By Kate Flynn
Renowned transsexual performance artist, author and LGBT activist Kate Bornstein graced a crowded Richardson Auditorium with her presence on the evening of Wednesday, April 20th. Clad in tinted sunglasses, knee-high boots and a bevy of tattoos, 63-year-old Bornstein spoke on topics related to her book, “Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks & Other Outlaws” in a lecture titled “Sex, Bullies and You.”
“I thought I had to answer the question, why should I stay alive? Why not just kill yourself?” Bornstein said of one of her motivations for writing the book, which offers coping tools to marginalized people and anyone considering suicide. “Then I said ‘F*ck it — I don’t want to write a suicide prevention book.’ This is a book of alternatives, stuff to do instead. The question that I could answer is: what is it that makes life worth living?”
Bornstein introduced attendees to a Venn diagram that showed the overlap of three factors that she considers most important in making life worth living: Identity, Desire and Power. “These things are tied together and seem to be inseparable,” she said. “If you f*ck with one area of your life, it brings other areas down.” She also brought in a number of binaries that are connected to these three factors, such as race (white/non-white), class (rich/poor) and citizenship (U.S./other.) “When they get bad is when we assign a value to the hierarchy. It’s oppressive and not good for us.”
With humor and candor, Bornstein walked attendees through how to weaken a binary and how this is helpful in making everyone feel more accepted and normal. “The only time two halves of a culturally constructed binary are equal is in a vacuum. You’re not going to have equality between men and women as long as we have the binary.”
Bornstein tied all of this into deconstruction, an element of postmodern theory. “This raises a really important question: who gives a f*ck?” This was greeted with laughter.
Bornstein’s lecture essentially boiled down to to an analysis of postmodern theory and how it is relevant to those committing suicide. Bornstein spoke of her epiphany following 9/11, when she realized that she was “breathing in people” in the smoke that reached her Harlem apartment; she wondered what relevance her previous work had in the face of this new tragedy. She decided to look at a new aspect: how postmodern theory can keep people alive.
“Postmodern theory is the notion that things can have more than one meaning at the same time, and that they can be contradictory meanings,” she said. “Queer theory is when we apply postmodern theory to people. We create all sorts of different ‘who’s’ for ourselves…We’re constantly shifting according to context and environment.”
“There’s nothing wrong with being suicidal,” she continued. “I’ve been suicidal six times in my life. I found something else to do instead…Thoughts of suicide [are] a signal that we’re getting rid of some ‘who’ of us that needs to die.”
Bornstein also tied this in to a new project she is working on, titled “No Votes for Bullies: Democracy for the Rest of Us.” She argued that America is currently modeling a bully culture, which stops people from imagining all of the “who’s” they can possibly be. “Be just like us or we’ll make you want to kill yourself.” She argued that there is no passion in the left wing, and that LGBT could bring that passion.
“If there is a binary, it’s us against bullies,” Bornstein said. “We need to get bullies out of office.”
Bornstein’s final message was as follows: “Do whatever it takes to make your life worth living…just don’t be mean. The problem with this is God, especially if by doing what makes your life more worth living, you can get in trouble with God. What do you do? Find another God. Nobody knows what happens when you die.” To assuage these fears, every attendee of the lecture received a “Get Out of Hell Free” card.