By Ryan Hugh McWilliams
We live in very confusing and harrowing times. Take a look at this current dichotomy: two years ago the manliest of men came out of the closet as trans. Republican and unforgivable Trump supporter Bruce Jenner transitioned into Caitlyn Jenner right in front of our eyes on national television, breaking ground and ruffling everyone’s feather along the way. Compare that to the information which came to light this week that another athlete, pro-footballer Aaron Hernandez murdered another human being and then killed himself in order to avoid being outed as bisexual. To those who think we have come so far, this is disheartening proof that we still have so far to go.
Watching Caitlyn struggle to come to terms with herself and her trans identity on the E! Network television show, I Am Cait, was a much welcomed exploration into gender identity that everyone needed, though, seeing an extremely privileged white person using their wealth and celebrity to bypass and ignore the struggles of most trans and gender nonconforming people was a tone-deaf mess. Problematic as the show was, it did have some redeeming qualities, with the inclusion of powerhouse writers and activists such as Jenny Boylan, Jen Richards, and Kate Bornstein. Though no one could convince Caitlyn to abandon her contradictory support of our now idiot-in-chief, these phenomenal role models were able to provide the insight and education that Caitlyn and the world needed to understand the battles of trans and gender nonconforming people.
As part of its 55th Anniversary season, the historic downtown theater La Mama is presenting a wide array of artists celebrating the long history of the venue’s local and global communities, including a return engagement by performance artist Kate Bornstein. A pleasant surprise on this spring’s performance season, Kate Bornstein: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us, is a limited two-weekend run fresh off its one-night only performance in La Mama’s queer artists series, SQUIRTS. Billed as ‘a cosy evening with your Auntie Kate,’ the show weaves together spoken word, stand-up comedy, and riveting monologues that examine her experiences as a non-binary identified queer trans dyke. Now this is the show we all should have seen on E! TV.
Setting the tone for the evening and reflecting on these troubling times, La Mama Programming Director Nicky Paraiso read the First Amendment aloud to the audience, reminding us why arts funding is so important and why venues such as these are vital to the furthering of our culture. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” A fitting introduction to a trailblazing activist such as Kate Bornstein.
Kate Bornstein: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us. Photo by Theo Cote.
The show begins with a flashback to thirty years ago, before reality television exposed the subject to the masses and to a time when “trans and transgender were not visible, except basically to ourselves.” Borstein discusses the language with which she used to describe herself: “Trans and transgender weren’t even words. We were calling ourselves transsexuals, transvestites. We were street fairies and butches, we were he-shes and chick with dicks, this is what we called ourselves. And now, I’m speechless, this blows me away, that I can say I used to be a transsexual. I still am. That’s what I called myself. Transgender wasn’t a word.” This prologue proves that language does matter, and should make aware to anyone doubting that the use of gender-neutral pronouns like ‘they’ and ‘their’ are necessary in respecting other’s choice of words, dissuading the notion that we’re more than just snowflakes being sensitive.
The first captivating piece Kate performs is from an article she wrote for The New York Times in 1996 on the occasion of her mother’s funeral. She entitled it “Who Are You” and the Times, in usual media sensitization, renamed it “Her Son/Daughter.” In it, Kate used the words, “Transgender Movement.” The Times also pushed backed on that, asking her to use another phrase, as they had never published those words before, claiming that if they did there would actually be a “Transgender Movement.” She held her ground and now Kate Bornstein is the mother of the Transgender Movement. The monologue discusses what is was like attending her mother’s funeral as a woman, when everyone there only knew of the deceased’s two sons. The blue-haired ladies, confused, asked, “Who are you?”
Requesting some ‘phone sex lighting’ to the light technician, she delves into her next piece recounting her time as Stormy, a phone sex operator, in the years just after her transition. Kate remembers that after being told by a regular caller, “‘Stormy, with a voice like that you were born to do phone sex.’ I thought to myself, not really, I wasn’t born with this voice.” Touching on the performance of gender, Kate lowers her voice to her natural ‘manly’ voice, and describes how she met with a voice instructor to learn how to ‘talk like a woman.’ After being told that women only speak in qualifying statements, she dropped the voice coach. Her roommate, after learning about the story, put on some Laurie Anderson albums for proper instruction. It’s a touching and funny example of how we are all performing our gender roles and that almost nothing we do is inherent, except our inner identities.
Around of the seventh anniversary of her genital conversion surgery, Kate wrote a spoken word piece, “The Seven Year Itch (What Goes Around Comes Around).” It explores the concept of how all our cells regenerate every seven years and how after this length of time we are a completely different person than we were before. The last section of her revolutionary book, Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us, is one of the most emotional monologues of the evening, providing insight on how our brains and our bodies aren’t as connected as we are taught to think. “Fifteen years after my hippie boy stage or two complete bodies later, when I went through with that surgery, when they raised and lowered that knife, when they cut through the blood, and bone and nerve, I thought to myself, now I’m gonna know some peace of mind. When they picked up a needle and thread, and sewed me back together, I thought to myself, now I’m gonna find my contentment. And when I lay there healing and the pain was so intense that all I could do was keep on crying, I said to myself, the war is over. But it didn’t quite work out that way, because there were still wars going on in my brain.” The monologue is graphic, sometimes disturbing, and something everyone needs to hear Kate read aloud.
The evening touches on many topics including gendered advertising, self-destruction, and suicide. In this topsy-turvy world that we now inhabit, it is a refreshingly honest dissection of what of it is like to not identify with the body in which you inhabit and/or to be an outsider. Many of us identify with that feeling, transgendered, non-conforming or none of the above. I walked away feeling uplifted and comforted by Kate’s wise words with a little more understanding and empathy for everyone. To wrap up the evening, Kate brings up the only rule that she abides by as a non-rule loving person taken from her must read, Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws: “Do anything it takes to make your life more worth living. Anything, anything at all. There is only one rule that makes that kind of blanket permission work. This rule is: don’t be mean. If you’re not being mean, you can do whatever the fuck you want to do to make your life worth living.” At the top of that list is to see this show.
Kate Bornstein: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us runs this Friday 4/28 & Saturday 4/29 at 9:30PM; Sunday 4/30 at 7:30PM & 6PM at La Mama on 66 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue & The Bowery.