Kate Bornstein: It Doesn’t Get Better, We Make It Better

by: Mason Strand

Recently, as part of a new feminist book club that some friends and I started, I got the chance to read the book Hello, Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outsiders by Kate Bornstein.  For those of you who have never heard of her, Kate Bornstein is a queer transgender theorist and activist who writes generally awesome and accessible books about living a non-normative life.  I enjoyed this book much as I’ve enjoyed her others, but I was also struck by its intense similarity to Dan Savage’s recent pop-cultural phenomenon “It Gets Better.”

Pick up a copy of Aunty Kate’s (as she likes to call herself) book, and one of the first things you might notice are in fact those very words emblazoned on the back cover: It gets better.  But this is no rip-off, at least on Bornstein’s part: the book was written in 2006, a mighty nice swath of time before Savage’s campaign hit the Internet.  The similarities were striking enough, and yet the differences plentiful enough, that I thought a comparison would be useful and enlightening.

In the interest of full-disclosure: I don’t like Dan Savage.  This is an opinion typically met with frustration by my gay male friends, many of whom see him as a sort of hero of biting wit and candor.  The problem is, his pod-casts and articles are written from a place of unapologetic white privilege, and from behind this shield of “telling it like it is,” he has been, at various times, bi-phobic [1], trans-phobic [2], and fat-phobic [3] (all links are to awesome articles that deconstruct his statements, but may be triggering for some.)  He uses the t-word in reference to trans people; something that, if you haven’t heard by now, you shouldn’t be doing if you’re not a member of that community.  In fact, he was recently glitter bombed more than once for these offenses, and yet continues to maintain that not only is his use of these words not offensive (to everyone), but that he is not at all transphobic.[4]

His arrogance frustrates me, because I think we deserve more from our community’s public figures, and it further frustrates and saddens me that others don’t agree.  With that said, I don’t think my dislike disqualifies me from writing this article because, quite frankly, this is a blog post, and I can write it from my particular point of view.  So, with all that in mind, let’s move on to the meat (or fake-meat for you vegetarians/vegans out there) of this article.

Hello, Cruel World… is structured in two parts.  The first is a treatise on why exactly it is worthwhile to stay alive, and the second is the titular list of 101 ways to do so.  The two go hand in hand because, on occasion, staying alive in a world full of bullies can be difficult.  So the author suggests coping mechanisms – some healthy and some not – to stay alive long enough to grow and evolve in a way that makes you feel better.

This, I think, is one of the first major differences between Bornstein’s message and Savage’s.  Instead of simply saying “it’s worthwhile to stay alive,” she offers ways to do so.  She gives permission to be less than perfect while trying to survive in difficult and sometimes abusive situations.  While this necessarily makes her book more controversial, it also makes it more useful.  In the midst of a horrible situation, it isn’t always enough to hear that things will change — sometimes you need someone to tell you how to pass the interminable time between then and now.

As someone in my book group pointed out, she isn’t talking down to her teenage readers, either, implying that time and experience will make them understand life better.  She is encouraging them toward agency in giving them the tools to make things better themselves.  The fact that some of these tools might be considered controversial is actually one of the things that makes the book’s message queer.  It grants that the world can be a cruel and unfair place, especially for outcasts, and consequently gives them permission to deal with that reality in ways that aren’t necessarily sancitoned by normative society.

After all, in a society that rarely punishes and frequently tolerates or encourages the bullying that these kids are encountering, is it really realistic to expect that the solutions offered by those same people would be useful to someone that doesn’t fit into their societal norms?  These are queer solutions to the “problem” of being queer, and at times, they overlap with Jack “Judith” Halberstam’s idea of queer negativity, in the fact that they are oppositional and at times somewhat destructive in the face of a liberal society that claims that positivity is the only valid way to confront opposition. [5]  However, Bornstein’s message parts from this in the fact that its goal, rather than negation for its own political sake, is to help those that can develop a queer consciousness stay alive long enough to do so.

In the midst of her suggestions on how to stay alive, Bornstein offers only one rule: don’t be mean.  In fact, she often suggests being kind to others (and, sometimes, even your bullies) as a way of bringing yourself out of a depression.  In effect, she is employing the idea that it is only through non-violent protest that we can create a truly better world.  There is no sense in fighting violence with more violence, even though it sometimes makes us feel better.  She explains that fighting bullies using their own tactics is, and here she quotes Audre Lorde, like trying to dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.  It doesn’t work, and in this case would only reinforce the idea that bullying is ok, given the right circumstances.

