Interview: Kate Bornstein with David Harrison
By Nancy Reynolds Nangeroni
with Mariette Pathy Allen
Nancy: Kate, you’re a long time member of this community, aren’t you? Were you ever a Tapestry subscriber?
Kate: Oh no, I was a Tapestry sneaky buyer, I would buy it and look at the ads and just wish and wish and wish… I wish I could have had the courage to go through with crossdressing when I was a boy.
Mariette: When I met you in Philadelphia, weren’t you part of a community there?
Kate: Yes, that was later, and there was some kind of crossdressing group in New Jersey, Cherry Hill or something, and you were photographing them at the time, and I was going through my ‘Madonna wannabe’ stage, you know, lace and leather and all that stuff.
Nancy: David, where do you come from? Obviously you’re British…
David: Yea, I’ve lived in Canada and I’ve been here for 15 years. I lived with a Lesbian for about 15 years, and about 10 years ago I did something called SF Sex Information which was really my first introduction to differently-gendered people. That was the first time I thought about myself possibly but then I just chucked it away. What happened in the meantime is I became a professional dominatrix. Actually, a lot of my clients were crossdressers. And I was also involved with some other MTF transsexuals back then. But I think what helped me go thru this change was that being with Kate made it safe for me to actually deal with the issues. I’ve been around it for awhile but it was very, very difficult to face it for myself. It was much easier to see it in other people but to actually deal with my own stuff ….
Mariette: How did you and Kate meet?
Kate: In my show, ‘Hidden, A Gender<SP?>’…
David: Yea, I saw a flyer for it and what really impressed me was “wow, here’s a transsexual writing, doing a performance piece about being transsexual.” I was about to start working on my first play about being a Dominatrix, and I thought “Wow, here’s somebody who’s getting out there revealing secrets and taboos” and I thought “whoa, I have to go see this.” I went to see it and it just blew my socks off. I thought she had incredible courage to do this and her writing was brilliant and her acting was brilliant and I thought “have to meet her” and should I or shouldn’t I. I just showed up backstage and said ‘hi’ and we exchanged phone numbers and she said “maybe we should get together for tea sometime.” She called me up the next day and we got together the next day and had tea, and hung out, and then we saw each other every day after that.
Mariette: How long ago?
David: Just under four years ago, we met on winter solstice.
Mariette: And you’ve lived together literally ever since?
David: Yea, since the day we laid eyes on one another.
Nancy (to Kate): I noticed that you were sort of charmingly embarrassed when he was talking about you being very open about your inner self on the stage and writing about your inner self. I also noticed that last night when you were so thrilled that the audience received you so warmly. What’s that about for you? Are you exhibitionist but shy about being exhibitionist?
Kate: I don’t think I’m an exhibitionist. I think I perform because it’s a talent I have and it’s something I do well. I feel good when I do it and there are times when I really believe I’m good at it. But when I say something like this new show “Virtually Yours,” I mean, I had no idea that people would really like it. I mean really, because all my other work had been so specifically about the ‘transgendered experience’, and this was much more about love and relationships. Yes, there is a transgender core to it, but that’s just because of who I am. But it just blows me away when people like the stuff, it’s the stuff I’ve been most afraid to talk about all my life. It’s the stuff I’ve been most afraid of in life about myself. To put that up on stage, you know, probably expects rotten tomatoes.
Nancy: Because this doesn’t affect anyone else, of course (laughter)
Kate: Right. It’s the internalized phobia that goes on.
David: When I saw “Hidden, A Gender” originally, I went backstage and I didn’t know what to say except that this is great, and she looked at me as if to say “You really liked it?” What really warmed my heart to her was that she had just done this marvelous piece of work, and she was so unassuming about it. I just love that, cause it’s so rare in performers.
Mariette (to Kate): What is your book about?
Kate: It’s called Gender Outlaw, on Men, Women and the Rest of Us. It basically asks three questions, what is a man, what is a woman, and why do we have to be one or the other. Nobody asks those questions in the culture. I run into people every day who ask you those questions, people in our community. David asks those questions. I think it’s one of the reasons we get along so well; we just don’t try to label each other.
