Kate Bornstein leans back in her chair, legs spread, teal-painted fingernails and tattooed hand partially covering the girly design on her baby-tee top. A black and white wrist cuff with anarchy symbols and a gigantic, silver watch peek out under a sheer white sleeves. The 61-year-old, male-to-female transsexual writer and performance artist is surrounded by framed photographs of local leaders in the still-empty Alumni Room at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. But she's grinning about a different set of trailblazers.
"I was just at a drag king extravaganza in Tucson and I had my mind blown," she says, eyes sparkling behind glasses with pink, plastic frames, her lip piercing shifting as she chuckles.
Not that Bornstein hasn't blown some minds herself. Her 1994 book, Gender Outlaw -- a witty retelling of her own journey from man to woman and wry attack on the binary that shackles us all to male or female -- has become required reading in many college classes. In the intervening 15 years, she's appeared on talks shows and stages around the world, making people question the construct of gender. And this week, Bornstein is in Kansas City, adding some spice to UMKC's TransFest, a series of events put on by the college's Queer Alliance.
Honestly, I arrived at UMKC yesterday with a neat set of questions for a Q&A. But, I should have known better. Bornstein isn't the type of gal who answers inquiries in a few sentences. She slides backwards, hands on her head, and answers in a deliberate but mischievous tone, like she's sensuously sucking on a piece of candy. Talking to Kate Bornstein, I discovered, is like an intellectual strip-tease you don't want to cut off.
So, I said to start the conversation, you ended Gender Outlaw with a tone of optimism, the sense that trans folks were starting to use their voices and coalesce into a movement. Has that progressed like you expected over the past 15 years?
"The most heartening development since Gender Outlaw was the stuff I never dreamed of," she said. "Like 'gender queer.' I had no idea about that. That's an amazing identity and so much more than what I would consider the 101 style of Gender Outlaw. People have taken it much, much further."
And the folks at the front of the pack are changing, she added.
"The face of transgender to the public used to be a middle-aged male-to-female -- a guy in a dress," she explained. "The new face of transgender is the young f to m [female-to-male]. It's been such a wild cultural evolution in a short period of 15 years and a lot of it has to do with the plague [AIDS] years, when so many of the fabulous queens died in the '80s and '90s and the torch was passed on to the drag kings and the 'f-to-m's. And they're carrying it in a whole different way than the queens did. The drag queens were all about the fabulous and all about the beauty. They were never much about the politics. But the drag king shows I've seen are healthy doses of fabulous and performance art and politics. That's heartening."
What about the other side of the coin, I asked. What's been disappointing?
"What's disheartening is how the battle cry of Stonewall became 'We're just like you,'" she said. "And it got applied to transgender people, too. 'We're just like you'? Um, no, we're not. ... What you've got now is second-wave LGBT [activists], who, for the most part, are straight people -- straight lesbians, straight trans people -- who want to be just like everybody else. That's self-defeating."
So where does the "T" fit into LGBT, I asked. Because, plenty of trans folks aren't gay and plenty of gay people are offended by the blanket term "queer."
"Well, I think the problem is we haven't finished naming all our family members," she said. "We can't stop our family at LGBTQ -- I can count close to 30 initials for people who define themselves primarily in performance or life by sexuality and gender. But we've not found an umbrella term that works for everybody. I know 'queer' doesn't. And, out of those many letters, we haven't really figured out the common thread to this family we're putting together. I think the common thread is that we're all people who are sex positive and, to some degree, gender anarchists. But the first line of battle of any sex- and gender-based movement has to be stop the violence against women. That would unite a movement, a sex- and gender-based movement."
Sadly, by this time, students and activists were starting to file into the room for an afternoon round-table with the trans-activist, so I had to let Bornstein go. But she's performing a one-woman show tonight at UMKC. Catch "Dangerous Dreams and Damned Desires" in Royall Hall room 104 at 7 p.m. (Seriously.)