Low Tide is the recording project of Eli Oberman and Courtney Robbins. Robbins and Oberman are current members of NY feminist punk band The Shondes (Rolling Stone, SPIN, BUST). The Alchemist, entirely self-produced, will be Oberman’s first solo record as a nonbinary artist, carefully constructed to relate the “holy balance” necessary to facilitate a meaningful and contented reality.
Low Tide take the arduous expanse of existence and condense it into a series of lovingly orchestrated and tenderly sung compositions. The Alchemist conspires to embrace the complexities of life, the fractious nature of existence, the elemental way humanity seems to simultaneously be disassembling and recreating, in an effort to simplify how we all manage them — an ostensibly herculean task. Oberman was met with the visage of The Alchemist, a genderless symbol of life’s precarious balancing act that — if balanced appropriately — can engender happiness and joy. Existing in the pastoral crevices that have birthed such mossy-hilled folk-classics as Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece and, more recently, the trauma-folk of Big Thief and the haunting warmth of Antony and the Johnsons and PJ Harvey, the band’s first release is lucky enough to not only carry this oft-under recognized style, but to insinuate such a unique perspective as to make something anachronistic sound fresh again.
The Alchemist, implicitly baked in the ambiguity of gender, the detritus of our internal and external lives, and a sweeping milieu of gothic romanticism, is a stunning document of not only a band in full bloom, but also an encapsulation of the world we all live in, offering not just a document of life in America in 2019, but also the world’s introduction to what is sure to be an electrifying future for the band.
(Photo Credit: Jeanette Sears)
Kate Bornstein is an actor and the author of groundbreaking books like Gender Outlaw and My New Gender Workbook; Eli Oberman is a musician who’s performed in The Shondes and, most recently, Low Tide. Here, they discuss their shared experiences battling cancer and living with mental illness, and the importance of fun in both expressing and analyzing gender. Also, check out “Whisper,” a new music video from Low Tide, below!
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor
Eli Oberman: Just before we started recording, Kate said that health and aging is one of the things that was top of mind these days, so I’d love to hear what you’re thinking about it.
Kate Bornstein: Well, I’m about to turn 72. I mean, death is inevitable, and the older you get, the more you think about it. I spent most of my life suicidal. A lot to do with the trans stuff — what a freak I am. By then it became a habit, and I was just always suicidal. But nowadays, I’m still fascinated by death. The closest I can come to squaring away what it might be is knowing that I’m gonna die, and I have no idea when. It could be in the next three minutes. It could be in the next 30 years. I don’t know.
But what I do know is that death is going to be the loss of everything. What I’m doing now is seeing the loss of things as they occur as a rehearsal for death. When I say loss, I [mean] loss of motion — my back is really bad. Loss of ability to eat the stuff I really like to eat because my stomach is bad. Loss of range of motion of my hands, that sort of thing. Friends my age are passing. So learning how to cope with that kind of loss I think is, for me, the challenge.
Hopefully I’ll die awake — not in my sleep, but in the bed awake going, “Op, here it comes!” My mother — I’ve told people this a lot — when I was a child, she used to tell me, “Albert” she would say, “every night I go to sleep I try to recognize the exact moment I fall asleep.”
Kate: “I never have been able to do that. I know when I’m falling asleep, I know when I’m waking up, but the moment I fall asleep, no. I think if I can pinpoint the exact moment I fall asleep, I’ll have a better understanding of death.”
Eli: So you come by your fascination honestly then. Can I go back to you saying that for so much of your life you were suicidal? Because we share a very particular experience that I have not met anyone else who shares, which is both being trans, both being suicidal for most of our lives, and then both having lived through cancer. I remember you saying — I’m paraphrasing, but something to the effect of, in the film about you, Kate Bornstein is a Queer and Pleasant Danger, that it was surprising or unexpected to you, having been suicidal for your whole life, to have found yourself fighting for your life. That was my experience as well, and is something that I just haven’t heard anyone else talk about. In the film you say, “I haven’t quite figured that one out yet.” That was a few years ago, and I’m wondering if you figured it out yet?
