Kate Bornstein by Juno Dawson
Illustration by Gordon Flores
Queen of Teen 2014 Juno Dawson is the multi award-winning author of six novels for young adults. Her latest novel is the beautiful and emotive MARGOT & ME which will be followed by her adult debut, the memoir THE GENDER GAMES. Juno also wrote the bestselling non-fiction guide to life for young LGBT people, THIS BOOK IS GAY. In 2016 a follow-up, MIND YOUR HEAD, featured everything a young person needs to know about mental health.
Juno is a regular contributor to Attitude Magazine, Glamour Magazine and The Guardian and has contributed to news items on BBC Women’s Hour, Front Row, ITV News, Channel 5 News, This Morning and Newsnight concerning sexuality, identity, literature and education.
Juno writes full time and lives in Brighton. In her spare time, she loves Doctor Who and is a keen follower of horror films and connoisseur of pop music. In 2014 Juno became a School Role Model for the charity STONEWALL.
‘I was assigned male at birth,’ says Kate Bornstein. ‘It never really worked for me, but I tried really hard to be a guy, to be a man. It just felt like I was lying. This was in the 1980s. So I went through a gender transition and they told me I was a woman. So I said “OK! I am woman, hear me roar!” For about six months, I tried and I tried and it also felt like a lie. Woman didn’t work for me any better than man had. So I finally said “goodbye to being a man, goodbye to being a woman.” I am simply neither.’
That’s the short version. The full story of Kate Bornstein’s life is even more colourful. Like she said herself, in that 2015 interview, Kate was assigned male at birth in 1948, although didn’t medically transition until the 1980s. Prior to that, from 1970, Bornstein spent many years in the secretive Church of Scientology, working her way up to into the elite ‘Sea Org’.
The religion’s core belief that the soul is an immortal, genderless being living in a host body, appealed to young Bornstein, fresh out of theatre school. She was First Mate to L Ron Hubbard himself, later slyly referring to him as ‘Daddy’. However, Bornstein defected in 1981, disillusioned with what she perceived to be homophobia and transphobia within the organisation.
Once ‘Disconnected’ from the church, Bornstein, like all ex-Scientologists became known as a ‘Suppressive Person’ which meant all contact with church members was forbidden. As such, Bornstein has not seen her ex-wife or daughter in over thirty years.
Throughout her life, Bornstein describes ‘binge and purge’ periods of dressing in traditionally female attire, but didn’t start her transition officially until her late thirties. Her decision was complicated by the fact she was sexually attracted to women. Eventually she was able to untangle her sexuality from her gender and came to the conclusion she was a lesbian.
Although uneasy with the popular notion at the time (and one that still endures) that all trans people are ‘born in the wrong body’, Bornstein went ahead with gender corrective surgery and embarked on her new life as a woman. Only she still didn’t quite feel ‘like a woman’. ‘Gender is an assumption,’ she said, ‘that there are two categories of people: one called male and one called female and that is a basic division of humanity.’
Shortly after her medical transition, Bornstein rejected the limited concept of binary gender entirely – identifying as neither man or woman. ‘There are so many more genders than just those two!’ she later said. In 1994, Bornstein published Gender Outlaw, which has become the seminal gender criticism text.
Further works, My Gender Workbook, Hello, Cruel World and Gender Outlaw: The New Generation all followed, along with a career as a performance artist and public speaker. The last few years have seen Bornstein battle cancer, although she is presently in remission.
What I personally admire about Bornstein is her warmth and generosity of spirit. Although very much at the forefront of what we now refer to as gender-queer, gender-fluid or non-binary community, Bornstein centres herself at the heart of her experience, rarely attempting to ‘push’ her ‘ethos’ onto anyone else. While open and honest about her struggles with mental illnesses throughout her life, Bornstein seems to have a found a peace between herself and her environment.
I think we can all learn a lot from Bornstein’s attitude towards gender. She recently joked she wanted to call her new book Trans! Just For the Fun of it! fearing discourse around gender has become too policed and serious. What Bornstein represents above all is the need for the individual to mould and shape their personal relationship with gender.
In Bornstein’s own words: ‘Do whatever it takes to make your life more worth living.’
Paris-based illustrator Gordon Floreshails from Venice Beach California. His Jean Cocteau-inspired line drawings and illustrations have seen him collaborate with Kim Jones' Louis Vuitton, Jeremy Scott and Supreme.