Kate Bornstein and Kelindah Bee Schuster on Art, Parenthood, and Gender as a Four-Dimensional Concept

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Courtesy of Queer|Art; Getty Images

Even over a Zoom call, the adoration that Kate Bornstein and Kelindah Bee Schuster have for each other radiates across hundreds of miles and through the screen.

The two were paired together for the the New York City-based arts organization Queer|Art’s 13th annual mentorship program. Bornstein, if you’re not already familiar, is a living legend who has been writing, performing, and theorizing about “gender anarchy and sex positivity” since the ’80s, from her memoir Gender Outlaw and her half a dozen other books to the Great White Way. Schuster, meanwhile, is a spoken word poet who performs as Theydy Bedbug (a persona they describe as “a dapper gentleman and a creepy crawly critter”) and teaches drag classes to kids.

In short, Bornstein and Schuster both encapsulate the worst fears of the far right, and they’re a match made in heaven. Although the mentorship program didn’t officially begin until January, the two began meeting in October, and Bornstein helped Schuster develop a performance piece for December 2023. But beyond artistic feedback, Bornstein’s role has evolved into helping the younger performer navigate the existential questions that come with being a working artist, such as “What the fuck am I doing?” and “How do I make my art practice sustainable?”

Witnessing the rapid-fire rapport between Bornstein and Schuster is both electrifying and unexpectedly moving. Mentorship and found family are longstanding organizing principles of any queer community, but it feels like a rare gift to be able to witness such an intergenerational pairing — the 76-year-old Bornstein is more than twice Schuster’s age — especially one as aligned as these two. And Bornstein is quick to emphasize that theirs is far from a one-way learning relationship.

“I’m following so many wonderful ideas of what nonbinary means,” Bornstein said during our conversation. “I get to embrace those as well while I’m sitting back retired now and watching all the advances going so much further than ever I thought. And that’s the future happening right in front of me.”

From a cottage on the coast of Rhode Island and an apartment in Brooklyn, respectively, Bornstein and Schuster spoke with Them about their relationship, kink as a technology of gender exploration, daddy issues, and much more.

Can you tell me a little more about the show that you’re developing as part of the fellowship?

Kelindah Bee Schuster: The working title is “Daughter to Daddy.” And it’s about that journey. It’s about trans masculinity and fertility. It’s about being the daddy to oneself that you didn’t have. It’s about reclaiming my body and redefining fatherhood for myself, as something that is safe and protective and home. The show does that through drag and burlesque, as well as through poetry and narrative prose, which Kate has been really helping me with, pushing me to write in prose rather than in poems.

I froze my eggs last year in order to preserve my fertility, because I started taking T. But when I was about to embark on the egg freezing process, I found out that my AMH [anti-mullerian hormone] levels were low as a result of taking T. There was this contradiction of having to stop taking T in order to basically take estrogen so that I could one day be a dad. It was a mind puzzle. I’ve been writing about my experiences as a teen girl, as a little girl, my experiences with gender and sexuality and medical intervention, and envisioning a future. The show sort of queers time. It reflects on the past, and it holds the present full of contradictions, and it envisions the future of the manifestation of the dad that I will hopefully be.

Kate Bornstein: Kelindah embodies the MAGA right’s worst nightmare. When they talk about “the trans ideology” and “trans is destroying the idea of men and women,” that’s Kelindah — and doing it with such grace! You have so much, you do.

When you say “Daughter to Daddy,” you’re talking about literal fatherhood, but do you also mean Daddy in a kink sense?

K.B.S.: 100%. That’s another thing that connects me and Kate. That’s where the experience of embodying the energy of Daddy began for me in queer and trans community, both in a kinky way and also in a weird family way. In the kink sense, I see embodying the energy of Daddy as grounded, taking up space, but in an intentional way.

“Kelindah embodies the MAGA right’s worst nightmare. When they talk about ‘the trans ideology’ and ‘trans is destroying the idea of men and women,’ that’s Kelindah — and doing it with such grace!”

How does kink relate to gender and performance for you both?

K.B.S.: Kink was a huge way that I came to understand my gender. Initially, one way that I claimed my masculinity was like, “Look how much pain I can take.” There was an element of trying to prove myself there. But there was also an element of wanting to experience pain consensually as a way of connecting to presence, and also to reclaim ways in which my body had been made to feel not my own when I was a young girl. All the non-consensual sexual experiences that I had — just really putting those into my own hands and practicing really good consent and aftercare around it was re-patterning for me.

K.B.: When I was introduced to kink, we simply called it S/M, and it was straightforward: sadism and masochism, and you were a top or you were a bottom. That was the het version of it. Then there was the dyke version of it, which messed around with that. You could be a femme top or a femme bottom, you could be a butch top or a butch bottom. I saw people begin to articulate their desire. [Then there’s] the Buddhist concept of becoming unattached to your desires: “I can take them, I can leave them, I can have them, I can enjoy them. They don’t define me at my basis, but I really love the fuck out of them.” That’s what I see happening in the kink world today, and that’s what I see embodied in Kelindah’s work.

K.B.S.: Lately I’ve been thinking about kink-ifying misgendering, deriving some sort of pleasure in it — whether it’s sadism or whether it’s masochism or role play. Kate and I have talked about thinking about gender across time and space, like interdimensionally. That’s helped me feel more at ease talking about myself as a girl; that was true at one point. A place that I want to get with kink-ifying gender is that I could hear myself be misgendered and think about the way in which that is true across time.