Kate: I believe I have. I am still as fascinated with death as I was. Now it’s no longer a compulsion, no longer an obsession. I’m extremely interested, and it’s become my priority — I would like to see what that moment of death is, and I’m not going to be able to do that if I’m all freaked out about dying, if I’m all freaked out about losing things. The moment my breath stops, what’s gonna happen then? At some point it just changed from an obsession to an exercise in changing the way I approach life. How about you?
Eli: I don’t know if I have an explanation for it, but I do think that the way that I approached my life and especially my depression and mental health stuff really, really changed after I was sick. I think what it did was raise the bar for what was acceptable to me. To sit there and feel like I just fought so hard and went through so much physical pain and difficulty to fight for my life, is the life that I have been living — where I feel terrible all the time — is that an acceptable quality of life? For the first time, the answer was no, that’s not acceptable to me anymore. If I just fought so hard for this thing and I still just want to die, that’s not OK. I think it just really made me open to new ways of dealing with my depression, new ways of talking to people about it. I feel like it really motivated me to make my life better and I’m really, really grateful for that.
Kate: What have you been doing to make your life better?
Eli: I had been really, really resistant to medication for a long time. I still have some of the critiques of it, like the fact that we’re a really over-medicated culture, the fact that the reason a lot of people are depressed is because our world is terrible not because there’s something wrong with their brain, and we should organize and struggle for justice together instead of blaming ourselves. I still have all of those critiques, but also sometimes you need help. I believe in harm reduction and being on medication has really, really helped me.
Also, just the openness with which I talk about it to other people. I feel like so many people struggle with mental health stuff and yet no one is talking about it. Just being really, really transparent with the people in my life about what being there for each other means and looks like and having real family in that way. You know? Chosen family.
Kate: I’m just going to say what I live with and then you can choose to say what you live with or not: I live with PTSD and borderline personality disorder. Those are the two big challenges I’ve got. I have learned from both of them, basically, how to deal with being triggered, is what it comes down to. How to get myself out of a deep hole of uncontrollable emotions. How about you? What’s been your challenge?
Eli: I mean, it’s just really, really severe depression my whole life. I think the hole — getting out of that hole, I relate to that so much. It’s hard to explain to somebody who’s never been in it. I think when I’m in the hole, it’s also not just about me, it’s about how I relate to the world. Empathy is a good thing, and yet we all have to shut parts of ourself off to function in the world. When I’m in that hole I can’t do it, and so every person I see — we live in New York, so I see a lot of people just getting to work on the train — I see pain in their faces, or I see someone who is asking for money and is hungry. The state of the world just becomes unbearable to me. It radiates from my own stuff out. I just see it in everybody, and I don’t know how to bear it.
Kate: How have you been bearing? I was going to say, where do you take refuge?
Eli: Art, I guess, and all of the amazing political organizing that people are doing in the world. Those are really the two things. Music in particular has really saved my life. I can point to, like, “This actual song saved my life,” but also just that there are things of beauty even though the world is a really difficult place, and that those things of beauty make you feel alive and connect you to some sense of purpose. And making music has always been very closely connected to my survival. If I’m not making music, my mental health goes downhill really fast. How about for you?
Kate: I won’t call it art; I’ll call it philosophy. In May of 2014, Time magazine came out with “The Transgender Tipping Point.”
Eli: Mhm. I remember it.
Kate: With Laverne Cox on the cover, and I remember going, “Bullshit!” No trans people I know are getting any better work or living conditions or health care. Nothing! I realized back then that transgender had been redefined, basically, by Time magazine — or just some trans people talking to Time magazine. “Transgender” used to be an umbrella term for anybody fucking around with gender. Nowadays, it still is that to many people, but to a broader public, “transgender” means men, women, boys, and girls who have transitioned out of another gender. Not that that’s a bad thing, it’s just a different thing. It’s one aspect of being trans, one way to fuck with gender. But that has become emblematic of the only real way to do it.
Now there’s all this infighting within trans and, of course, within LGBTQIA of: Who’s got the right way of doing gender? Who’s got the right way of doing sexuality? Who’s the right kind of gay man? Who’s the right kind of lesbian? Who’s the right kind of transgender person? What I’m working on as an elder is calming that down, defusing that. I want my family to stop fighting with each other. What lifts me up is making progress and articulating a new way to look at gender and sexuality such as it admits many interpretations as equally valid. And I’m doing it! It would be lovely if I get this book done before I’m dead; if not, someone can recover it from my computer. I’m working on a book called Gender, Just For The Fun Of It.
