An evening with Kate Bornstein caps yearlong project on queer theory and trans representation

University Communications

As part of a yearlong exploration of queer theory and the representation of transgender identity, Kristen Schilt and Chase Joynt hosted a symposium on Saturday, Nov. 8 at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts and at the Gray Center Lab. Joynt, a multimedia artist, and Schilt, assistant professor of sociology, have been working together on Tell Me The Truth, their Mellon Fellowship for Arts Practice and Scholarship supported by the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry.

The symposium brought together a bevy of scholars and artists for “Representing Trans*,” which featured myriad scholarly research, artistic practice, a film screening and a keynote talk by Kate Bornstein, an American author, playwright, performance artist and gender theorist.

A panel of sociologists included Viviane Namaste, Concordia University; They Meadow, Harvard University; and Salvador Vidal-Ortiz, American University. Artists and authors, including Amos Mac, Tiq Milan, Jen Richards, Monica Roberts and Ariel Schrag, joined the discussion.

Indeed, for Leslie Buxbaum Danzig, curator for the Gray Center, a spirit of lively minds challenging one another pervaded the symposium. For Danzig, bringing artists and scholars together is “less about collaboration (in the sense of teamwork and cooperation) and more about disruption—intervening in and complicating each other’s practices, assumptions, ways of knowing and processes of understanding.”

Chase and Schilt put it similarly: “Our goal with Representing Trans*—and our fellowship more broadly—is not to have the right conversations, or the best conversations, but rather to do everything in our power to keep various kinds of conversations going, and for that opportunity offered by the Gray Center, we continue to feel very grateful.”

The evening featured a screening of Sam Feder’s film Kate Bornstein Is a Queer and Pleasant Danger, after which Bornstein delivered an impassioned keynote talk and discussed the film with Feder.

“Kate carries insight, context and survival skills that are just as relevant today as they were when she started her work,” Schilt explains. “Kate’s ability to navigate historical and generational debates about the politics and practices of trans representation is remarkable, [and] Sam’s film is a contemporary re-thinking of Kate’s impact.”

‘Gender is relative’

Feder’s film consciously breaks out of typical trans narratives—the before and after of a discrete transition, the shifting reactions of family members and other similar story lines.

“It was really important for me that the queer universe, the trans universe, was at the center, and there was no explanation. There was no spoon-feeding,” says Feder. “That wasn’t a place we ended. It was where we started.”

Bornstein concurred: “For years, I had been answering the same old questions, and it got to be stale. But Sam doesn’t work that way. He always kept me on balance and out of the stale parts of myself.”

Bornstein also touched on the theme of productive and respectful (but complicated) disagreements. She quoted the Dalai Lama’s teaching of Profound Wisdom and Vast Compassion: The Essence of Eloquence. “It turns out,” Bornstein explained, “[that] the essence of eloquence is being able to speak the truth well so that it can be heard by other people.”

In part, Bornstein learned this means drawing a distinction between definitive truth and relative truth—that is, between those things that are inarguably true (“everybody dies,” was Bornstein’s example) and those things about which we can respectfully and productively disagree.

So, Bornstein began asking herself, “What is the definitive truth of gender?” Her conclusion was: “Gender is relative.” Whether gender is framed in relation to biology, social roles or performance, or morality, it always exists in relation to something. It cannot stand on its own. “So that being the case,” Bornstein asked, “of what value is that as a definitive truth?”

When asked what she found surprising about contemporary trans activism, Bornstein answered, “I think it’s the political correctness of many trans activists now, and the narrowing of the point of view when it comes to sex, sexuality—I wasn’t expecting that.” She went on to say that “the powers that be in this country have succeeded in carving up the radical left to such a point that all we do is fight amongst ourselves,” and that this disastrous lack of coalition makes progress nearly impossible.

But, Bornstein said hopefully, “if in fact gender is relative—and we understand that gender can’t stand on its own—then we have a space in which contrary notions of gender can exist peacefully and respectfully with other contrary notions of gender.”

“All we can do is ask of our words and ask of our representations: Are these words and representations aiding in the defusing and disarming of the violence done in the name of gender?” she said. It is at this juncture, she added, that a conversation can take place, and where mutual respect can be achieved even if both parties walk away from the discussion and go their separate ways. And that, Bornstein noted, is progress.

Gift card with a twist

At the end of the evening, every attendee received a “Get Out of Hell Free” card, fashioned after the Get Out of Jail Free cards from Monopoly, complete with Rich Uncle Pennybags taking flight from a birdcage on undersized angel wings.

“GET OUT OF HELL FREE,” the card read in part. “Do whatever you need or want to do in order to make life worth living. Love who and how you want to love.”