The world premiere of writer-director Travis Fine’s stunning queer cinematic tapestry Two Eyes will close this year’s Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival tonight, Sunday August 30th, with both drive-in and virtual screenings. Set over three time periods – 1860s, 1970s and present day – we’re introduced to a diverse range of characters at different stages of self-acceptance and understanding on their LGBTQ+ journeys. In the 2020 set segments we meet a trans non-binary counsellor, Andrea played by Kate Bornstein, who helps a young trans man, Jalin, played by Ryan Cassata, who’s struggling to come to terms with the sudden end of a relationship.
The term ‘trans trailblazer’ is often used to describe author, performer and advocate for marginalised and at-risk youth, Kate Bornstein, and with good reason. The subject of Sam Feder’s acclaimed 2014 documentary Kate Bornstein is a Queer & Pleasant Danger, Bornstein has been writing and speaking about non-binary gender identity for over three decades. With a flare for enticingly descriptive book titles, among her published works are Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us, My New Gender Workbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Achieving World Peace Through Gender Anarchy and Sex Positivity, Hello, Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws and 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. She’s currently working on a new book, and the title doesn’t disappoint: Trans! Just For the Fun Of It: compassionate gender strategies for divisive times.
On screen Kate appeared as Joan in Damon Cardasis’ 2017 film Saturday Church, alongside Caitlyn Jenner in the reality series I Am Cait and as Cynthia Mallet in the Golden Globe nominated The Blacklist. She will soon be heard in the Williamstown Theatre Festival audio production of Shakina Nayfack new play, Chonburi International Hotel & Butterfly Club.
Ahead of today’s world premiere of Two Eyes, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Kate Bornstein about taking on the role of Andrea in the film, method acting with her co-star Ryan Cassata, her relationship with her mother, why she sees gender in four dimensions, and her admiration for performance artist Holly Hughes.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Congratulations on the film. I think you bring so much warmth and depth and soul to your character Andrea and it really felt like the role was written for you, but I guess that’s down to your performance of it. How did the character of Andrea resonate with you?
Kate Bornstein: “When I first read the script, I thought, wow, if I could have written a part for myself it would have been this one. It ticks all the boxes; non-binary trans woman, passionate about caring for kids and queer youth; lesbian. Doing this role taught me a lot about how I want to act in the world. I want to be that strong in the world. I want to be as forthright as Andrea is. I want to be able to bring that kind of comfort to people.”
Watching the film I thought that however you identify on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, Andrea is someone who any of us would love to encounter, particularly at a questioning stage, or when we’re unsure about ourselves. And it made me wonder whether you had someone in your own life who was in that role for you?
“The person most like that in my life was my mom. She was there for me when I came out. We went through a hard moment or two of course, there were months of hard, hard times, but then we got back together and she was always standing up for me. She was there to counsel me. My whole gender change, my model of femininity and being a lady, being a woman, all these different identities, was based on her. And when she died I made her a promise that I would do my best to embody all of her good qualities and so what you’re seeing is how my mom treated me and I’m really glad it comes across that way. I don’t know how Travis Fine tapped into that, but he just managed to tap into the joy and the pain and the strength, of not only trans and non-binary trans, but also bisexual men and women, indigenous people, gay men. Most of our community is represented, and represented well in the film. I’m so proud to be part of it.”
Yes, that’s one thing I found exciting and moving about it, having so much of our LGBTQ+ family represented in the same film. I think it’s a great choice for Outfest’s closing night. You mentioned your mother, and I’m sure it’s probably the case with many of us that our concept of male or female comes from those formative people, however we were brought up, whether it was a mother or father or another figure. Is that generally the way that people tend to perceive what’s male and female?
“In a word, yes. As much as I hate to admit it we grow up to be our parents. One or the other, or both. And our life’s job is to hopefully take the best from what they gave us and learn how to sidestep the worst that they’ve given us. My father was a good hearted man, he was, he was a doctor and he was a healer. And he was a bully, he was a real bully. And that to me was my example of being a man and a lot of that is why I went through my initial gender change. I didn’t want to grow up to be like that.”
Most of your scenes in the film are with Ryan Cassata who plays Jalin, what was it like creating that onscreen relationship with him? Was there a chance to bond when the cameras weren’t rolling or did you just create the relationship whilst you were working together in the scenes?
“Both. For both Ryan and I our acting training was the Stanislavski method and we both went into our centres, that’s what it’s called. Being in a scene with him was one of the most rewarding acting experiences of my life, and Travis knew exactly how to coach from the side as we were acting. Travis was going, ‘Yes, more of that. Now this.’ You don’t hear his voice obviously in the final film, but it was the three of us making those scenes together. I’m getting goosebumps now talking about it. I’m very fond of Ryan. He’s so talented.”