Eli: I want to ask you about the book you’re working on. But as you were saying that about the Time magazine cover and “The Transgender Tipping Point,” I’m realizing as we’re talking that today is October 8, which is coincidentally the day that the Supreme Court is hearing arguments about whether it was OK to fire Aimee Stephens, a trans woman, for coming out as trans. That’s happening today as we speak. What you’re saying, that basic, basic, basic rights are still being argued about — not only was that true in 2014, it’s true right now, today. So that’s sort of top of my mind, thinking about that. I hope that if anyone is reading this, they will go look up that case and see what’s going on.
I think when I first started questioning my own gender and reading your books — which were really, really helpful to me in trying to figure out what it was about. I always so appreciated the playfulness that you bring to it, and the embracing of being outlaws and outsiders and freaks. That meant and continues to mean so much to me, and that’s how I like to approach it as well.
I also remember “coming out,” whatever that means — it’s a continuous life process of changing and growing — but when I was starting that process in the early 2000s here in New York, that was still a time when trans people were being excluded from LGB spaces. Communities I thought were my home, it was suddenly very clear that it was not my home. The history of all of this is very real and very present. You talk about infighting, and I feel really lucky to have gotten to see a lot of that change in my life so far, so I just wanted to validate that.
But will you tell me more about Gender, Just For The Fun Of It?
Kate: The subtitle of the book speaks to exactly what you’re talking about — Compassionate Gender Strategies for Divisive Times. Because what I have found is that the nature of gender as it’s practiced anywhere today in the world is divisive, going back to the war between the sexes. There’s always been men against women, straight against queer. Now it’s binary trans against nonbinary trans, and it’s visible genderqueer against nonbinary people who are passing. That sort of divisiveness, what I’m seeing it comes down to, is that we each have a truth of gender that we’ve learned and developed over our lifetime. We know everybody in the world knows what gender is, but people are hard-pressed to put that into words. And when they do, their truth of gender rarely matches up with anybody else’s truth of gender. I’ve been looking for: Is there a definitive truth of gender, one ring to rule them all?
Eli: Do you think there is?
Kate: No, I came up with it.
Eli: What is it?
Kate: The definitive truth of gender is that gender is relative to context and point of view. Everything else is arguable.
Eli: Yeah. That rings true for me, for sure. I mean, I do use the term nonbinary to describe myself — I haven’t heard you use that word, but I’ve heard you say you’re not man, not woman. In terms of our gender expression, it’s very different and I love that. Because it is relative to context and experience and all of this stuff, and I think that the fact that you and I could use similar words or terminology to describe our genders and look so different from each other, that’s beautiful to me.
I think that sense of not being either of the two options that were given to me has been a pretty defining characteristic of my life in terms of how I experience myself and I how I experience the world and also how I make art, which I think is partly why making music is part of my mental health needs. It’s a refuge where I can create a world in which I make sense as a part of it. Whereas in the real world, I mostly don’t feel that there’s a place for me. Have you ever felt anything like that in terms of either your writing or your acting?
Kate: It’s why I write. When Gender Outlaw, my first book, came out in like 1994, “nonbinary” wasn’t a word. Not-man, not-woman was the only language I had. I think we were calling it the bipolar gender system back then, because binary at all wasn’t a word.
Eli: Wow. I’d never heard that, “bipolar gender.”
Kate: The original edition of Gender Outlaw, I’ve updated it since.
When I’m writing a play or a story, I get to create from scratch. I can do whatever I want and totally disappear into it. When I’m writing to the idea of gender, I can’t do that. I have to keep articulating it over and over and over again to say, “OK, when I say this, is that going to include everybody? Is that going to include this viewpoint, that viewpoint? Will the words I’m using be understood?”
Eli: Are [writing fiction and non-fiction] both pleasurable in different ways? Or is one of them more so?
