Saturday, 7 February 2009

with arms outstretched - kate bornstein

Kate Bornstein

Celebrated transgender trailblazer Kate Bornstein is the author of the book, Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Outlaws. In the book Kate shares unorthodox methods of survival for navigating an often cruel world. The book is designed to encourage readers to give themselves permission to unleash their hearts’ harmless desires rather than kill themselves.
Kate’s life, lifestyle, opinions & style of writing are all jam packed with ideas for and examples of myth busting in order to survive in a life of our own choosing.

The book deconstructs the myths that many outlaws and outsiders didn’t know they had the permission to shatter before taking their own lives. Three of the biggies for me are that:
1. We can throw away morals; we’re not ‘bad’ for creating our own moral codes that are seen as ‘immoral’ by others.
2. We can deny our prophecies; we don’t have to be the person that we’re expected to be.
3. There are some games we never have to play; we don’t have to do the things mainstream society is doing in order for us to get on with our lives.
In the book Kate asks, ‘So what if a girl gets a crew cut and lets her chin hair grow? Who’s to say that that’s not she needs to do to survive in the world with some pride and integrity?’
Boy, is this book an important document that should be available in *all* schools, or what? – I sure know it’d have helped me out a lot.

I had the opportunity in September 2006 to interview Kate, who blew me away with hir friendliness, support and encouragement. We spoke about the book, gender outlaws, and myth-busting…

Hi Kate, how are you? What are you up to at the moment?
My current life challenge is figuring out how to promote a book that goes against the very cultural outlets most people use to promote books. So, I'm building up a web presence in the form of MySpace (where you and I met!), a blog, a website dedicated to the book, and a couple of forums that I belong to. All that, plus I'm getting ready to mount a shiny new solo performance piece (my first new show in ten years!)

Could you briefly sum up, in your own words, what your book, ‘Hello Cruel World’ is?
It's my answer to a world going increasingly sex negative and puritanical. The book is a collection of things I've done instead of killing myself. I'm pretty freaky, so it's something of value that I can give to other radicals before I die.

I spoke to you previously about how, upon hearing of your book (and associated website) I was instantly inspired to forward the details on to those I knew who were working as learning mentors in schools. I was aware that what I was reading about was something very important, and something that was saying more than usual youth support or counselling could, or would. The mentors I informed about your work were already trying to work to challenge discrimination within schools, and have spoken to me in the past about how much they wanted to help those students who were being victimised for not ‘fitting in’ as this was impacting upon their quality of life, and their interest in school, and life. A book like yours could only support the ways in which they were working with these ‘teen outsiders’, and help provide further weight to help challenge the dominant thoughts, school structures and limitations which are in place that restrict the effectiveness of mentor’s work, and restricts the extent to which these teens can believe in themselves.
Thank you. I agree, that's where the real work needs to be done. I don't think it'll be done with my book which is more of a lightening rod right now than it is a viable alternative to conservative values.

How aware were you when writing the book that what you were writing was crucially *needed* within schools, and that what you were writing was something unique?
While I was writing the book, I *wished* it would make it onto the bookshelves of public schools. I tried writing it in as caring and thoughtful a voice as I could find inside myself. So far, though, the response in the US has been that the book is too radical to actually make it into the schools. My best guess is that'll change over the next decade or so.

You have mentioned in an interview that ‘We’re supposed to believe that children are left behind for no other reason than their schooling. That’s such bullshit! Children are left behind all the time because of they’re queer or they’re fat or they don’t believe in their parents’ god, or they want to have a good time, or because the only way they can see to save their own lives is to cut themselves, whatever, they get left behind.’
Yeah, this whole "no child left behind" is a perfect example of how an essentialist theocracy gets to define which children *should* be left behind, by simply never mentioning them! Makes me SO fucking angry.

It’s a huge question, but why do you think it is that society on a whole does not want to admit to or challenge the fact that the discriminations and prejudices that many are inherently *taught* about other human beings are actually damaging others livelihoods and are often driving children (and adults) to suicide?
Answer that one, and I'll follow you anywhere. The answer has something to do with the fact that we as a culture tend to idolize mean people because it's the mean people who get all the toys. When enough mean people have control of things, they get to be mean to the very same people they were mean to when they were in high school. No one ever stops high school and junior high school kids from being mean. No one gives them fun, empowering alternatives to being mean. How many times have you heard the phrase (uttered in all sincerity) "Nice guys finish last."

