Kate Bornstein is a Queer and Pleasant Danger: Film Review (Spoiler Alert)

Kate Bornstein is a Queer and Pleasant Danger situates is star, “Auntie Kate”, as a true gender outlaw, something she is immensely proud of. As a self described “trans-dyke, reluctant polyamorist, sadomasochist, and recovering Scientologist”, Bornstein revels in rejecting binary thinking and dismantling norms of gender and sexuality. She is a dynamic and questioning individual, and her “outlaw” persona stems from this constant questioning and re-evaluation. From considering whether she truly identifies as a woman, to her reconsideration of her religion, reinvention of her sexual practices with her partner, and re-evaluation of the value of living in the face of a life threatening diagnosis, Kate is an ever-changing outlaw of expectation.

This 2014 documentary by director Sam Feder begins in Kate’s home, where the tone of the film (read: provocative) is set by Kate introducing us to her “giant, flying, gold… PENIS”. A statuette of a golden phallus is presented, on in her living room, installed after the surgery she underwent as part of her MTF transgender transition. The film alternates between excerpts from her lectures, readings, and performances on tour and personal interviews with her and friends, most of which are presented as monologues or dialogues between the subjects. We are introduced to Kate’s eclectic friends, mentors, ex-lovers and partner, and guided through her participation in and subsequent rejection of scientology. We meet her family, listen to her coming out story, and watch as she receives a live phone call from her surgeon breaking the news to her that her lung cancer has metastasized. The tone of the film oscillates naturally from outrageous and provocative to outright hilarious to heartbreakingly sad as it explores each of these subjects.

As I have alluded to, Bornstein loves to question and reimagine all aspects of herself and the world she lives in. In one scene, she explains her very complex intersectional identity: she begins by explaining that she doesn’t see herself as a woman any more, because her social circle (a group of “very intelligent lesbians”) helped her to see that she was not raised or acculturated to be one – that her positionality was different than that of a socialized woman. She thus inhabits a space “between genders”. She also inhabits a space outside of the heterosexual matrix, a matrix in which heterosexuality is the norm, performed by two “natural” opposing genders (Aulette et al. 2011). She describes herself as “trans-dyke” – the “more queer” form of lesbian in her opinion. She also refers to herself as a “tranny”, a traditionally derogatory term that she has reclaimed for the same reason – it is “more queer” than transsexual. I have a feeling that Kate will not stop here – as I have stated, she is a fantastically dynamic individual and will likely be reimaging her labeling, identity, and sexuality even as I write this film review, further cementing her position as “gender outlaw”.

Another pivotal scene sequence in the film comes toward the end, after Bornstein’s cancer diagnosis. The first scene in the sequence also involves a pivotal re-evaluation. Sitting outside on a park bench, Bornstein looks into the camera, smiling and wearing her signature (literally) rose tinted spectacles, and delivers perhaps the most candid line of the film (for an individual who is a performer at heart) – that it “wasn’t until now” that she actually realized “she wanted to live” – that not until she was face to face with death, did she truly want to remain on this earth. This scene was closely followed by a meet and greet after one of her lectures, showing her talking to several LGBTQ teens. After they leave, she remarks on how beautiful, courageous and unique they are – and the film ends with her pleading to all who question their desire to live to “do whatever it takes to make your life worth living… just don’t be mean”. The juxtaposition of Kate’s realization and this footage is effective. Suicide and depression are issues that affect transgender and other gender/sex-marginal individuals at much higher rates than the heterosexual, cis-gendered population (CMHA 2014). Though filmed and released before this event, the themes of this film are highly relevant in the wake of the transgender teen Leelah Alcorn’s suicide. These critical scenes are a combination outreach effort between Bornstein and the film-makers, all of whom are activists – personal and heart-wrenchingly genuine messages for those who feel marginalized and unable to cope or continue on.

Overall, Kate Bornstein is a Queer and Pleasant Danger is a powerful piece of art and activism. The film effectively captures the inimitable and outrageous character that is Bornstein: a provocative, ever-questioning individual who is always looking to push boundaries and re-imagine the laws of living. And sometimes, luckily for Bornstein, her audience, and her fans, this re-evaluation involves taking another look at the value of life and living, and encouraging others to do the same.

Outside of my direct experience with the film, my experience at ReelOut Queer Film Festival was positive. The staff were kind, accommodating, and understanding (I needed alternative seating due to a back injury) and there was a sense of community and support at the event. Before the film, the Kingston Trans Fam was able to discuss their work, inviting out transgender individuals and their families to talk to other Kingstonians with similar experiences. If you are interested in learning more about them, their work, their safe space, and their community, their website is http://www.transfamilykingston.com/.

Bye for now,

Moira

Bibliography

 

Aulette, Judy Root and Wittner, Judith. Gendered Worlds. New York: Oxford U. Press,   2011. Print.

“Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans People and Mental Health”. Ontario.cmha.ca.             CMHA, 2014. February 9 2015.

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6 thoughts on “Kate Bornstein is a Queer and Pleasant Danger: Film Review (Spoiler Alert)

  1. Rosa Queen

    Hi Moira,
    You have produced a great and insightful review that makes any reader want to run to the nearest showing of this film! You also brought up great points about the presentation of depression in the LGBTQ community as well as the ongoing redefinition and reclaiming of the labels that society has for this community. You did a great job of pointing out the positive points of this film and the messages it sends, however were there any negative aspects of this film? As the film is presented in a biopic type style, is there any over exaggeration of certain events or topics? It is always important to consider what the director decides to show versus what is disregarded or absent, do you have any commentary about what is absent from the film?
    Thank you for a lovely review, looking forward to your next post!