Kate: More pleasurable to me is the latter — chasing down the philosophy of it, figuring out something that’s going to be helpful. Making it entertaining is the cherry on top, but figuring out the basics of what I want to say is the most gratifying. Tibetan Buddhists call it analytical meditation. It’s the thought process you go through before you teach something to somebody. “How am I going to word this? How am I going to lay this all out?” It’s rabbinical thinking in the Talmud. That kind of thinking, I’ve always loved. That’s my favorite. I could have been a rabbi if Judaism and I had gotten along.
Eli: [Laughs.] That makes me want to ask you about your process, for writing or pre-writing, the thinking, and just sort of if you’ve tracked an evolution of your process?
Kate: I have not tracked an evolution of my process.
Eli: [Laughs.] Is it different every time?
Kate: Yeah! These days I’m writing and lecturing and acting. I’m deeply involved with two plays that are in workshop right now, one of which is going to have its world premiere this coming summer. Shakina Nayfack’s work. It’s a nice role.
I think acting is the most pleasurable thing for me to do. That was my first art form. When I was living as a boy, I learned I could become anybody I wanted to be on stage. I think that was really good preparation for my transition. I first transitioned into womanhood, and my next transition’s out of womanhood into open space.
Eli: That makes a lot of sense. I think the reason music is that space for me — partly just, I started doing it when I was really young, so it was already there for me — but I think the fact that it was a nonverbal, even though I’m a hyper-verbal person in a lot of ways, it was a space for me, playing violin, to be nonverbal and nonphysical. Like, I’m a body producing the sound, but the sound itself doesn’t have a body. The thing I’m producing is not a gendered thing. I think it still feels like a space for me that’s visceral where I don’t have to explain myself. I don’t have to define myself and say, “This is what I am.” It’s like, just experience the thing. The way that sound and music touches me and my experience of that, I think, is a little bit analogous to the way that you talk about acting. It felt like a free space to be in.
Kate: Well, this brings me to what I wanted to find out from you was when I first met you. I knew you as the Klezmer Magician. Klezmer is one of my favorite genres of music — it’s wacky, it’s slapstick, and it’s the most heartrending-and-joyful-all-at-once music. Take all of Fiddler on the Roof down to its essence, and you have the music you created. I’ve always loved what you’ve been able to do, I’ve been in awe of that. Now, I’m in awe of your totally new genre, which defies definition anymore. And, not to mention, your singing. I’m also singing in two shows that I’m working on, for me it was a big deal, because voice in gender transition is a really big deal.
Eli: Yes, it’s a really big deal.
Kate: It’s a signifier. You hear the voice and — “Oh, that’s a man’s voice! Oh, that’s a woman’s voice!” There hasn’t been a gender-neutral or gender-free voice really since the Castrati, the unearthly voices. You’ve got an unearthly singing voice, my darling. You’re an angel singing.
Eli: I’m very humbled by that. Thank you!
Kate: Well, it’s true. So I want to know, what’s your story? How did you go from klezmer to nonverbal, as you were saying? I’m assuming you wrote the songs?
Eli: My original roots were in classical. I played classical violin from when I was four till when I was about maybe 13 or 14. My experience of that, and I think a lot of people’s experience of that, was, it was just so toxic. Not the music, but the culture around it was so mean and so competitive to a degree I can’t explain. People would say if you meet another violinist, don’t shake their hand, because the implication is they’ll try to break your fingers. When I was in orchestras, if the conductor heard something that he didn’t like, he would make each individual person stand up and play it by themselves and publicly humiliate them. It just it sucked all the joy out of music for me. It was my first love, and all of a sudden it was just horrible.
That was why I quit. After I quit, we had a family friend who was probably the first queer person that I knew was queer that I had ever met. Her name was Freyda Epstein, also a Jew. She had been classically trained also, but she had switched over to doing folk music and Appalachian bluegrass and fiddle tunes. I took lessons with her for a year before she moved away, and she really broke the classical in me, which needed to be broken.
She taught me how to play by ear, and this one lesson I’ll never forget. This was back in the day when we recorded on tape recorders. We would have the lesson, and we would work on a fiddle tune, and she would record it on a tape so that I could take it home and practice with it during the week. Then I came back, and she said, “OK, play it for me,” and I played it for her. She said, “OK, great. That was perfect. Now I need you to play it again and fuck up. Fuck up as bad as you can, because this music is about improvising and you can’t improvise if you’re afraid of taking risks. You can’t be afraid of taking risks if you’re afraid of fucking up, so you have to fuck up.” That has stayed with me my whole life. [Laughs.] “The Queer Art of Failure.”