By writing the book and aiming it at teens (though admittedly widening out its focus to include *all* of us who are ‘different’, outsiders, freaks and outlaws in comparison to hegemonic society), do you hope that the book can enable perceptions to be altered early on in individual’s lives – and thus stop people growing up with oppressions and restrictions established in their lives?
Hahahahahahahaha! We are sympatica. See my answer to the last question. Yah, that's exactly what I'm hoping. I'm hoping to put a dent in bully culture at its inception.

I recently finished reading Toni Morrison’s book, The Bluest Eye, and I don’t know if you’ve read it, but the book (amongst other things) makes the reader focus on the constructs of ‘beauty’ within society, within black communities, and between black and white communities. One character within the book, Pecola has been systematically taught, seemingly unconsciously, that she is not beautiful. It is inferred that she does not match up to hegemonic standards of beauty. Her one dream is to have the bluest of blue eyes (like the white girls who are pronounced beautiful by our societies, our communities) so that she would be seen as ‘something’, as ‘somebody’, as ‘valid’, even within her own black community.
Of the book, Toni Morrison has written that ‘the assertion of racial beauty was not a reaction to the self-mocking, humorous critique of cultural/racial foibles common in all groups, but against the damaging internalisation of assumptions of immutable inferiority originating in an outside gaze. I focussed, therefore, on how something as grotesque as the demonization of an entire race could take root inside the most delicate member of society: a child; the most vulnerable member: a female. […]] But singular as Pecola’s life was, I believed some aspects of her woundability were lodged in all young girls.’

yes, if not all young children of any gender

It’s reading things like this that make me realise time and time again just how much we*need* to be shown and taught the alternatives to what society is providing us with, as we *all* have lodged within us a potential for woundability due to the critical and judging external gaze of society.
How have external gazes in your personal life (past, and I guess still presently) made you feel demonized? How has this driven you to counter such feeling of inferiority within yourself, and driven you to help challenge others’ feelings of inferiority by wiring this book?

I've not read Ms. Morrison's book. But what you've described reminds me of the story of the ugly duckling who grows up to be a beautiful swan and lives happily (and beautifully) ever after. I think it's the rare child who grows up in today's world simply loving hirself for whatever it might be ze is. It's the nature of today's advertising techniques to make each and every one of us feel inadequate so that we feel compelled to buy whatever it takes to help us fit in, look more like (or better than) other people, and be liked by others whom we are told are our betters. And even if, as adults, we realize we're swans and not ducks after all, it still takes a lot of work to believe we're beautiful.

I can't imagine anyone who's reading this interview who hasn't been made to feel demonized by some external gaze or other. The particular gazes that have demonized me (and to some degree continue to demonize me) are the looks that tell me I'm fat or a Jew; that I'm not a real woman, that I never was a real man. That I've always been too smart for my own good (whatever that means!), that my work is more harmful than helpful to people, and that I'm not worthy of any respect in today's culture. On good days, I can laugh at all that. But good days come few and far between, which gets back to why I wrote the friggin' book! hahahahahaha!

Aside from the 101 alternatives to suicide, your manifesto on life that makes up the first half of the book is packed with inspiring, encouraging, supportive, compassionate, and essential myth-busting that could help people realise, achieve, or believe in a better quality of life for themselves, as an alternative to death.
That's lovely to hear. Thank you.

Speaking personally, I was once a firm adherer (due to how I was schooled to think by education, society, family and beyond) to the myth of either/or (which for me manifested itself as the myth of Right or Wrong, and thus a monumentally destructive pursuit for perfection that led me to deny so much of myself and shatter my own happiness for many years as I felt my ‘self’ didn’t fit into the category of ‘right’, for many reasons).
Yikes, you poor thing! Right-or-Wrong is one of the most slippery of the indefinable binaries. Black-or-White is at least observable, as is Rich-or-Poor, and even Order-or-Chaos. But grappling with Right-or-Wrong is pretty much as difficult as grappling with Life-or-Death.