Savage, on the other hand, is frequently a bully himself, or at least mean-spirited in the things that he says and does.  One need only look at the recent childishness that was the “Santorum” meme to see what I mean. [6]  This isn’t to say that any particular person can be a perfect, shining example of non-aggression.  However, I would argue that Savage’s general message in his campaign (though this did not necessarily extend to other videos posted) could essentially be boiled down to, “That’s alright, that’s okay, they’re gonna pump your gas someday.”

Which is to say, his idea of it getting better was predicated on a misogynist patriarchal system in which he, as a white, good looking man was in a particular position of privilege with respect to being upwardly mobile once he became and adult.  This idea of things getting better is highly individualistic, does not combat any systems of oppression, and in fact reinforces basically all of them except for homophobia (as particularly directed at gay men.)

Bornstein’s idea of things “getting better,” on the other hand, has nothing to do with upward mobility.  In fact, it doesn’t even have anything to do with junior high, or high school or whatever particular phase of life you happen to be in.  In even more fact, it doesn’t have to do with being LGBT either.

This is where the real meat and potatoes (you can just have the potatoes if you like) of her message comes in.  The message she is sending out is for anyone who has ever felt bullied, whether it be because of race, sex, sexuality, religion, gender identity, size, ability, or any other thing you can think of.  It is a message for, as she says in the title, the “freaks.”

This is important, because she is creating an idea of inclusivity, in which a queer identity lays over the entirety of outsider society like a protective blanket.  To be queer is to be undefinable, to be that which society measures itself against in order to determine what, in fact, is normative and legible, and she welcomes anyone reading the book to be a part of that.  She encourages her readers (whatever their age) to embrace their freakishness, to make that a part of things getting better.  She encourages them to examine the systems that have allowed or compelled them to feel bad about themselves, including not only systems of oppression, but a society in which aggressiveness is valued (the book was written during the Bush administration – a heyday for bullies), and in which a capitalist market attempts to make everyone feel as if they are wanting as a person, so that they will purchase more to fill the emptiness this message creates.

This is a far cry from Savage’s message , which basically privileges the narrative in which the small-town white boy (wait, there are people in the LGBTQA community besides white men?) moves to a big city, turns his life into an episode of “Queer as Folk,” and then settles down into homonormative bliss with his partner and adopted child.  While this may by ideal for some, it certainly isn’t what many people want, and for possibly an event larger number, it will never be attainable.

Perhaps most importantly, when Bornstein speaks of things getting better as a form of change, the goal of that change is to achieve a state in which you love yourself, and in which your love of self is not dependent on the approval of others.  She encourages a readers to learn to love their difference, and to find their strength in the ways that they differ from normative ideals that serve mainly to oppress people.

Additionally, she encourages people to look for the ways that their oppressions are interrelated – how any difference can lead to bullying – and to try to find ways to work together to survive and build a better community.  She admits that this will take time, but encourages kids (or adults) to start this process as soon as they possibly can.

Often, she uses herself as an example of how things get better, but in this she focuses on her emotional evolution, rather than changes in social station or the ability to move to an urban metropolis. Her story is one of emotional peaks and valleys, as are the stories of all other people who inhabit the world, which makes her story easy to relate to.  The goal isn’t perfect bliss, but rather the ability to survive those times in which the difficulty of doing so seems heavier than the hope of what the future might look like.

I certainly am not here to argue that the “It Gets Better” project is worthless.  I think there were dozens of videos posted to that campaign that were amazing and inspirational.  However, I think its biggest mistake was in implying that kids had to wait until they graduated high school for it to get better, instead of taking the opportunity to encourage them to begin developing a political consciousness that would allow them to start making the world a better place.

Bornstein’s book shows young people how to make things better right now, or in leiu of that, how to survive until things start to feel better.  It encourages them to be who they need to be to survive, even if society says that it’s wrong, or evil, or disgusting, and that is an incredibly important message for outsiders of all stripes.

If I had read this book when I was a teenager, I think it would have saved me a lot of frustration (and a few years wasted as a Republican) by showing me that I can love myself right this minute no matter what the hell I look like or who I decide I want to be a year from now.  I’m pretty sure Dan Savage wasn’t ever going to say that to a freak like me.

Mason Strand is an aspiring film editor whose ultimate dream is to work on queer films with a group of awesome, progressive people.  Strand has a B.A. in film and an M.A. in Women’s and Gender Studies, both from DePaul University.  During his day job, he teaches school kids about walking and biking safety (which is a pretty damned good gig), and in his free time, he explores Chicago on his bike, seeks out queer dance parties and searches for his next seasonal beer obsession.  He identifies as ftm and queer.


One response to “Kate Bornstein: It Doesn’t Get Better, We Make It Better

  1. Pingback: Finding the Ghosts of Occupy in “A Christmas Carol” « In Our Words·

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