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,
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.