David: We play around with it, kind of tongue in cheek.
Kate: But I want to enter those questions into the fabric of the culture. That would be nifty. I would like to see the result of this – if there were such a thing as “transgender fame” – I would like to be on the cover of Time magazine as the first not-man, not-woman of the year. That’s what the book’s about, it lays out a theory of gender that says it’s fine to be a man, it’s fine to be a woman, as long as you really decide that, as long as you take everything into account. Why do it non-concensually? Why do it based on pressure?
David: I think we have such a wonderful opportunity to discover other things beyond what we’ve been taught there is in this culture. I think that it’s a pity when people feel like they have to go from one little box into another little box without seeing that there’s a whole world out there. There’s a world of possibilities, and it’s just such a wonderful opportunity to redefine one’s self. For instance, I’m having to look at things about being a man in this world that I’m not particularly thrilled about, so I’ve got to think, “well, if I’m going to be some sort of man, what kind of man do I want to be?” And so maybe that includes having had all these years of female socialization, some of which I’m very happy that I’ve had. For me, it’s an integration process. Maybe I’m not a man in the way somebody else might be a man, but I’m something else, I’m making the choice and not trying to fit into someone else’s definition. Sometimes it’s hard to maintain that balance, but it’s a wonderful process of discovery, shaping my life according to how I want to shape it.
Nancy: Kate, I understand you’re bringing your stage presentation to New York in June, and you’re going to be touring it around. On our way over here, you said it was about …
Kate: It’s about love and death, that’s how we grow. You see all this kind of stuff in nature; you see a snake shedding it’s skin, crabs losing their claws and growing new ones, people breaking up and getting back together or getting together with someone new. What does that do? What is it about a relationship like David and I? We’ve gone from being an S/M lesbian couple to a kind of vanilla het [heterosexual] couple to … maybe tutti fruitti. Then we’ve gone to saying, “OK, we’re just going to take a little break here, but we’re not breaking up. We’re just trying to redefine our relationship outside of what the dominant ideology has given us as an option, which is straight or gay.
Nancy: …and that’s what your play deals with is this issue of being a transsexual yourself and having a partner then who is also transitioning, is that right?
Kate: Yeah, I mean, I’m attracted to transgendered people, that turns me on, a lot, I love that. The difference is when you think you’re with a person of one gender and then they go “Uh uh, guess what?” It’s kind of like instant karma.
Nancy: I bet there’s a lot of wives out there who are nodding their heads and going “Yup.”
Kate: Well, it’s true, and one of the things I noticed when I was transitioning is that there’s never any voice for the partner. There’s really very few voices for the partner out there. And I thought “Isn’t that a shame, isn’t that a shame” and I guess I thought that strong enough that the universe said “OK, here you go, you don’t have any alternative to be a voice for that”, and that what this show’s about. It’s the voice of someone who is partners of a TS, who happens to be TS themself.
Nancy: That wasn’t a big element in the play.
Nancy: In the play, you have a number of personalities that you adopt. Very strikingly different personalities, yet there’s a common thread running through them. How did you choose those people, and where did they come from?
Kate: When I was sitting down to write the show, just the way the show began, I had no idea what to write. It was David that gave me the idea. He said “Well, what really do you need to say?” and I said “I need to talk about how afraid I am.” And he said “So, good. Personify your fears.” He did this for me; he does this for me. And I work with him on his shows, and stuff like that. So, what happened is I said all right, what are my fears. And my fears are like, am I going to become my mother, and all her values”, “Am I just going to end up so sad that I’m just gonna kill myself”. “Is there a way I can actually fantasize”. It’s just a series of fears, and then you try to figure out, well, what’s an interesting way to put those across on stage? And what I did was take some characters like Diane Arbus who, to me, personifies sadness.
Nancy: I’m not familiar with Diane Arbus. Can you tell me who she is?
Kate: A very famous black-and-white photographer of the 50s and 60s..