On the myth of either/or you write in the book that: ‘Why are those of us who don’t fit into some either/or told that our pursuit of happiness doesn’t count? Are we going to continue nit-picking over exactly which happiness is legal and important, and which happiness is illegal and unimportant? Who has the right to say whose happiness is right? It all comes down to the mythology we grew up with.’
How important is it for you to help shatter the either/or myth that we grew up with, and myths in general?

Either/or is most emphatically spoken, defended and enforced by bullies; and since bullies piss me off and I don't want any bullies picking on my people (teens, freaks, and other outlaws), it then becomes my life's work to shatter the myth of either/or... or prove that some either/or exists *somewhere,* which I've not yet discovered.

How destructive do you think it is for people to be raised to think of life and their self as a binary to be adhered to?
Some people lead really good lives within some binary, assuming they're on the side of that binary that's entitled to have a good life -- like being rich in a rich-or-poor world, or pretty in a pretty-or-ugly world. Where binaries become destructive is when they depend on some people being inherently better off at the expense of other people. Socialism, Marxism, and even Communism have sought to remedy this notion of an economic either/or, but no one's yet managed to solve the problem.

Look, the world has gotten along just fine and dandy with well over 99% of the population believing that their lives are a predictable part of some sort of binary. The key word is "predictable," because no one likes the idea of insecurity and unpredictability! And the world will no doubt *continue* to get along just fine and dandy even if a few of us say NO to some of the binaries. But there seem to be more and more people saying NO; and I'm just curious, curious, curious to see what happens the day when the planet reaches a tipping point and the number of people who don't believe in either/or outweigh the number of people who do believe it. That'll be one hoot of a day, you betcha.

By speaking of busting myths such as either/or in the book it instils a lot of empowerment and agency within readers and followers of your advice; agency that has perhaps been missing in an individual’s life and thus has perhaps led them down the path of feeling trapped by restriction, stifled by rulings, despairing and thus contemplating suicide.
I used to live in Philadelphia, back in the 1980's and I was a brand new tranny. My best friend at the time got mugged on the street one night. She was a small woman. He was a very big man. He damn near killed her. She was freaked out for years. A counsellor met with all of her friends and stressed how important it was that we let her know she's got choices, she's got options, she can make up her own mind; and that it was important we didn't say "this is the way to do it." That lesson stuck with me. We've all of us been beaten up--psychically if not physically--and we all need the reassurance that we have choices, and the agency to make decisions. That counted a lot for how I wrote the book.

Do you believe that being able to feel unique (and/or powerful) due to gaining agency over life choices and decisions can improve quality of life?
For a while, sure. But to what end do you want to improve the quality of your life? The feeling of being unique and/or powerful is itself a trap. Each of us is completely unique. Each of us is all-powerful. Which of course means that no one is unique, and that power can only be put to good use if it's shared. That's what lies beyond either/or: the celebration of difference and the sharing of power. That's the kind of world, government, group, tribe or family that *I'd* like to be part of.

Two of the most empowering passages in the whole book, for me, are written in a way that challenges dominant culture and the myth that our culture’s rulings and morals should be abided to by all, regardless of how limiting, prejudicial and judgemental they may be.
You write:
‘We come to believe [due to those in positions of power] that we are wrong, sick, bad, or evil just for wanting the object of our desire. Just not true. Unless what you want means being mean to someone else, there’s nothing you could want that’s wrong, sick, bad or evil.’
And that:
‘Blind, unconscious obedience to this culture’s dream of a good-or-bad system of sexual desire is killing a lot of us, and that’s no way or reason to die. It’s the discovering of our individual desires beyond good-or-bad that makes a decent quality of life conceivable.’

HaHa! I'm particularly fond of both those passages, myself.

Speaking personally again, (sorry!)
omigoodness, please try not to apologize for speaking personally... it's the personal that allows for a two-way communication between a writer and a reader. impersonal writing assumes a higher ground that allows for no critique by the reader who by default occupies the lower ground.

