American author, playwright and gender theorist and queer icon Kate Bornstein will lead an afternoon workshop followed by an evening performance Oct. 21 at the Transgender Archives at UVic. Santiago Felipe photo

UVic Transgender Archives welcomes Kate Bornstein

LGBTQ trailblazer brings trademark humour to a nuanced discussion on surviving gender

The story of Kate Bornstein is not one that comes wrapped in a neat little package with a beginning, middle, and end.

This story – of gender, of maleness and femaleness, of adventure and courage and heartache – is a story all over the map, quite literally. Through her words, both written and performed, Bornstein has made an invaluable contribution to the study of gender and sexuality.

She will continue that work when she visits the University of Victoria’s Transgender Archives, Saturday Oct. 21.

Aaron Devor, chair of the Transgender Studies program at UVic calls Bornstein fascinating. “She’s one of our founding mothers in a sense,” Devor says. “She’s always out there leading people to be more inclusive, to be more kind.”

The trans archives at UVic are the largest collection of transgender history in the world, bearing records of research that date back more than 100 years. They are privately funded on a fixed term, but Devor is eager for them to remain, after he says items came flooding in, the amount of which now fills the length of a football field.

Bornstein’s 2006 book, Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws is part of those archives and a workshop based on it is planned for Saturday afternoon followed by a performance that evening that Bornstein describes as a trip down memory lane.

“I think that’s the job of an elder in any community, is to provide context and space for co-operation and that’s what I hope to achieve with this show,” she says.

Bornstein, now “69 1/2,” has made her home of the last 20 years in New York City, a place she calls “an island of sanity in an otherwise insane country.”

“[NYC is] active in terms of art, in terms of activism, there are coalitions here,” she explains. “People do know how to get along beyond race, beyond age, beyond class. I’ve never been anywhere where people have dealt with these divisions better.”

Formerly a Scientologist, Bornstein sailed the globe as a high-ranking officer of the Sea Org, which she documents in 2012’s A Queer and Present Danger. She split from the church in 1981 and transitioned in the mid-80’s, because she didn’t identify as a man, but a woman was the only other option.

“I’m writing about this,” she says of the labels society has imposed, based on its penchant for binaries. “I’m working on a new book, writing about how language has been in a crazy dance with the formation of all of our sex and gender communities.”

While the mainstream is just starting to have conversations around the fluidity of gender and sexuality, it’s been Bornstein’s life’s work. And as the concepts expand, she’s gone back to revise old editions of Gender Outlaw and My Gender Workbook. “I think enforcing a label or insisting that your label is never gonna change is foolish.”

Of the archives, Bornstein is tremendously moved to see the roots of her ancestors’ history. She is grateful Devor is at the helm of the project because he’s taken great care with it. She’s amused by the change she’s seen within the LGBTQ community, and her hope is that it continues to evolve.

“I found out early on … the trouble with gender is there are too many answers and not enough questions,” Bornstein says. “I don’t want to give people answers, there are enough answers.”

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