for the rest of us.

BG: In Hello, Cruel World, you talk about things to do instead of killing yourself, rather than reasons not to. I wonder if you could talk about this tactical shift.

KB: There are a lot of books out there that tell you not to do it, and how to prevent yourself from doing it. But most of the books that I’ve read are all about how to be good, and that’s the way to stay alive. “Good” being such a relative term, generation to generation. I thought it would just be better to give some alternatives that weren’t necessarily "good." 

BG: I think the riskier ones make the book so different from other things out there. I’m so glad, for example, that you include sexuality as a central focus.  That’s very threatening to people who want teens not to be sexual.

KB: People want teens to be the perfect people that they never really became. Teen, like man and like woman, is an impossible identity. I mean good teen—that includes not a sexual teen, not mean, not a bully, not afraid, not a wuss, not smart, not too smart and on and on and on. I think that sex is just a normal part of life. That’s what you find out when you’re allowed to do it. But by loading it up with so many negatives from when we’re kids, that can be quite damaging.

BG: You invoke a quote by Minnie Bruce Pratt, who says, “Our imaginations are in thrall to the institutions of oppression.” Building on that, you say: “you don’t have to look at yourself with their eyes ever.”

KB: Growing up in the ‘50s, I was part of the first generation of television babies. And this was before there was any kind of real filter. We watch television, we watch the ads, we learn how to be real men, real women, real pretty-much-anything. Real white, real heterosexual, real married.  We were watching the world through the eyes of the sponsor, and that’s okay, but it’s not okay uncritically. If we’re not careful, we’ll start looking from television to mirror, television to mirror, and we’re always going to come up wanting. It’s like me going to Transamerica and believing that’s a trans woman and that's what I should look like and act like. Ha!

BG: Felicity Huffman.

KB: It’s kind of like Felicity Huffman in blackface, or something. You know, look at how ugly I can be.

BG: Yeah, I haven’t seen Transamerica.

KB: Neither have I.  I won’t go.

BG: I can't help but wondering, then, about your recommendation of various Hollywood movies and mainstream TV shows throughout the book.

KB: I'll stand by every one of them.  Abso-fuckin’-lutely. Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Firefly -- that’s radical television.  So is V for Vendetta, so is The Matrix. This is radical art masquerading as, I don't know, action.

BG: You see it as sort of hiding its intentions, but in the end still being subversive?

KB: I don’t think it’s hiding it. I think, you know, it managed to slip itself in when people weren’t looking. And that’s, I think, what outlaws get to do with their art and their creativity. That’s what you’re gonna do. There’s gonna be a hole in the culture and your stuff is gonna go plop and everyone’s going to go “Whoa! Dude! Dig that! Look at this!” And you will. You’ll see. Don’t you think?

BG: I do think that people in the margins very much influence the mainstream. But I also think that people who are subversive, once they get a certain amount of mainstream credibility, lose their original intent. And so I guess I become sort of suspicious. I think that everyone who's doing interesting work should have access to as wide an audience as possible. But I think sometimes what happens is that the compromises become so extreme that they outweigh the benefits of the actual work.

KB: There is always a danger in using written language in talking about complicated issues. You can’t go “wait, wait! That’s not quite what I meant!” That’s why, for example, email is so much less of an intimate communication venue than telephones. And book? Books are etched in stone. Oh, if you dare to write a book, you’re already saying, “I’m a big fuckin’ deal. Listen to what I’ve got to say.” So you’ve gotta keep your head the right size. Like at least talk the language that you yourself understand.

BG: One of the dictates of Hello Cruel World, in some ways, is: “Don’t be mean.” I wonder whether, taken out of context, that could be used to silence people with critical perspectives.

KB: Well, let’s first off address the notion of taking things out of context. People use books on gender to invisibilize transsexuals. “Kate Bornstein says you don’t need the surgery, it’s all social construction. And we, (fill-in-the-blank) insurance company, don’t need to pay for it.” People use what they’re going to use. I can’t imagine how “don’t be mean” means “don’t be critical.”  Especially—hello?—am I being critical in this book? I think so. Have I been mean to anyone? Maybe to George Bush, a little bit. A little bit. But I’m really doing my best not to be.

BG: Speaking of those people in power…at the beginning of the book, you invoke the path laid out by the so-called founders of this country.  I guess I got a little scared, because you champion the fight for "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Those are all great ideals, but when I think of the founders of this country, I think of slavery, genocide and imperialism—and I wonder if your citing of these founders is an example of being, in Minnie Bruce Pratt's words, “in thrall to the institutions of oppression.”

KB: Sure it is. I’m an old fart. I’m enthralled. This is true. And, frankly, I think, going back—the Declaration of Independence doesn’t fuck us over. The Constitution on which it’s based starts to. I think that if you were to look at the political structure that would take us out of the bully culture and into some kind of world that would allow for the good guys and gals to win, then we need to go back to that moment between the Declaration of Independence when they said, “Well, I’m entitled to this shit,” and proceeded to fuck it all up. I don’t think that democracy works anymore. I think democracy has been corrupted to the point where anyone with half a brain or half a million dollars can manipulate to get whatever they want. So we need to back our way out of democracy, either gently or by completely dismantling the fucking government, but it needs to come back to those basics.

BG: One of my favorite of your suggestions is, “Become a more frightening monster than they think you are.”

KB: I would have thought you would have said, “Moisturize.”

BG: No, my skin has gotten so much better since I stopped moisturizing.

KB: Oh, well, you live in San Francisco. You don’t need to moisturize in San Francisco. “Become a more frightening monster than the one they think you are.” Yeah, I like that one too.

BG: On a similar note, I liked, “Go on a serial suicide spree.”

KB: That’s one of my favorites. I think we can use the urge to kill ourselves, which comes up in many freaks, outlaws, geeks, queers, nerds, whatever. Well, that is not a useless or unnatural impulse. But instead of killing our bodies, I think we need to kill off one of those “whos” we’ve constructed who really desperately needs to die. And if you keep doing that over and over again, what we’re going to be left with is a pretty cool Me, a pretty cool You, a pretty cool Who that we can actually work with.