I’m not particularly religious but I have read some
of the Old Testament. I am familiar with the story of Lot, and the towns of
Sodom and Gomorrah where buggery was so rampant that even the angels of the
Lord that visited there were at risk of being violated. Hence it was with an
element of trepidation that I attended a lecture at the University of
Lethbridge Saturday evening presented by that institution’s Student Union (Gay)
Pride Centre. It was the keynote event of a four day workshop and lecture
series on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered issues, called Outspoken
I had perverse visions of ending the evening half
naked in an alley somewhere, brutally neutered, a pathetic, ragged -ass poster
boy for Preparation H, and worse, maybe even liking it.
My fears weren’t lessened any when I saw the keynote
speaker, Kate Bornstein. Once a Jewish male, Ms. Bornstein is now a 64 year
old, transgendered- woman. She is also an author, performer, play-write and
Her appearance is something she calls diesel femme.
Her stylish blonde hair and perky horn rimmed glasses were contradicted by a tough
looking black tank top and enough tattoos on her arms for any three big-rig
truckers. A visual dichotomy this woman gave the appearance of someone you
don’t mess with. I again figured that maybe this white boy was in for an ass
kicking, queer style.
Perhaps sensing my apprehension Ms. Bornstein
approached me in the lecture hall and introduced herself. She came across as
bright, articulate, reasoned and personable, an easy person to like,
appearances, history and reputation notwithstanding.
To say that Kate Bornstein wowed the audience would
be understatement. For just over two hours she theorized on what makes life
worth living and how people can make their own lives worth living, particularly
those faced with the challenges of being lesbian, gay, bisexual or
transgendered. She postulated that fully realizing one’s identity and desires,
and accessing resources is compromised by a hierarchical system of oppression
made up of binaries such as gender, sexuality, class, language, political
ideology and family. These binary constructs traditionally provide two
dichotomous choices and are characterized by their requirement for yes or no
answers. With respect to social class, for example, the choices are worker and
owner. All people are one or the other and the question, is which are you? Are
you are worker, yes or no? Are you an owner yes or no. There are no other apparent
Ms. Bornstein suggests that answering yes or no to
such questions promotes the myth that there are only two choices, and that it limits
the potential of the individual. With respect to gender and sexuality, for
example, there is more than just male and female or heterosexual and
homosexual. In fact these two binaries contain at least 750 diverse categories
including straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual (no sex) transgendered,
inter-sexed (not fitting either male or
female), sadomasochist, kinky, and a host of others ranging even to people who
have sexual attraction to stuffed animals (plushies). It’s a complicated world.
And the question is, in a complicated world that
people insist on approaching in a black and white, yes or no fashion, how does
one make life worth living? Ms. Bornstein advocates world peace through sexual
positivism and gender anarchy or G.A.S.P., the acronym achieved if you
rearrange those words. She suggests challenging binary constructs such as
gender and sexuality through mindfulness. This can defuse the emotional, gut
level triggers that binary thinking can generate, triggers such as the word
faggot which can produce a knee jerk emotional response devoid of any conscious
realization that the person being referred to is a human being.
She is also an advocate of the radical welcoming of
people different than you and suggests that there has never been a politic
based on compassion. My take on that is that people have certainly tried the
compassionate route; Christ and Gandhi are examples but they were killed for
their efforts. And in Christ’s case his message has been so analyzed and
interpreted and argued over that its meaning has been largely obscured in fine
print and rhetoric.
On a personal level Kate Bornstein advocates doing
whatever is necessary to make life worthwhile providing that does not involve
being mean. If that brings you into conflict with your God she says find
another one; there are plenty out there. And while, from a personal
perspective, that seems a radical and overly simplistic concept who among us,
Christian or atheist, can say that we have never harmed another human being and
have given up being mean, even to ourselves?
In keeping with her advice Ms. Bornstein provided
each audience member with a "Get out of Hell Free" card. Apparently some time
back, on a beach in New Jersey, she had a talk with the devil and offered to
serve time in hell for anyone who was sent there for doing anything that wasn’t mean to someone. The devil laughed but took her up on her offer.
I suspect, however, that Kate Bornstein has already
served her time in hell and won’t be returning there any time in future. At
least that is my hope.
She has paid her dues. On six different occasions
life’s circumstances brought her to the brink of suicide. Her experiences in
this regard served as inspiration for her book, "Hello Cruel World: 101
Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws."
Ms. Bornstein’s keynote address was enlightening,
entertaining and educational. I wish her well and thank her for the "Get out of
Hell Free" card. I just might need it.