Who Are You?

Kate Bornstein (photo DA)
Who are you? This has been the burning question for most of Kate Bornstein's life. Woman. This is supposed to be her new, post-surgery identity. But as she showed us during her presentation at the Gender as Performance conference on October 23. Bornstein's identity is much more complex than just woman. Although she is a male-to-female transsexual, she says "I am not a woman. I am not a man. I break too many of [the] rules to be one or the other."

While her presentation specifically dealt with gender identity, it had a more universal theme. As humans, we have a need to feel as if we belong, she said, but belong to what is a different issue for each of us. Bornstein was looking to find a way to belong in the "gender club." It was this need to belong to the right gender that started her on her journey of studying gender. After physically becoming a woman, she found that it was not the Oz she had hoped for. Bornstein found that she was caught in the middle of arbitrary boundaries set up by our culture regarding gender. Since she was once a man, she was not considered a real woman, even after her surgery. This set her off on yet another journey to look at the ways in which gender is set up in our culture, the way gender defines our lives, and the inherent problems of a two-gender system. Bornstein's journey has taken her to being an actor, writer, sex worker, transgender activist, and, lecturer on the college circuit.

Bornstein walked into the Ruth Rowland Taylor Theatre in her custom-made platform shoes (pushing her well over the six-foot mark), form-fitting shiny black pants, a black spaghetti-strapped bustiér that showed off a tattooed band around her arm, and blonde hair falling to her shoulders. Her gaze fixed intently on each person she was speaking to, not letting one word go unheard.

In a conversational voice, she discussed her reasons for speaking out. She said, "I do it because I never know how to answer `Who are you?'" She gave the audience some of her background with a piece titled "Who are you?" which appeared in the New York Times earlier this year. She told us, "My mother only once asked me `Who are you?' That was about a week before she died. `Who are you, Albert?' she asked anxiously. I told her I was her baby boy. And that I was her daughter that she never had. She looked up at me, satisfied, and said, `That's good because I didn't want to lose any of you.'" With her audience captivated, Bornstein performed a monologue she wrote for her National Coming Out Day appearance at the Texas State Fair.

It was in this monologue that Bornstein delved further into gender identity. As someone who pushes at definitions of gender, she told us, "There's no identity out there big enough to hold me anymore. I'm just traveling through all sorts of identities, picking and choosing what works and leaving the rest behind." She said, "I'm really trying to come out to you here! Why? Because I want to belong. I want to feel like I've got a community, but there aren't too many communities, yet, made up of people who travel through sexual identity."

Bornstein is vulnerable, authentic, and deeply passionate about her message and her life. She likes to play with her identity. It is by traveling through identities she intends to finally find who she is, her ultimate purpose. "I keep traveling to find the place where my great joy meets the world's great hunger. . . . That's where I'll find my life's work."


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