Then when I met Louisa [Rachel Solomon] in college, who is the lead singer of The Shondes, punk really, really changed things for me. It’s just the DIY aesthetic of, you just take what you’ve got and make whatever you can. You don’t have to be a master, and you don’t have to be perfect. There’s no question that a violin belongs in a punk band because a punk band is whatever you want it to be. So here I am playing violin in a punk band and making it sound klezmer-y — which, I also love klezmer. I’ve never studied it, but I do love that music. It is just what you said, the combination of absolute joy and so much pain. It makes me feel connected to my ancestors. It has that historical heartstring-pulling thing.
Doing that in the context of this queer feminist punk band made me feel like I could do whatever I wanted to. That was really, really freeing. Then I ended up here, making this freaky, weird-ass thing — my new album, the title of which is The Alchemist, and the band is called Low Tide. Even though it’s musically so, so different, the ethic is really still the same. Going back to what you said about voice and how gendered it is, and how everyone I know who doesn’t identify as cis in whatever way that the signifier of voice is so weighted — I remember hearing voices like Nina Simone or ANOHNI that I felt like, these are genderqueer voices. Regardless of how the people identify, their voices are doing this thing to me. So for the first time, I was exploring singing really high and wanting to make this have a queer voice, and what would that sound like, and freeing myself from thinking that I should have a different kind of voice.
I remember when I first started hormones, the idea of losing my singing voice was the thing I was the most afraid of. I just sang my way through testosterone. I just sang and did voice exercises, and singing along to the radio and every day to make sure that I was in touch with it and that it wasn’t going away. That was always really, really important to me. I don’t know if that was a long answer. Sorry.
Kate: Oh, no, I expected a long answer to that one. You brought up the Queer Art of Failure.
Eli: Yeah, which by the way, is a book by Jack Halberstam. I didn’t coin that phrase.
Kate: Well, it’s excellent, thank you, Jack! What I learned along those lines was, when you’re rehearsing for a play, rehearsal is the time to fuck up. Make every mistake you can possibly make, because otherwise you’re going to make it in front of an audience, so you might as well make it now when you can figure out what to do with it without having to figure that out in front of an audience.
The willingness to fuck up is something that isn’t taught to trans people as they go into their transitions. Not only are we not willing to fuck up at all, we’re not willing to accept the consequences of fucking up. We express ourselves in a certain way so that someone doesn’t read us the way we want them to read us, and we fault the other person. We take no responsibility for it.
To speak to that — it’s a very real sorrow for trans people to be misgendered. It’s a very real, painful thing to be misgendered, whether it’s by mistake or whether it’s by malicious intent. That stems from the deep, deep level of suffering that comes with gender, because we all believe we are our genders. “I am my gender” — we say that — “I’m a man. I am a woman. I am a trans person.” What are we saying? We’re saying, “That is me,” and “that isn’t”. Gender, the way I’m looking at it, is a graphic user interface. It’s how we navigate the world. I like the femme side of the spectrum. It gives me great joy, it gives me great pleasure. Now that I’m old, I get to be a cute little old lady and that’s fun. If someone misreads me and says, “Excuse me, sir,” or whatever, sure — the first instinct is, ouch. And then I go, Wait a minute. It’s not me. I guess I just have to tweak something that I’m doing. What can I do? There’s no room for failure/rehearsal/practice/self-forgiveness when it comes to gender transition.
Eli: I remember one of the things that people would say to me all the time, and that I still hear all the time about transition, is like, “Well, what if it’s a mistake? What if you regret it later?” My answer to that is always, “Well, who cares?” If you regret it later, that’s fine. We all do things and then change our minds about things all the time, and why can’t gender be one of them? But I think that the reason why that is, is just because of what you said, about how central gender is. That’s not a thing that it’s OK to fuck up, right? You can fuck up at your job and your life is still your life; it doesn’t undermine you as a human being. But to fuck up your gender and to have made a mistake about your gender is a cardinal sin, because gender is so central to the way that we identify things.