The film presents us with different ways of looking at queerness and gender identity and I wondered whether your own understanding of gender is something that still continues to evolve or expand the longer you live and the more people you encounter and the more time that you’ve spent thinking about it?
“Yeah, it is. I’m working on a new book now with a whole other new way of looking at gender. Most people look at gender and call it in two dimensions, male and female, two dimensional, and that’s fine, it’s not wrong, but it’s not complete. Because for so many more people imagination is part of gender. And that makes gender three dimensional and there’s more opportunity to move around and to be welcoming of others and to adjust and be more fluid. But even that’s not complete, there’s a fourth dimension in gender that nobody really talks about, and that is gender exists in space and through time. Gender is always changing. We’re always looking and going, ‘I could be a better man if only I…’, or ‘Look at that, that’s the kind of woman I want to be.’ And we work on it. You hear somebody do something with their gender and we take it on. Our genders are always changing. And then there’s this thing that we don’t acknowledge, we like to think of gender as something that’s unique, standalone, but no, it depends on a whole lot of other people’s ideas than our own.”
The new book that you’re working on is Trans Just For The Fun Of It isn’t it? And you’re publishing some of that online first aren’t you?
“Well, it’s mostly coming out as tweets. I’m trying to learn to be concise and I tend to go on, and on, and on, and on, and Twitter helps me focus. So if I can get to the heart of it in a tweet, or two at the most, I feel really good about that. Which oddly is what the film does, in a scene or two they accomplish so much. ‘My God! Oh, I get it now. I get what it means to be bisexual and married with children. Oh, cool. Wow.'”
There’s a beautiful moment in the film when Andrea introduces themselves to Ryan and they share their pronouns. In recent years there’s been an increase in awareness of using people’s preferred pronouns hasn’t there, with popstars like Sam Smith coming out as non-binary for instance. Does that change societal attitudes or increase people’s understanding of gender identity do you think?
“Well, the word ‘they’ has been accepted by organisations like the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster as a gender neutral pronoun and as a singular pronoun. And ‘they’ as a singular pronoun was around in Shakespeare’s time, it just dropped out of usage and we’re just taking it back. If you look at someone who is claiming a non-binary identity, like Sam Smith or Miley Cyrus, many more people are coming out as non-binary, that’s still kind of new to a lot of people. So to have this film focus on some non-binary characters is wonderful. And there’s that exchange in the film; ‘No, no, no that’s not a man or a woman, that’s both.’ ‘Well, that’s weird.’ ‘No, it’s not.’ And to have these words come out on this film, it’s a wonderful modelling to take understanding of gender beyond man and woman, which are two completely good and workable gender identities, but they’re not the only ones. And that’s what I think the film helps to communicate.”
Yes, and it also conveys that these ideas are not something new. In the scene you mention, the film touches on indigenous ideas about gender identity, two-spirit identity.
“Yes, and Samuel Jaxin Enemy-Hunter put so much heart and understanding into that role, he embodies that and was so thrilled to be playing that role. He did a lot to help Travis write it. What that was about and how do we talk about that. We’re just learning as white interlopers on this continent, we’re just learning how to respect, honour and talk about indigenous people, and this way through their understanding of gender that’s far more nuanced than our own.”
You’ve got a play coming up in audio form that’s part of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, have you recorded that yet?
“We have, we finished recording it a month ago and it’s in post-production now. It’s called Chonburi International Hotel & Butterfly Club and it’s by Shakina Nayfack. It’s a story of what goes on in the hotel next to—I’ll say it from my generation—the sex change clinic. They’re in Thailand, and it’s about all the women coming and going for their bottom surgeries, and it’s just a fabulous story. I’m so excited about it.”
I’m looking forward to that. Lastly, what’s your favorite LGBTQ+ either film, TV series, book, play, music, artwork, or it could be a person. Something or someone who has made an impact on you and that’s really resonated with you over the years, and why. Or it could be something current.
“Holly Hughes is an American performance artist who identifies as lesbian and whose plays get into such dark and dangerous territories but you don’t stop laughing. The way she’s been able to tie that together, the tears and the laughter, she’s always been a beacon to me, her words and her work. She’s still working, she’s still writing. That’s the person I’ve most admired.”
The World Premiere of Travis Fine’s Two Eyes starring Kate Bornstein is the Closing Night film of the 2020 Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival. It will be available to stream at OutfestLA2020.com from 12am PT on Sunday August 30th for 72 hours, or until the viewership limit reached. There will also be a drive-in screening in Malibu.
For her blog, books, lectures and performances and more click here for Kate Bornstein’s linktree.