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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Activist Bornstein visits ‘Deis

Published: October 6, 2006
Section: Arts, Etc.

The first of two public appearances at Brandeis by Kate Bornstein, transgendered author, performer, and activist, occurred Wednesday night in the Sherman Function Hall. In addition to Wednesdays performance, Kate will also host a more informal chat about sex in the Shapiro Atrium on Friday and will speak in multiple classes. I was fortunate enough to see Kate from three very different angles: a theorist, a performer, and a classmate.

On a side note, Im not going to use gender neutral pronouns to talk about Kate, partly because of my intense aversion to red spell check underlines, but also because, when asked, Kate explained that she tends to write about herself using female pronouns to avoid confusion or complication. She questions whether these relatively new gender neutral pronouns (most popularly ze and hir) will ever catch on in our culture, though she encourages their use and the ideas behind them.

My first glimpse of Kate was in my Sex and Culture class. In trying to relate her expertise to the course material, she asked if anyone was brave enough to come out as a heterosexual male. When one cocky guy laughed and raised his hand, she asked if that meant he was therefore attracted to any and all females, regardless of age, appearance, or possible lack of limbs. This was an unfair assumption, as the term heterosexual doesnt imply that youre attracted to all people of the opposite gender, but her intended point is a valid one. Gender categories are restrictive, and sometimes we set standards we cant live up to by placing them on ourselves and others. She suggests getting rid of gender labels entirely, which, for me at least, is a bit hard to grasp. Im all for expanding genders to include everybody, or changing categories, but its difficult to imagine life without them.

Another though-provoking point she brought up was about the shifting sexuality, at least in a liberal oasis like Massachusetts, from heterosexual/homosexual to queer/straight. This dichotomy is based on choice of sexual aim. Three-ways, foot fetishes, and use of sex toys would fall under queer, while wanting to get married or have kids would be considered straight. Under this structure, there is such thing as a straight lesbian.

I agree, to some extent, that there is a shift, but I disagree with her assertion that those on the straight side of the spectrum are also politically conservative. I dont think your sexual practices determine your politics, and just because you fall into one category doesnt mean you dont still respect or understand another.

On a more personal level, Kate is unexpectedly down to earth. While in performance she admits that she has a desire to shock her audience a little, but when she sat in on a thirteen person workshop it was as if we had an extra student for the day. We were able to discuss our own ideas about writing and how memoirs can hover in a gray area between fact and fiction. Kate is in the middle of writing her autobiography, and read some of the more painful excerpts to the class.

While some of Kates theories and beliefs are rather hard to swallow, her most prominent philosophy, dont be mean, was the focus of her performance. On Wednesday night, she read from her previous books, and explained her latest, Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws.

Kates main suggestion is to kill whatever part of you makes you depressed, whether that part is related to gender or not. The second portion of her talk was centered on the phrase Im giving myself permission to feel sexy, and how many doors that phrase can open for us and our identities. She was both engaging and often hilarious, pointing out that sex, gender, and desire are like Pokemon. I want to have them all, and she invites anyone who enjoys sex, or talking about sex, to join her.