I would love to live in a world in which it wasn’t one of the central things, in which meeting someone and knowing their gender was as important to you as knowing whether or not I like carrots. I would love to live in that world. That makes me feel really safe, if that could happen.
Kate: The great questions of humanity aren’t asked anymore — “Who am I? What am I? What am I doing here? What’s my purpose in life?” We don’t do that. We go for fast food answers. Instead of “Who am I,” we’re saying, “What’s my gender? Oh, OK, I get it now, I’m a woman. I don’t have to think anymore.” But when you think about it, and if you were looking at gender, again, as a graphic user interface, who are you to be using that graphic user interface? That leads to much deeper questions like, what is humanity? What is a human being? What is a sentient being?
Eli: It’s much more interesting. One of the things that I love about My Gender Workbook that you wrote is going back to this idea that you also mentioned earlier in the conversation about, gender is not actually a definable thing, right? That we pretend that it’s a thing that you can say whether you are it or not, but that there’s no there, there, right? The way that in My Gender Workbook, it allows any person reading it to go through this process of realizing that they are not actually a real man or a real woman the way that they think they are.
I was in a space recently. It was sort of a training about trans issues in a workplace environment, and the trainer asked everyone to raise their hand if they had ever questioned their gender, thought about it, spent time, whatever. I, of course, raised my hand, and looked around and there were almost no hands up. It struck me, because I forget that sometimes, as a trans person who mostly moves in queer spaces. It’s hard for me to imagine a life in which I’d never thought of gender. But a lot of people are walking around like that, and that was a reminder to me, and it kind of blew my mind.
Kate: What I’ve realized in researching this book is that, for thousands and thousands of years, humanity has looked at gender as a two-dimensional thing — male and female. OK, and there is a body that is roughly those two things, roughly.
Eli: And there have always been people that were not.
Kate: Yeah, but still, we gotta admit there is roughly male and roughly female. But that’s still a two-dimensional way of doing it. Male and female forms an x-y axis, which informs a plane. Maybe a 150 years ago, women started questioning that. “Wait, wait, wait — I’m not going to be a woman the way you tell me to be a woman.” All of a sudden in addition to the body, which informs the two-dimensional view of gender that we have, women started using their minds, which made it a three-dimensional view of gender, which opened up all kinds of possibilities.
Eli: Well, also just to insert into what you’re saying, it’s not just that there were two, but that one was better than the other.
Eli: Which is why it’s a threat when women use their minds.
Kate: Yeah. But for the past hundred years now, we have been using our minds. We define gender as body plus mind. That is not an acceptable way to, let’s say, backers of the Trump administration. No, it’s all about the body, and we’re going to ignore that there’s a gray area between male and female, even in the body level. Especially at body level.
Eli: I feel like there’s a lot about that way of thought that requires you to not use your mind.
Kate: Oh, yeah. And, I’ve realized that gender is four-dimensional.
Eli: What’s the fourth dimension?
Kate: Space-time. Gender doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Gender exists in space and through time. As soon as we realize that gender does that, we go, “Oh, that’s why in one location people think I’m x and in another location people think I’m y. That’s why time affects my gender.” That’s why gender is always changing, because it’s moving forward in time.
The great suffering that we all go through in gender is trying to hold it still, trying to achieve the perfect gender. And sometimes we do. Sometimes we go, “Ah, I got it right!” It’s like having a good hair day, only to the x-power. We go, “Ah, I got it right! How wonderful, I’m going to look in the mirror for the next day and a half.” But as soon as we achieve that, it starts deteriorating. That’s the pain that comes with gender, unless you understand that time is part of gender, and “Oh, well. Glad I had that little high. Here I go down the slope again on the other side.” That’s what happens. That’s not just for trans people, that’s for everybody and their gender.
Eli: I’m so glad that you’re saying that. That rings so true for me. I love this idea of queer time, by which I guess I roughly mean that, when you’re already on the outside of normative life — and so, the timeline that straight people insist people operate on, in terms of, you go to school and then you get married and then you have kids and then you retire and then you do whatever. This idea is when you’re already outside of that — what is possible, what kinds of relationships are possible, what kind of work is possible, what things are of value and have meaning in your life — all are totally full of possibility and up for reinvention and reinterpretation. I find it very, very liberating to be living in queer time and not in normative time.
