Transgender activist. Scientologist. Father. Husband. Playwright. Author. These are just some of the hats Kate Bornstein has donned over the last 64 years. In her new memoir, A Queer and Pleasant Danger, Bornstein documents her evolution from nice Jewish boy to outspoken activist.
Dedicated to her estranged daughter, a prominent member of the Church of Scientology, the book is candid and revelatory. Windy City Times recently caught up with Bornstein to talk TomKat, life on a yacht and why she believes it doesn't get better.
Windy City Times: What motivated you to write an autobiography?
Kate Bornstein: This book is my way of reaching out to my daughter, who I haven't seen in years. She's in Scientology, so she's not allowed to talk to me [because I left the church].
WCT: Has it worked? Has she reached out to you?
Kate Bornstein: Oh, goodness, no. Scientology is undergoing huge upheavals right now as more and more of its [private information] gets exposed on the Internetespecially with this whole TomKat [Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes] thing. But that's not going to end [Scientology's] stance that members in good standing cannot talk to members who aren't in good standing.
I have higher hopes now than when I wrote the book because I see how far it's getting into people's hands. So maybe someday someone will know someone who knows someone who knows [my daughter] Jessica Leah Baxter, and they will say: "Hey, your dad wrote you a book." That would be cool.
WCT: What initially attracted you to Scientology?
Kate Bornstein: I grew up trans in a world where the only trans figures were Christine Jorgensen and Tula. … All the really out, brave trans people were in Europenot the United Statesso I didn't really know what to do with my life as a trans person.
[Before joining], I always thought it made sense that life goes on after deaththat we keep repeating things. That's logical to me because everything else transforms into something else. There's no evidence of stasis in the physical universe. I assumed spirits would behave in the same manor.
What Scientology brought to the table was: Not only are you an immortal, spiritual being, but you also remember all of your lifetimes, and you've spent lifetimes as men and women.
I was like, "Wait a minute. So this spiritual being that you say I amScientologists call it a thetandoes it have a gender? Are there male thetans and female thetans?" They just laughed. 'No, of course not. Gender is for bodies.' Well, holy shit. That makes sense. And it still makes sense to this very day.
WCT: That seems like a welcoming concept.
Kate Bornstein: You'd think that, but here's where it goes off the rails: Scientologists are extremely homophobic and transphobic, and I could never get them to explain to me why. If thetans have no gender, what does it matter who we fuck, or how we fuck, or what we clothes we put on our bodies? What does it matter? But for L. Ron Hubbard [the founder of Scientology], homophobia was completely implanted.
WCT: Speaking of Hubbard, you write in your memoir about being first mate on his yacht.
Kate Bornstein: In the early days, maybe around 1970, Hubbard had kind of outlasted his welcome in a whole lot of countries. He moved his headquarters aboard this huge yacht.
I started out as a deck hand, and honestly, the first five or six months I was on that ship were probably some of the best times of my life. All I did was physical work all day longout at sea, under the stars. That was a terrific time, but it all went to hell in a handbasket when I got transferred to marketing and public relations, and I got into the inner workings of how Hubbard really dealt with people, and how he manipulated people.
At one point, I was first mate of the fucking yacht. [Laughs] I was second only to the captain, and I didn't know anything about it. They tell you: 'Well, you've done it in your past life. Remember it.' I swear to God that's what they told me.
WCT: So you had never sailed before?
Kate Bornstein: No! No. No. [Laughs] I knew how to tie some sailor knots, but that's it. One of the things the first mate is in charge of is the lifeboatswe had eight of themso I said, okay, let's see how they're doing. Five of them wouldn't lower; two of them lowered and kept on going under the water. The only one that worked was L. Ron Hubbard's lifeboat. It was the only one with a motor.
And we didn't fix anything. We didn't have money to. Oh, well. [Laughs]
WCT: You mentioned TomKat earlier. What's your take on their situation?
Kate Bornstein: I'm what's called a suppressive person, or an enemy of the church, because I left. There are lots of us now, but Katie Holmes is the biggest suppressive person they've ever had to face. She stood up to them like no one else has, and she got what she wanted… Scientology really wants this one swept under the carpet. It brought a whole lot to light. For example: the leader of Scientology, David Miscavigehis wife hasn't been seen for over seven years. There are plenty of theories, but the church isn't saying, and neither is David.
Another thing: The divorce settlement gave Tom visitation rights with Suri. Now, if it wasn't Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes … let's say it was just a regular Scientology couple like I used to be part of [with my ex-wife and daughter], and one spouse leaves the church and takes the kidwell, that child is now a potential trouble source, so the Scientologist parent can't see them.
Tom Cruise has been given special dispensation to see Suri. So why isn't the church giving that same dispensation to the rest of us who have relatives in Scientology? That's a little storm that's brewing right now.
WCT: You posted an "It Gets Better" video in 2010, but you originally said you wouldn't.
Kate Bornstein: There were a whole lot of times in my life that weren't better, and it was during one of those times when that campaign started. Four years before that, when I wrote Hello, Cruel World, [Bornstein's self-help book] I wanted the whole back cover to say nothing but "It gets better."
But the fact is, it doesn't. You get better at making it better. You get to break rules in order to make it better. You get to break laws in order to make it better. You get to abandon systems of morality and ethics in order to make life better. Because really the only rule that matters is: Don't be mean. Other than that, you can do whatever the fuck you want.
But that kind of permission hasn't been given to the queer communityhasn't been taken by the queer communityuntil recently. In the past ten years, people have been giving themselves more and more permission to live their lives bravely, but there's still so much shame connected with it. [With the video], I was saying: No, no, no. Feel free.
Bornstein will perform "On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us" at the Center on Halsted Saturday, Aug. 4, 6:30-8 p.m. Bornstein will also be at Women & Children First Bookstore Thursday, Aug. 2, 7:30 p.m. with Sabrina Chap and Stephanie Howell. To learn more about Bornstein, visit katebornstein.typepad.com . For performance info, visit www.centeronhalsted.org .