Mariette: And she’s known in the gender community for a lot of work that she’s done with freaks and transgender and insane and stereotypes.
Kate: She’s one of the first serious photographers of us.
Mariette: I always thought of them as self-portraits.
Kate: EXACTLY. (As Diane:) Now you know why I never take a self-portrait.
David: I always think of photographs anyway as being more of an expression of the photographer, more of a reflection of the photographer than anything separate.
Nancy: David, you also are writing plays, or you working on a new play, aren’t you?
David: Yes, it’s called FTM, it’s basically about the first year of transition. It also involves breast cancer, I had that a year and a half ago, and my mother did too. So it basically talks about the first year of transition with the one FTM character. And there’s a woman who goes through breast cancer, and she has a mastectomy and is given testosterone, and she goes through a gender change non-consensually, which is what happened to my mother. The thing is ironic, and it actually got for a number of years to where I stayed away cause I didn’t want to go on testosterone because I didn’t want to be violent, which is what happened to her. It was a whole deal for her, it was very traumatic. But for me, it’s a blessing. So these stories are juxtaposed. With the FTM character, a lot of it is spoken through dreams which is how I came to make the decision finally to do this because it was like there was this dripping tap for years, drip, drip, these feelings came up. And some dreams started happening and it was just like turning a faucet on and it would just not stop. There’s so much stuff in the media about the “sex change operation”, that’s what they always say, that most people think of it as such an external thing. The changes are physical, but there’s so much that we live with for so many years inside, and that’s what I want to bring out onto the stage, to give people access to that inner world. And to perhaps build some bridges to see beyond just the physical. To take a walk around in this person’s world. And this is basically the first year.
Nancy: Will you tour this, and where people be able to see it?
David: Yes, possibly in Boston, and New York, I’ll probably let people know through Tapestry. It’s opening in May in San Francisco.
Nancy: And Kate, you’ll be in New York in June?
Kate: Yes, New York in June, then up and down the east coast and Canada. And probably over to Manchester and London in the winter.
Nancy: And when’s your book coming out?
Kate: The book’ll be coming out first week in June.
Nancy: Is IFGE going to be carrying that, will they be able to sell it?
Kate: I sure hope so. The book is interesting, it has the script to my first play Hidden, A Gender in it.
Nancy: And you also talked about bringing your first play to Boston?
Kate: Second play, The Opposite Sex is Neither.
Nancy: We’re out of time for you, David, but you guys are both on Internet, isn’t that right?
Kate: Speaking for myself, I love receiving Email, and my address is OutlawGal@aol.com.
David: And mine is PeterPants@aol.com
Kate: I think this whole idea of virtual identities online is so important because people are playing with identities online. Just the same way we’re playing with identities with our bodies.
Nancy: And I want to bring up the way that you used the computer and technology in your show, cause it was really fascinating. And it really kind of blends these things together.
Kate: Well, I think you can get online and be whatever you want to be, you can be whoever you want to be. You can be whatever gender, whatever race, whatever age, whatever sexual persuasion, whatever species. I love it. I play star trek games, and I play several species, a Romulan in one game, I’m from Turkana IV in another, I’ve been a Genaiyan<SP?>, which is the race that has no gender, so you know I’ve been all these different species. You can do that. What I wanted to do with this piece Virtually Yours which is touring now is show how you can, and so the device getting from one character to the other is a fictional CD ROM interactive video game called Virtually Yours which allows you to create personas based on your own worst fears and then walk inside them. So in the course of one evening I can be Diane Arbus, I can be my mother, I can be Greta Garbo, I can be Valerie Solanas, the woman who shot Andy Warhol, I can be a hot S/M bottom.
Nancy: That was exciting…
Kate: But what’s really important, you have someone like Melanie Phillips – have you heard of her?
Kate: Amazing woman. She started up a gender forum on America Online, and there are about 3-400 people subscribing to this gender forum. When I was coming up through the ranks, and trying to figure out what the f*ck I was, there was no place to talk with people. But you can go online in complete anonymity and say “what do I do when …”
Nancy: And you can read other people’s conversations if you’re too shy to ask the questions. Other people are asking them for you, you can just listen in.
