Her father was a Lutheran minister. Her mother was Miss Betty Crocker, 1939. Indeed, self-proclaimed "gender terrorist" Kate Bornstein has come a long way from her conventional childhood. Originally known as Albert Bornstein, since undergoing gender-reassignment surgery in 1986, Bornstein has become a true transsexual, donning a 1970s-style mustache one day, cherry-red lipstick the next (and, on occasion, both at the same time). Her mission: to dismantle the binary gender system as we known it.
Actually, make that "zir mission": as a transexual, Bornstein opts for the gender-neutral pronouns "zir" and "ze." Gender neutrality is one of many issues explored in Bornstein's work, which aims to shift the concept of gender from a concrete biological fact to fluid self-conception. Using "the Bodhisattva Approach," Bornstein tackles gender in a silly yet thoughtful manner, like a rule made to be broken. She's brought her cause to the public eye via performance art, acting and numerous appearances on daytime television.
Bornstein is most known, however, for her prolific writing. Her first book, Gender Outlaws: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us, is half manifesto on gender and sexuality, half coming-of-age memoir about growing up transgendered. Released in 1994, it created waves as one of the first mainstream books to openly challenge the binary concept of gender. Bornstein followed up with 1997's My Gender Workbook, which further challenged the notions of the reader, and society as a whole. Employing an entertaining "workbook" approach, Bornstein used crosswords, aptitude tests and other elementary-school staples to guide readers into questioning their own conceptions of gender. The book uses a curious, explorational tone to approach subversive concepts, making the subject too light-hearted and fun to alienate the reader.
In an abrupt departure, Bornstein's latest book is a novel: Co-written with Caitlin Sullivan, Nearly Roadkill is part of the emerging "e-mail lit" genre. Told entirely in chat text and inbox messages, it's the tale of two online lovers who never reveal their identities (or genders) to each other. A series of unfortunate events propels the duo to cult stardom as the FBI attempts to chase them down. The book features dialogue exploring (what else?) the nature of gender as we know it, as well as steamy ungendered Internet sex scenes.
Although many Americans have become comfortable with the gay and lesbian communities, gender-variant people have had a harder time reaching even minimal levels of acceptability. In addition, rifts within the community have separated drag queens from sissy boys, lipstick femmes from butch dykes. Bornstein aims to unite everyone by creating an ever-changing, fluid notion of gender that's truly one-size-fits-all.
As the keynote speaker for the first Steel City Gender Conference, Bornstein will approach the issue of unity within the community, as well as displaying her usual gender-busting wit and bravado.