K.B.: In real short, I’ve got this idea of gender as a four-dimensional concept. It starts with a two-dimensional notion of biological sex. There’s male and there’s female, and we call it biology, but it’s not. Because so much shit has been attached to the idea of male, the idea of female. These are entire dimensions. You couldn’t possibly explore everything about each in a lifetime. They’re huge, but they’re two, and two only. To that we add the third dimension of the human mind, spirit, whatever you want to call it. But this idea of imagination is now added to those two. And instead of two dimensions, now we now have three dimensions of gender, and that’s what we’re working on today. That’s what most gender studies programs are up to. That’s a huge step. Humanity hasn’t taken this step in thousands of fucking years, but we have now.

It’s really cool, but it’s not complete. Because gender has to be someplace. It has to exist at a certain time. And so the fourth dimension that I’m thinking of is space-time. Rather than something that’s three-dimensional, now all of a sudden gender becomes a ribbon through time and space. I can talk about my gender as an experience, if you will, and a 76-year-old experience. I am right now the little boy I was 75 years ago. I am right now the young man, the old man that I became, middle-aged man. I am the woman that I became after that. Now I’m following so many wonderful ideas of what nonbinary means. I get to embrace those as well while I’m sitting back retired now and watching all the advances going so much further than ever I thought. And that’s the future happening right in front of me. I love that.

“Rather than something that’s three-dimensional, now all of a sudden gender becomes a ribbon through time and space.”

Kate mentioned earlier that you’re like a right-wing nightmare, Kelindah, and teaching drag to kids is kind of the epitome of that. But nowadays, there’s often a bent toward respectability in mainstream trans activism. What are your thoughts on that?

K.B.S.: Most of the kids in my classes, they’re queer and trans kids who deeply need spaces to connect with each other, and they need people telling them that all the ways that they are “too much” are worth celebrating. Drag has so much to teach children about how we uplift each other — cheering on and tipping and transformation and seeing oneself as not static in your identity, but allowing yourself to change.

That doesn’t mean I think all drag is for children, or that children should be welcome in all drag spaces. And I don’t think that’s respectability, I think that’s developmental appropriateness. But I take issue with the idea that somebody who is a drag performer or who makes sexually liberated work, that aspect of their life is not in integrity with the fact that they’re also an educator. I hold the role of being a facilitator and a teacher for young people with so much integrity. It means so much to me. And I’m not willing to not make my authentic art because some people are afraid that I’m corrupting or perverting children, because I know so deeply that that’s not true. I’ve seen so many children get what they need out of these classes and really come into their confidence and become self-advocates and advocates for each other.

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What do you hope people take away from your work, Kelindah?

K.B.S.: I hope that people think more about how their identity is constructed, and be more experimental and playful with the aspects that maybe are more fluid. I think that so much of the fear around transness comes from rigidity, and I think drag is such an important tool because it’s stupid and campy and fun and sexy and shiny and irresistible in some ways.

I hope the pieces specifically about Daddyhood offer some healing for the many of us who have deep daddy issues. I hope to offer some connections specifically to people who have wombs and are not cis women. I hope to queer the models of parenting that we inherit. I hope that they have a good time, a good laugh and a good cry, and hold their rage and their pain and their pleasure and humor in the same breath.

Parenthood has been a dominant theme in our conversation. How do you both relate to that concept?

K.B.: My memoir, A Queer and Pleasant Danger, is a letter to my estranged daughter. Golly, she’s over 50 now. I last saw her when she was nine. I left her with her birth mom in the Church of Scientology, and she’s been a devoted and successful member of that group ever since. They don’t let her talk with me. I wrote this book for if she ever wanted to know what the fuck happened to dad, so I was writing from a Daddy point of view. That helped heal many of the wounds I had with my own father, and I addressed that as well, and I try to balance that out.

Now, the other kind of parenthood is our queer family. We are parents, we are aunts and uncles. We are grannies and gramps. I enjoy being “granny” now to many, many, many people, present company included, if you so choose. It’s so heartwarming to go, “Look at you, my grandchildren, I’m so proud of you.” I am, both of you.

K.B.S.: A flood in Brooklyn, a flood in our eyes. I haven’t told you this, Kate, but I referred to you recently as my trans fairy god-aunt.

K.B.: Here you go again.

K.B.S.: What do you think about that?

K.B.: [laughs] It flows trippingly off your tongue when I don’t want to know where your tongue has been.

K.B.S.: Okay, so we’ll workshop it.

Kate, in A Queer and Pleasant Danger you say that three things that make life worth living are identity, desire, and power. What makes life worth living these days?

K.B.: For me, I’m at a stage of life where I open the newspaper and everybody my age is dropping like flies. Today, O. J. Simpson, my age, died. And you go, “OK, all right.” What makes life more worth living for me is, in large part this year, working with you, Kelindah. It gives me purpose. You’re such a bright light.

K.B.S.: That touches me so deeply. That means so much to me.

I’m just going to say one thing, which is relationships. And that’s what mentorship is about. My relationship with Kate, with my fourteen-year-old dog who’s over there, with my partner, with my friends, with my students, with my collaborators — it’s all about relationships. Sometimes when I have the comparison demon around my career, I remember that my most important value actually is relationships. And I’m not willing to compromise the time that I spend on deep connection. I really believe that collective liberation comes from how we practice our values in relationship.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Originally Appeared on them.