Kate: exactly. You don’t have to put your real name on there, you can hide behind whatever name you want. It’s a way to come out gently. This yanking people out of the closets or saying we all have to come out, that’s all well and good. I believe we all have to come out, eventually, that’s what has to happen. But I think everybody has their own pace, and everybody has their own route to doing that. And I think that this online culture is a very safe way to do that.
David: It’s a good place to test the waters.
Kate: And I talk about that in my book. I think the future of gender is being played out right now online, where people are saying “Whoops, I think I’ll be a man today, I think I’ll be a woman today, they do that online.
Nancy: And that’s very scary to people, the idea that we’re going to be able to more flexible with regard to gender and sexuality, I think that kind of scares them.
Kate: Well, flexibility at all scares the mainstream.
David: One of my on-screen names is Lola Lola, and when I got on there one day there was a flurry of instant messages, and this one guy who came on and said “Oh Lola, is it in the song” and he said “are you a man or a woman?” and I said “yes” and he just could not get it. It totally determined how he was going to relate to me, he had to know, and I refused to tell him.
Well, I have to go to work now. Thank you very much.
Nancy: Thank you so very much, both of you.
Kate: I need to say just one more thing, cause there’s a new word that’s come up through the technology of this online culture, and the word is MorF [pronounced ‘morf’]. It comes from the first question people usually ask you, M or F? So if you MorF somebody, you’re asking them whether they’re male or female. And so David and I both answer yes, usually. Or no, depending on how we’re feeling that day. And I think that’s kinda cool. It’s interesting, the next question is “How old are you?”
Nancy: Tell us more about the book.
Kate: Well, what I’m happy about doing this book, it’s the first book by a transgendered person about the subject of gender which is not strictly autobiographical. While it has autobiographical stories to illustrate points, and I try to keep a sense of humor through it, it’s more of what’s life from our side, our point of view, people who are in the gender community. That it’s me, OK that’s fine, that’s not important. What is important, I think, for people to realize is that the world is ready for this book, that the book is actually getting published by a mainstream publisher, Routledge, which is a very respected academic publisher, and that means people are starting to take us seriously. That means you’re going to have your television show, other people are going to be having more and more books, Susan Stryker’s book is going to come out, Sandy Stone’s book is going to come out, Jameson Green’s book is going to come out. We’re starting to speak in our own voice. David’s doing his play, our voices are finally coming out. This book is another step in that direction. I think that’s really important. And it’s not just big block print, you don’t just open it up and find wall to wall words, I broke it up, I broke it up into stories, I broke it up into quotes from here and there, it’s a collage. The text appears in different places all over the page.
Kate: Right. They wanted to book to be interactive, and so I tried to make it that way. The main part of the text appears in the center, and then off to the right are my own comments on the text, and off to the left are different quotes to illustrate the text.
Nancy: That’s a great picture there, I love it.
Kate: You mean the ‘glam’?
Nancy: Yes, glam is good. Nice cover.
Kate: I think the opening of the book should give an idea of the flavor of the book.
Nancy (reading from Gender Outlaw): “People keep trying to ask me about fashion. I love that. Maybe they think the doctor sewed in some fashion sense.”
Kate: I think it’s irreverent. It owes a whole lot to people like Tula and Christine Jorgensen, Renee Richards, who had the courage to write their story, it owes a big debt to them. It’s another generation, you know, ‘Page Trek: The Next Generation’ or something like that.
Nancy: So it’s not just another biography, but a book that talks about what you’ve learned.
Kate: Well, they would never let us publish that, it was too dangerous, you see, it’s not like I’m the first one or the only one to think of doing this, it’s just that the climate is right now for us to publish our ideas.
