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Kate Bornstein part of UChicago event on trans* representation
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Gretchen Rachel Blickensderfer
2014-11-11

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According to its website, the "Representing Trans*" symposium held on the campus of the University of Chicago Nov. 8 was designed to "facilitate dialogue between academics, artists and activists working broadly on the politics and practices of trans* representation."

Rather than arriving, delivering a speech and making a quick exit, event keynote speaker Kate Bornstein—gender outlaw, playwright, performer, mother, aunt and advocate to "teens, freaks and other outlaws"—spent the entire day interacting with panelists and audience members and taking reams of notes before an early evening screening of the Sam Feder-directed film: Kate Bornstein is a Queer and Pleasant Danger which presents an undiluted collage of Bornstein's life, mind and unbound spirit.

The film took it's title from Bornstein's Memoir; A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology, and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today. The book offered one explanation as to why Bornstein was not content simply to deliver a speech and move on.

"Yep, I've learned me some lessons," Bornstein wrote in the book. "I've got me some street smarts—from some mighty strange streets—and I'd like to pass them onto you."

To do justice to the subject, Feder's film was constructed with lyrical unconventionality intertwining Bornstein's past and present through intimate slices of life such as performances of Bornstein's plays, speeches, and a look at the family, friends, lovers, opinions, Pugs and pussies that shaped the vibrancy of a completely spontaneous individual uninhibited by politically correct titles or the predominant societal roles formed within the stringent limitations of the gender binary.

In one scene, Bornstein receives a call confirming a diagnosis of lung cancer. The camera lingers upon Bornstein's eyes as the realization of the diagnosis slowly sinks in.

In a post-film discussion with Bornstein, Feder explained an intentional resistance to a traditional form of trans* narrative story-telling. "By nature, those narratives are very limiting and they pander to expectations. But it's also limiting in the sense that it would be such a small part of the story—there's so many sides to explore, emotional tones to hit that can't really be hit with that sort of linear unfolding."

"For me, it was a relief to not be asked all those standard narrative questions," Bornstein added. "I'd gone through the talk shows in the early 90's and it was always 'what did your parents think? Did you have the surgery? Can you orgasm with those genitals?' It was such a relief to just relax and think about bigger issues than the story of my life."

Bornstein once received push-back on Twitter over ownership of the word "tr*nny"—something that was addressed in the film. Feder explained that the scene in which Bornstein discusses the issue was filmed in 2010 and was in reflection to a conversation that had occurred two years earlier. "I couldn't see into the future and how it would affect an audience in 2014. I don't know if people are hurt in that scene but how do we make room to have dialogue around that hurt and figure out what is driving the divisiveness of our conversations?"

Following the talk-back, Bornstein dispensed with a traditional keynote in favor of responding to the panels earlier in the day. Before doing so, Bornstein announced that, after over two years fighting two separate cancers, they are in full remission. The accompanying applause was ecstatic.

"In Tibetan Buddhist theory there are two basic truths," Bornstein said. "There's a relative truth and a definitive truth. A definitive truth? Everybody dies. A relative truth would be 'tr*nny is a hate word'." Obviously to many people it is, but it's relative because, on the other hand, many people consider tr*nny a hard won and loving identity. That argument has not sorted itself out yet."

After listening to a teaching given in New York by the 14th Dalai Lama, Bornstein had reflected on a definitive truth of gender. "It's simply [that] gender is relative. Gender never stands on its own. Gender always depends on something else for its existence."

"Words evolve. Words change in meaning," Bornstein added. "The actual representation of trans* and gender itself changes and it will change [again]. All we can do is ask if our words and representations aid in the defusing and disarming of the violence done in the name of gender. What we need to do is get down to the hard work of forging coalitions within our own people."

Bornstein ended the speech with both a request and an offer. "I'd like to ask you to be eloquent and speak whatever truth you need to speak to bring about the cessation of the violence done in the name of gender," Bornstein said.

Like the conclusion of Feder's film, Bornstein suggested that people do whatever it they could to make their lives worth living. As long that didn't include being hurtful to others, audience members were offered a "Get Out of Hell Free Card" as they exited.

"I'll do your time there for you," Bornstein had declared in the concluding scenes of the film as the camera pulled back from the Jersey Shore upon which an unbridled life of sexual freedom and self-determination was forged.


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