A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today is the new memoir from Kate Bornstein, author of Gender Outlaw and My Gender Workbook. The long subtitle outlines the narrative of the book. Kate takes us through a gender process from boy to girl to realizing she didn’t fit in either of these boxes. But the memoir is about so much more, including family trauma, and borderline personality disorder, the devaluing and ultimate power of cute, what the heck’s going on in Scientology, sex and sadomasochism, and staying alive. The book can be emotionally exhausting, but it’s disarmingly funny and a pleasure to read.
Daddy figures are a key theme in the book, from Kate’s absent father, to L. Ron Hubbard, who manipulates his followers emotions from a distance, to learning a new way of understanding “daddy” through S&M. Most importantly, there’s Kate’s own role as daddy to her daughter, Jessica, who was born within Scientology and is still part of the Church. The book is overtly written as an attempt to connect with her daughter. Kate is considered a “suppressive person,” someone who is so dangerous Scientologists shouldn’t interact with them or they could be drawn away from the Church – and yes, being trans is definitely part of what makes Kate “suppressive.” Jessica is an adult with children of her own now who is still part of the Church – Kate hasn’t seen her since she was 9. Jessica, if by some chance your reading this, pick up your daddy’s book. She’s not out to hurt you, but you’ll learn she’s a person with a lot of wisdom and love to share, and she wants to share it with you.
The book’s purpose is highly personal, and I can’t imagine not feeling the overwhelming love and desire that motivates the writing. I have a strong personal relationship with Kate Bornstein’s work myself, which makes it even harder for me to discuss this book with any sort of distance. While I haven’t actually met Kate, she’s played an important role in my own gender process. I remember sitting in an auditorium at Smith, a young genderqueer kid with tears streaming down my face, listening to Kate open up a space where I could exist (that’s when I learned waterproof mascara can actually work). Her work has been an important part of my gender process, especially early on. A number of the personal realizations that she talks about in this book happened for me largely through reading her words. The connection’s not just about gender – I grew up in an oppressive fundamentalist church, and there’s a lot about Kate’s experiences in Scientology that I identified with. I am consistently overwhelmed by her raw emotional honesty. I was on public transportation, again weeping as I read the appeal to Jessica that closes the book.
A Queer and Pleasant Danger is not the story of an easy journey. The book includes frank discussion of a number of triggering topics, including eating disorders, cutting, and suicide attempts. These are not always easy stories to read, whether they bring up memories from your own life or expose you to something outside your experience. I find it interesting that the one careful trigger warning in the book comes before an S&M scene. I understand why the warning’s there, but I find the scene mostly sweet.
Much of A Queer and Pleasant Danger is about finding ways to be the cute girl Kate wants to be in a world that looks down on “cute” and looks down on “girl.” One of my favorite moments in the book comes at the end (so, uh, spoilers) when Kate’s life is saved from a suicide attempt by Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. The film shows her a way of doing cute that can be empowering, especially because it values female friendship so much. I’m all about looking at pop culture to find subversive representations and space for people who have been marginalized. I’m super grateful to Kate for reminding me about the endless rewatchability of this movie. I mean seriously:
While I love so much about this book, I do want to talk about one issue of language that was a problem for me. Kate uses the word “tranny,” a term she identifies with and doesn’t consider a slur. I don’t want to tell other people how to refer to themselves. I actually use the word to describe myself sometimes, though in specific contexts. While I’m OK with hearing it from other trans women, the fact that so many people have experienced this word as hate speech means to me that it’s not a word for cisgender people to use unless someone has explicitly said they want to be referred to in that way. So I have no complaint about Kate referring to herself as a tranny, but it does bother me when she uses the word to talk about a whole group of people. Many trans women have spoken out against this word and demanded not to be referred to in this way, which to me means it’s a problem to model referring to all of us in this way. It seems like in Kate’s experience of gender, “tranny” often fits better than “woman.” So I understand having a counter reaction to the push against the word. But I wonder if she’s thought about how the word might feel to someone whose process has been moving them more and more away from “trans” and towards “woman,” like me.
Having said that, any issues I have with the book don’t undermine what’s beautiful and valuable here. I don’t know what exactly you’ll get out of the book, but I think everyone can gain something from Kate’s honest, brave account. I definitely recommend giving A Queer and Pleasant Danger a read. Especially if you’re Jessica.
Disclaimer: Feministing writers often receive review copies of books from publishers. I received a review copy if A Queer and Pleasant Danger.