I have spent a lot of time in counselling debating the word, and the importance and dangers of the word ‘Bad’ in my life, and who has the right to deem another ‘bad’.
Why do you think society creates these categories and myths of ‘immorality’ and ‘badness’?

Well, good-and-bad is an excellent system for keeping a lot of people from killing or hurting a lot of other people. And for the most part, it works. Most religions, the idea of law and order, and all systems of morality are built on the notion of good-and-bad; and it's been religion, law and order, and morality that's kept the humanity from completely destroying itself up to this point. But just because something works sort of okay (which is about as effective as the notion of good-and-bad is ever going to get), it doesn't mean we shouldn't abandon that either/or system as we implement a more effective system for universal survival and well-being. It's why I've got alternatives in the book like, "Shatter some family values," and "Throw away morals." The world will be a lot better off if more of us simply did those two things.

Do you think a danger of creating such good-or-bad systems is that many of us end up wanting what somebody else tells us we should want, just so that we are seen to be being ‘good’? Just how dangerous do you think that is?
It's not particularly dangerous at first, especially if what we're being told to want is sort of okay anyway. The danger is that a good-or-bad system robs us of the need to make those decisions for ourselves, so we're out of practice when a situation comes up where we need* to decide on our own, but we haven't had the experience. Granted, in a crisis situation, it comes in really handy to recall a catch phrase like "Thou shalt not kill." I bet that one has saved a fuck of a lot of lives, so it's not all bad. But within that same moral code (The Ten Commandments), there's the admonishment to "Honor thy mother and thy father." That's just nonsense, as it only works well if thy mother and thy father have earned the right to be honored by thee. What if your parents are jerks? We're still supposed to honor them? I don't think so.

The very title of your book, ‘101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks & Other Outlaws’ is hugely myth busting, in that for many people even the idea that there could be an alternative to ending their life is unthinkable.
Thanks. It's funny, but I don't think the word "suicide" appears in the book more than once or twice beyond its use in the title. It's such an antiseptic word, covering up the horror of its reality. But I wanted to use it in the title because it pushes SO many buttons. I'm glad you noticed.

Taking this even further you have stated, ‘do anything you feel you need to do to stay alive. Fuck legality, fuck morality.’
Yes, but always with the caveat: Don't be mean.

To have such passionate faith in the current teen generation, and in outsiders, and to want the best for their future so that they can contribute to the world in all their individual ways, and with their lives; for you to promote that faith with such unwavering conviction by writing a don’t-hurt guidebook like this one makes me wonder to what degree you are angry that nobody else is saying these things, and angry that our bully-culture (which largely creates rather than battling poor self worth and suicide) is allowed to preponderate?
A lot of people are saying what I'm saying. I'm just saying things a bit more radically that many other people. Jesse Jackson is saying what I'm saying. Martin Luther King said (much better than I ever could) what I'm saying. But people today are not exposed to radical voices. The most we get to hear are liberal voices. But the liberal left is no match for the radical right, so I wanted to raise a voice on the left that was as radical as the right wing radical voice, only kind.

Do you wish somebody had told you to do anything you needed to do to stay alive?
Oh, but people did tell me! The guy in college who handed me my first marijuana cigarette was telling me that. The woman who first asked me what sexual fantasy I'd like to play out with her... she was telling me to do anything I needed to do to stay alive. When my brother gave me the keys to his car, knowing I was too young to drive legally, he was giving me a good reason to stay alive. The world has always been filled with people telling other people to stay alive at all costs. The only thing that's new about my book is that it's a book! Before Hello, Cruel World, you just sorta had to look around or wait to hear by chance what you needed to hear to make life more worth living. Now, you can go out and buy a book. How cool is that? But NONE of my 101 alternatives to killing yourself is new. People have been doing every single one of them for thousands of years. I think that my contribution to the idea of doing whatever you need to do to stay alive is twofold: I put it down in writing, all in one place. And I added the one rule that makes that way of living work: Don't be mean.

I'm sad, not angry, that the book doesn't seem to be getting a fair shake in the mainstream media. That's depressing. I was sure I'd written Hello, Cruel World in a voice that even the most conservative critic would have a difficult time disputing. What I'd forgotten is that critics like that (and the media they control and bully) don't need to read a book in order to dismiss it out of hand or act to effectively invisibilize it.

