Kate Bornstein — cult hero, writer, former Scientologist, and unapologetic advocate for “freaks and outlaws” — is the brassy patron saint to a ragtag collection of bullied and marginalized folks across generations, genders, and sexualities. She’s also a 65-year-old trans woman with modest means and a cancer diagnosis.
Bornstein has insurance and her lung cancer is curable, but she began putting her affairs in order back in February, when doctors told her she would need $100,000 in order to pay for the deductible, cross-country travel to cancer treatment centers, and the cabs she’d need to take to protect her immune system throughout radiation.
Her friend Laura Vogel, a professional fundraiser, stopped her. “I run fundraising campaigns all the time, usually for movies and creative endeavors, but why can’t we do it for this?” Vogel posited at the time. So, on March 20, Vogel launched the “Help Kate Bornstein Stay Alive” fundraiser on the site GoFundMe.
In less than a week and with support from big guns like MSNBC host and writer Melissa Harris-Perry alongside countless $5, $10, and $25 donations from fans around the world, they raised the money $100,000 needed to save Kate’s life.
“It’s a dream come true,” Kate says, reached by phone last week. She’s dog-tired, she says, exhausted from the radiation, nauseous, sick. And yet, “My people are carrying me, my kids are carrying me, my brothers and sisters are carrying me, my ancestors are carrying me. Melissa Harris-Perry is carrying me! GLAAD is carrying me. These are the happiest days of my life.”
To understand how a gender outlaw and queer elder with no family support was able to fund her own life despite a broken health-care system and a transphobic society, you need to understand Kate Bornstein.
Kate’s big-hearted, big-brained books on gender, Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us and My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, a Real Woman, the Real You, or Something Else Entirely, are some of the LGBT community’s most beloved. Making no secret of her own struggles with self-harm and attempted suicide, she eventually turned her attention to her “Stay Alive” campaign, which included a book full of alternatives to suicide for “teens, freaks, and other outlaws.”
Last year she released a brilliant, funny, deeply humane memoir about her life pre-transition, which included a 12-year stint deep in the heart of the Church of Scientology. Though she expected retaliation from the Church and was extremely frightened upon its release, she wrote the book for her grandchildren, who — along with her family — are forbidden from contacting her. Though Kate was embedded in a religion that makes everything about her “wrong,” the book is a testament to her belief that everyone is worthy of love, her stubborn refusal to allow anyone — even herself — to succumb to less.
“All the stuff I write about gender, and about bullying, and about ‘stay alive’ — they’re good ideas for getting together and being family, and being inclusive, but they’re ideas, they’re theory,” she says. “To know that people have held me in their hearts as much as I’ve held them, that’s overpowering.”
“The thing that has been really powerful for me has been watching Kate go through a radical acceptance of herself,” Vogel says of Kate’s reaction to the support she’s received. As of this writing, people have donated $104,000 to Kate’s campaign. Many messages on the GoFundMe site credit Kate with saving lives: the donor, or their partner, or their child.
But a lot of the money has come from people who’ve never heard of Kate’s work, Vogel points out. A lot of pretty mainstream folks — including Vogel’s old middle-school friends — were outraged that someone with insurance, who’d “followed the rules of health care,” could still die from lack of treatment. “We’re told that the American Dream is ‘pick yourself up by your own boot straps,’” Vogel says of Kate’s predicament. “That’s levitation.”
Now that they’ve met their initial goal, Vogel’s turning the campaign’s attentions to keeping Kate alive after this round of treatment, encouraging people to continue donating to help Kate manage her next year of fighting to keep the cancer away — flights to and from medical centers for checkups, expensive supplements, and a restrictive diet. “A huge number of our donors have been giving five dollars. Think about the power that giving five dollars has. You literally have saved Kate’s life,” she says.
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