    -Rosa Queen

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    1. Moira Post author

      Dear Rosa – you are completely right, I didn’t focus very much on what was absent from the film (perhaps because there was so much to talk about with respect to what was present…!). I did consider the fact that Kate was quite dismissive of the people who rejected her terminology and ideology, the film did not interview anyone who disagreed with Kate. If a layperson was watching the film, they might think that it is a common practice to use the word tranny, among other things. Of course, it is a biopic, so the goal was to focus on Kate herself – but perhaps the individualism of the piece and the uniqueness of Kate herself creates some representation issues for this community!

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  2. Darkling

    Hi Moira,
    I also watched Kate Bornstein is a Queer and Pleasant Danger during ReelOut, although I did not elect to make it the focus of my review, so it was very interesting and enjoyable to see someone else commenting upon it. It really is intriguing to see what stands out to other viewers, and what is of less significance to them! One aspect of the film that really stood out to me and set me at odds with Kate Bornstein was her acquiescence to the TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist) ideology that trans women are not “socialized” as women and therefore are not women or do not belong in women’s spaces. While it is certainly her right to not identify as a woman, I know that most trans women (particularly younger trans women) are very opposed to this conception of gender, as it denies trans women access to women-centric spaces while permitting trans men access to those very same spaces. Comments like that made me see why so many young transgender activists have, as Kate Bornstein mentions in the film, written open letters on the internet denouncing her. Do you think that Kate Bornstein’s attitude toward trans womanhood contributes to silencing and invalidating other trans women?
    The scenes you described at the end of the film really stood out to me as well. The admiration she expresses for young trans people, and her plea to them to do anything necessary to survive except to be mean was so simultaneously raw and tender. You discussed it beautifully, and tied it well to an immediate and current example of transmisogyny killing a young trans girl. High suicide rates coupled with hate crimes take the lives of so many transgender people (black trans women in particular, and trans women at a higher rate than trans men or AFAB nonbinary people), and the kindness that Kate tries to impart in anyone who will listen is crucial to building trans solidarity and community, although it does not dismantle cisnormative and transphobic institutions and social structures. In a world that devalues trans lives, Kate Bornstein telling younger transgender people to do whatever they have to to survive is an act of resistance.
    Your review was very well written overall. The only things I feel are worth mentioning as potential errors are the use of “cis-gendered” and “MTF transgender transition.” Just as you would say “transgender,” you should say “cisgender,” and most trans people no longer use the terms “MTF” or “FTM” although in this context I believe that it makes sense, as Kate Bornstein still uses that terminology. It is just something to keep in mind in the future!
    I am so glad that ReelOut was accommodating to your back injury. Too often, supposedly radical events will be very inaccessible (no wheelchair ramps, no alternative seating options, doors too narrow, etc) and ableist, so I am glad that ReelOut actually worked to make the festival accessible, and that your experience was positive! I also think it was wonderful that people from the Kingston Trans Fam had the opportunity to speak before the film: having real life resources and support within Kingston highlighted during the film festival really helps with community building! I really enjoyed watching the film too, and I loved reading your review! Great work! I look forward to seeing more posts from you!

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    1. Moira Post author

      Thank you for your comment! It is really interesting to consider who we allow to “be” someone or something, and interesting how misogyny can “inherited’ in a way as someone transitions! I never really considered that side of the story, with respect to TERF ideology. Also, you are correct – MTF is outdated and quite binary! I suppose I was trying to use the “buzz” terms from the text that were required. There have been a few issues with these terms, including the use of “homosexual” – all of which are condoned by the text! It is definitely problematic, and this language might be dealt with best in a class specifically about it !

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  3. Elin

    Hi Moira,

    Excellent review! Your review of the piece was inherently interesting and touched on some important issues covered by the film. In particular, I thought that the inclusion of her struggle and rumination about her identity, was very eloquently summarized by your piece and by doing so, it elevated the topic and gave it the importance that it deserved. Your critical analysis of the role that positionality plays as a societal construct, particularly in regard to her not being considered a woman and as result “inhibiting space between genders”, was a very thought provoking and important thought which illuminated the systemic issues that surrounds the trans community. I further enjoyed how your review clearly outlined the themes of the movie and connected them with real world examples, particularly in regard to Leelah Alcorn’s suicide. By doing so, your piece resonated more with the reader, I found, as the parallels were overtly apparent. Overall, great review of the film!

    ~Elin.

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  4. gndsgirl11

    Moira,
    Like all of the other reviews, I found it very interesting to read your review of this film. There were so many movies that I wanted to see at ReelOut, this being one of them, yet having not been able to see it, it was very interesting to read your review and learn about this film. I really enjoyed how you focused much of your review on the positives of this film, and every point you made about the film made me want to see it more and more. I really liked how you touched upon the subject of depression and suicide, and how realistic her confession about death is. From an outsiders perspective, everything about her character seems to be very relatable from many standpoints, and it seems to be a movie that could be very inspiring and life changing for many viewers. I really appreciate your review, and everything about it makes the film appealing and realistic. Thank you very much!

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