For me, one of the most politically important comments you make is about removing the power of society over our lives. You speak about giving *yourself* permission, not allowing the permission of others to govern you.
You know how people are always studying biology in order to explain stuff? Well about ten years ago, I read some article that the organic difference between the teenage brain and the post-teen brain is that teens do not have the organic ability to consider the consequences of their actions. Yikes. So, the aim of my book is to empower people to make their own decisions, give themselves their own permissions, and strike out on new pathways of their lives, all by familiarizing them with the consequences. Each one of the alternatives to suicide includes both its positive and negative consequences. I'm trusting people--teens included--to make decisions based on what's going to be not-mean to other people.

It’s a tough question, but I’m going to ask you something that you pose in the book, just ‘how can you rid yourself of an identity assigned to you by someone who’s got the power to enforce the assignment?’
Well, it's what I did when I went through my gender change from male to female. I researched the (male) identity I was living in as thoroughly as I could. I examined what I had, and what I'd be giving up. I listed out things I'd gain from getting rid of my male identity, and the things I'd lose and gain by taking on a new (female) identity. I examined the value system I was subscribing to that made it difficult for me to consider getting rid of my male identity. I examined a new-to-me value system (feminism) that valued female identities. Finally, I had to prioritize identity and desire over power, which isn't an easy thing to do.

How ‘easy’ do you realistically think this is to do within our established lives and lifestyles? – one of the 101 alternatives to suicide in the book is ‘run away and hide’, thus perhaps requiring us to build new lives and lifestyles, identities we want, and alternative spaces to live them in;
Yah, a lot of people think you're copping out by travelling to some other part of the world to become your own heart's desire. But WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH THAT?!?!

Do you think it is possible to rid yourself of an identity effectively and keep living our established lives?
No, it's not possible. To borrow words from a smarter person than me, "It's a lot easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the gates of heaven." The notion of an established life is itself a lie. The key idea behind the 101 alternatives to suicide is the notion of life as constant change. It's like what seasoned recovering alcoholics tell newbies: AA is an easy-peasy program. All you have to do is stop drinking.... and change *everything* about your entire life.

As well as speaking about allowing ourselves permission to live a happy, healthy life, guilt free, you also speak of giving ourselves permission to ‘take another stab at putting together the kind of identity that makes you feel like you’re being true to yourself and that life is worth living’ (an identity that we as individuals get to decide ourselves), and ‘permission to become the type of person you’ve always wanted to be.’
(as long as the you that you want to be doesn't make you mean to other people)

As a ‘gender outlaw’ who has refused an either/or identity, and allowed hirself permission to think outside the box regarding an identity of gender or sexuality, how has that affected your approaches to the hell that is often life, and the avoidance of suicide?
It's the demons who are happy in hell, not the angels. Admitting my own demon status--and revealing my demon status to the rest of the world--has allowed me to get along here in hell, a whole lot better than when I was trying to be an angel. This obviates the need for and consideration of suicide as an option.

Politically, to what degree do you believe social change = suicide prevention and suicide prevention ==social change?
I don't think that society does anything *but* change. And I don't believe that anyone can prevent suicide: their own, or anyone else's. Permit me to resort to Buddhist-speak. Rather than working for social change, it's a a great deal more possible and effective to work for the cessation of suffering for all sentient beings, including (and often starting with) ourselves. The older I get, the more I realize that kind of action is the most politically effective thing a person can do.

Kate, thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions. Your book, and particularly the manifesto at the beginning means such a great deal to me. I guess it’s that feeling of identity consolidation that comes along oh-so rarely; y’know, that feeling in the pit of your stomach to know that somebody else ‘gets’ it, and is articulating something that you know is so very important. So important in fact that you find yourself nodding along as you read, and underlining sentences that you wish you’d written yourself!! You’re a star Kate! Thank you. All the best, Melanie xxx
To shine a bit in your sky, then I consider myself both fortunate and fulfilled.
Thanks for the opportunity to contribute to your work. I'm so looking forward to what you'll be doing over the next decade or so. We're in touch now, and I'd very much like to keep it that way.
Warmly and with great respect

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