Sunday, July 7, 2013

A Queer and Pleasant Danger: A Memoir by Kate Bornstein

Nobody can accuse transgender activist and performance artist Kate Bornstein of having a boring life. Her memoir A Queer and Pleasant Danger is "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." Never a dull moment, from signing a billion-year contract with Scientology, to being a willing sex slave to a pair of West Coast lesbians.

Bornstein is comfortable with paradox, writing, "Paradox? Bring it on." "I was born male and now I've got medical and government documents that say I'm female -- but I don't call myself a woman, and I know I'm not a man... " Refusing to claim a gender has got her into trouble with other transwomen. She also took a controversial stand on women-only spaces that forbade admission to transwomen: "I thought every private space has the right to admit whomever they want -- I told them I thought it was their responsibility to define the word woman. And I told the transwomen to stop acting like men with a sense of entitlement. So everyone was pissed off at me."

Kate is attracted to women, so she hangs with lesbians. I know from a lesbian-identified transwoman friend living in England that it isn't easy finding community. There's also the example of Judy, the transsexual in Anne Wheeler's film, Better than Chocolate. Anyway, things got even more complicated for Kate when Catherine, her partner for several years, decided to become David. "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."

I found the Scientology stuff the most shocking aspect of this book. Long before sex-reassignment surgery, Bornstein was an officer on L. Ron Hubbard's flagship yacht, the Apollo. He married another officer, Molly, and when they were expecting a child, they were transferred to land duty. "Molly and I were a pair of perfectly trained theologically guided missiles." "Before they fired us out on our mission, we had to prove to the Action Chief that we knew precisely where our mission fit into Ron's plan to take over the planet." Their daughter Jessica was born in 1973.

Bornstein was later excommunicated and hasn't seen Jessica since she was about 8. A Queer and Pleasant Danger is dedicated to Jessica and to Bornstein's two grandchildren, whom she has never met, since they are all still within the cult. Bornstein hopes that Jessica will read this book at some point... which makes things awkward when it comes to sex. Readers are given the opportunity to skip over the graphic descriptions of sadomasochistic sex play. The e-book has a link, while the paper edition advises "please skip to the middle of page 218." The graphic part is only 2 and a half pages long.

Anorexia, cutting and suicide are some of the other very personal subjects that Bornstein tackles honestly in this memoir. She ends with a handful of life lessons as an offering to her daughter. "Don't be mean" is my favourite. The one that surprised and delighted me most is "Watch and read a lot of science fiction and fantasy -- the good stuff." (Not mediocre stuff by L. Ron Hubbard.)

I plan to follow that advice. It just so happens that I've been wanting to re-watch the Star Wars movies, spurred on by Camille Paglia's Glittering Images (where she calls George Lucas the greatest living artist) and Jeffery Brown's hilarious books, Darth Vader and Son and Vader's Little Princess (which may cause me to giggle at inappropriate moments when I see the films).

Bornstein is a brave and funny gender outlaw and her memoir is unforgettable.

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