So this idea of time being the fourth dimension of gender really, really rings true for me in that sense, and also expands outward to other things out of gender. I think specifically capitalism comes to mind for me. I feel very aware on a daily basis about the violence of capitalism, both in terms of literally what it makes people do and the kinds of work that it makes people do, and the inequities about who has to do that work and what it does to your body and who should be in prison, in really literal ways, but also in terms of what our culture says is valuable, what is a thing of value.
I have a friend who “doesn’t know what she wants to do,” quote-unquote She just does what she needs to to make money. I always think, “Oh, the perfect job for you would be to sit in a bookstore all day. Not to own a bookstore or to sell books, but to just sit in the bookstore all day and people come in, and you end up having a conversation with them, and they just leave the bookstore with the perfect book that they needed that they didn’t even know they needed because they talked to you.” That’s her gift, but that’s not a thing of value in this culture.
I know I got far away from gender with that, but I guess what I’m getting at is that, once you step outside the norm and you’re looking at things differently, it opens up all of these doors in terms of what is possible and what is real. Both in terms of gender, but also in terms of sort of everything else. But I think that gender was the first door to that for me, because it felt so urgent. As a trans person it felt internally, personally urgent. But then once you open the door, there are so many other doors to be opened.
Kate: It was the first door for me, too. The first part of gender that I was able to question well, to the point where people started agreeing me, was why do we have to be one or the other? Who says gender is two, and two only? And how that ties in with my mental health — going back to the beginning — one of the lead symptoms of someone with borderline personality is black and white thinking, either/or thinking. They cannot think in gray areas. Well, here I was making myself go, “Nope. It’s not either/or.” Doing that for gender has enabled me to do a, “Really, either/or? One way or the other?” for anything else. The idea of two, and two only does not exist in nature. It is something that humans create.
And sometimes it’s fun! Butch and femme is a very fun binary. I love that binary! Ladies and gentleman is a lovely binary. Black and white — literally black and white — you could do wonderful things with that! And then put it down, and have the option to put it down and go, “OK, done with that. Let me see what else I can do. Oh, purple and green! Yay, another!” But you can’t put cultural binaries down. It’s capitalism or communism. What are you talking about? They’re not even opposites.
So moving beyond gender as a binary is something that has yet to happen. I mean, “nonbinary” is just on the horizon of culture in the way that back in the ’80s and ’90s, “transsexual” — the very fact of changing from man to woman or woman to man was a big deal, and nobody understood that. Well, now we take that for granted. But the idea of neither/nor — that’s a long way off. Nonbinary and genderqueer and gender-fluid and gender nonconforming are all laughable outside identities, and it’s going to take a while to usher them into the culture.
Eli: Well, we’re here, and we’re doing it.
You were talking about binaries that are fun, and I feel one of the central characteristics of all of your different work is fun and playfulness. I would love to hear what you say you think the role of fun is in all of this.
Kate: It’s why I’m calling my book Gender, Just for The Fun Of It. We all work so hard at gender, Whether we’re doing so consciously or unconsciously, we all work really, really hard. Some of us have fun with it, some of us don’t. There are a lot of ways to have fun with gender. If you’re in the position to make yourself pretty, make yourself handsome, that’s one way of having fun. If you’re in the position to make yourself a complete mystery gender, that’s having fun. Arguing gender is fun. Exploring gender is fun. Dressing up or becoming another gender is fun. Using gender as a primary basis for your sexuality — which is optional — is fun. Falling in love with gender as a big component of that is fun.
What I’ve found over my ancient 71 years of living on Earth is that all those ways of fun fade — every single one including falling in love. They’re good for a while, and then they fade. But the one way of having fun that never fades and only grows stronger within your heart, is using your experience and knowledge of gender to ease someone else’s suffering. That kind of fun never fades. It’s why I keep writing. It’s why I keep lecturing. It’s why I keep playing trans roles on stage. I can use this to ease someone else’s suffering. That’s my greatest joy. That’s the most fun I can have.
(Photo Credit: right, Jeanette Sears)