Nancy: Was it too dangerous, or is it just that we’re finally accepted enough so that growing up transsexual isn’t so traumatic that it hopelessly distorts your perspective? It seems like there have been a lot of people in the gender community who are so traumatized that they have difficulty projecting a perspective that is accessible to the mainstream. And now we’re starting to see more people who aren’t so traumatized that they’re dysfunctional. Maybe that’s what brought Renee Richards to the fore, that she was not so dysfunctional that she couldn’t go out and earn a living as a doctor, and play tennis, and whatever, and she was willing to be forward. And then after her there were other people who were not so traumatized that they couldn’t function but who then chose not to publicize themselves, who chose to disappear. And now we’re having more and more people like you, myself and others who are transsexual and proud, like, ‘this is who we are, we’re not trying to get in your face, we’re just trying to live our lives.’
Kate: I would say that there’s a pivotal book in there between Renee Richards’ and this and that would be Tula’s book which talks about her being yanked out of the closet, viciously, by the hounds of the culture, and how she’s come to grips with that, and what she’s done as a result. I think it’s beautiful.
Nancy: I thought maybe it would just be some sort of lightweight thing because she was a fashion model….
Kate: No, it’s a serious book, and I quote her in there [my book]. She says she wishes that, in her counseling, someone had bothered to counsel her about being transsexual, not being ‘a woman’, but being transsexual. Now that she’s come to terms with that fact that she’s transsexual. We grew up creating this whole world view for ourselves because it’s not there in the culture. What am I? And I have to build this whole world view in the absence of books, radio, and television, anything, even conversation, Mom or Dad or brother or sister or friends. I have to build a whole world view of who I am or I go stark raving mad. Every transsexual in the past has done this. Now, though, there’s going to be Kate Bornstein’s book, Tula’s book, your [NRN’s] show, your [MPA’s] photographs, David’s play. Transsexuals are starting to be able to say: “Oh, the burden is not on me, I don’t have to create my own world view.” We are helping each other in community to create a communal world view, which is, like, wonderful.
Nancy: I think of it as role models. There are people out there, and you can say “Oh, there’s somebody out there doing their thing, I can do my thing.”
Kate: Yes. So the importance of this book is not that it’s right, or that the views expressed in it are right, the importance of this book is it’s existence. What happens is people are going to glom onto that and they’re going to say “Oh, the transsexual”, and this has already happened to me. I get pegged as the transsexual. I get calls from talk shows all the time, and I just kind of refer people out to other transgendered people, ’cause I think that’s important. But I tried to keep the focus of this book more on questions, and to provide as few answers as possible, cause I think answers are f*cked up. Two of the biggest sections of the book are just series of questions.
Nancy: Yes, I value most the people who raise in me new questions, not people who try to answer my questions. If you stimulate me to ask myself a new question, you’re somebody that’s just given me a gift.
Kate: Yea. Isn’t an answer death?
Nancy: Sure, it means that that’s the end of your seeking for the answer to that question, and that’s what life is about, finding your own answers to the questions.
Mariette: Like somebody who says, “Now I know why these people do it.” What’s the fun?
Kate: I don’t tell people why I do it. I give them a picture of my life a little bit, and I try to give as many other people’s ideas about it as possible and just try to shed light and raise questions. Holly Hughes, she’s so brilliant. Her definition of art is “Art is that which raises questions and implicates people.”
Nancy: And your play was certainly that for me. I was really profoundly moved, and I know that another friend of mine who was there, was really moved by your play last night. She said she did a lot of crying. It really hit her. It was killer, really good. And I think it was mainstream accessible. And it wasn’t about the gender community at all, it was about your relationship with somebody who’s changing their gender. And that is so beautiful.
Kate: Thank you. I think the mechanics of how we shift and change within a relationship, like if you’re in a relationship and someone loses a job, it affects your identity, because all of a sudden you’re the provider, now, for two people, and that shifts how things work. Or you’re in a relationship and someone gets ill, that changes your identity, and you didn’t ask for that. You’re in a relationship and someone changes their religion, that changes your identity. We change and shift and dance within a relationship. If you both agree to do the tango, and your partner decides to slam dance, that adds another dimension to the relationship. The question then is, do you want to stay together. And if you want to, then you’re going to have to redefine the terms of the relationship, which gets back to what I was saying at the very beginning, that David and I are redefining our relationship, and trying to redefine it outside of patriarchal norms.
Nancy: It’s bad enough to contemplate getting married, when getting married would bring into play all sorts of preconceptions into play about the relationship. But when you consider how much greater your presumptions are about sex and gender, and when somebody changes their sex or gender, all of a sudden, it’s like your whole world is turned upside down, because so much of what you see in that other person is a result of what you’ve been trained to see in a person of that sex or gender.
Kate: What I’m having to confront is my desire now. I’ve got all these high-falutin’ theories that ‘gender is a social construct’ and blah blah blah, but when it comes down to raw desire, I’m still much more attracted to women. And I’m attracted to David, which I find very puzzling. It’s opened a lot of doors, to allow me to explore friendships with men that I never would have explored before. And I’m still attracted to him, but not in the same way, and I’m trying to explore this attraction that I have for him. It’s very, very different from the attraction that I’ve always had for women, which to me right now is still stronger.
Mariette: Is some of it perhaps memory-based?
Kate: Part of it, sure. This whole thing with, “Where’s Katherine?” Like the line from my show, “Somewhere inside that man is the woman I fell in love with.” But, I don’t think it’s much of that. I’ve never been as attracted to any man as I’ve been attracted to women. I’ve had crushes on men. Like, there’s a great line, I forget who said it, forgive me, “I love men, I could spend my eternity with men, just not this lifetime, though.” I have now been, little by little, finding out that there are good guys out there. In all likelihood, I will probably be touring my show with a guy as stage manager, and two years ago I never would have even considered that. That’s a testament to David’s successful transition, I think.
Nancy: Let me go back just a step, I wanted to say that the power of your play – and I’ve already told you about twelve times that I thought it was very powerful – I think the power comes from the genuineness of what you are dealing with on the stage. Truth and reality just have so much more power than fiction. You really feel it when you’re up there, I was riveted, and I think the whole audience was.
Kate: This is from something else I learned from Holly Hughes. If you listen to her work, she blurs another binary, and that’s called life and art. You know, life has to be one thing and art another. But she blurs that, she takes what people don’t ever talk about and she puts it on stage and you go “Whoa! Girl!” I mean, she talks about her mom’s cunt, and you go “Wait! You’re not supposed to talk about that!” I mean, omigod, she can talk about what’s true for her on stage in her life, and I can start talking about what’s true for me on stage in my life, not to use it as some kind of self-indulgent bullshit. I’m a ham, I’m a trained actor, and I realize that first of all I have a responsibility to entertain people, so I need to do that, that’s important. I like to make people laugh. I like to top my audience, and I’m a good top. But a good top, I think, loves her bottom. And I love my audience, and I love to take care of my audience, and I love to push their limits, and that’s what I do when I’m onstage.
Mariette: A whole different interpretation of the audience/performer relationship….
Kate: And you’ll notice what I do with the audience is I don’t force participation.
Nancy: I’ve seen people do that, I’ve seen people top with a heavy hand, and that’s terrible, and yours was not even noticeable. It was really good. I think what you said about art is poignant, because to me, that’s what art is. Art is something, and I know this is true for you, too, Mariette, art is something that pushes society forward, that pushes our sensibilities. It explores new ground. That’s what your [Mariette’s] book Transformations did, it helped create a community. Art’s really important.
Kate: It’s amazing stuff, and it’s all starting to happen. The artists and thinkers are popping out of our community. You know, I have my share of anger and rage, and I think there’s ways to use anger and rage, but I would hope that our community, our revolution, our movement toward liberation does not go down the same old garden path that most other minority uprisings have done. I would hope that our revolution would learn from the women’s movement, which continually makes strides very slowly, too slowly I agree, it needs to go as fast as possible, but the women’s movement is a movement of love and strength. And that seems to me a good model for our community. Strength and love.