Gender theorist, writer and performer Kate Bornstein is grateful for the famous South Park episode that spoofed Scientology. The infamous Trapped in the Closet episode -- which poked fun at the church's unusual practices, and which took particular delight in mocking its most famous member, Tom Cruise -- helped open up a dialogue on the religion's controversial practices.
That was the big thing that helped, where everything began in terms of people talking about Scientology, Bornstein said in an interview. You gotta credit the 'South Park' guys for that wonderful episode.
Bornstein was a high-ranking member of the Church of Scientology when a sketchy incident at a Swiss bank occurred that led to her abrupt departure in 1981. She details the incident in her latest book, A Queer and Pleasant Danger, published by Beacon Press.
Bornstein, then still a man (she was born Albert Bornstein and had a sex change operation in 1986), went to a Swiss bank to make a sizeable deposit on behalf of the church to a fund that was supposed to have no visible ties to Scientology. On this occasion, she was unexpectedly invited into a private office, where the Swiss bank executive who sent for her mistakenly addressed her as L. Ron Hubbard. Bornstein pretended not to know what the executive was talking about, but subtly let the man know that he was out of line nonetheless. The old guy realized that by naming me, he'd violated some strict law of Swiss banking privacy, Bornstein wrote. The two then said their goodbyes and she left without further incident.
Still worried that the account's presumed link to Scientology had been exposed, Bornstein debriefed the head of the church's European finances, and shortly afterward she was relieved to learn that she would be sent back home.
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But upon returning to the U.S., Bornstein was aggressively interrogated over the matter by church officials, who seemed to be assuming she had somehow betrayed the organization. The interrogation included questions about whether Bornstein ever had unkind thoughts about Hubbard, which enemy group Bornstein was working for, which Bornstein at the time thought was very bizarre.
Finally, Bornstein was given a choice. Bornstein wrote that she could either do three years of hard physical labor, sleeping a maximum of six hours a night on a cold cement floor, eating only table scraps, and talking only with other bad people like me who were relegated to the months-old Rehabilitation Project Force, or be excommunicated. Bornstein opted for the latter, but it came at a high price: She was banned from having any communication with her young daughter and the two grandchildren that would later come.
Today, Bornstein is hoping that her daughter will also leave the Church of Scientology, and, ideally, take her two children with her. According to Bornstein, the level of bullying in the Church of Scientology -- which she said wasn't even a church when she first got involved in 1970 -- has risen over the past ten years. (Reports from various media outlets, including the Village Voice and ABC News, corroborate claims made by Bornstein, including her mention of The Hole.) Bornstein is afraid her daughter and grandchildren will be bullied themselves. A Queer and Pleasant Danger is dedicated to the three of them.
The book also contains an open letter from Bornstein to her daughter. In the letter, Bornstein, among other things, asks her daughter whether she ever thinks of leaving the Church of Scientology. She tells her daughter to do whatever it takes to make your life more worth living. Anything, and I do mean anything -- even if it goes against L. Ron Hubbard's teaching.
Bornstein underwent her sex change five years after leaving the Church of Scientology (and after living as a woman full-time the previous year). Since then, she's written about her experience transitioning between genders. Her writings include the books Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us, My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, a Real Woman, the Real You, or Something Else Entirely, and Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, which she coedited.
These books have so far appealed primarily to a niche audience -- they've also been taught in colleges -- but Bornstein could be entering the mainstream soon, if a documentary currently in the works comes to fruition.
The film's director, Sam Feder, a college professor who became interested in Bornstein's life via her books, was shocked to learn that no one had done a documentary about Bornstein before.
She just has a great way of being critical without being confrontational and without alienating, Feder said of Bornstein's unique message and style. She has an amazing sense of humor.
A Kickstarter campaign to help fund the documentary reached its $20,000 goal very quickly. In retrospect, Feder wishes the donation goal had been set higher, as the project is still in need of funding: We really need a lot more money.
In an interview with International Business Times, Bornstein opened up about Scientology, her delicate family situation, and why it took her so long to write A Queer and Pleasant Danger.
Why did it take you so long to write this book?
First and foremost, I was terrified of retribution by the church. They are well-known for their tactics in dealing with people who make trouble for them, and these tactics involve tying people up in legal snares. They involve blackmail. They involve framing people for stuff. This is all easily Google-able. I could wake up any morning and look at my neighborhood and plastered on every tree or telephone pole in my neighborhood would be a sign that said this person is a pervert, a child molester and a religious bigot. They do sh*t like that. So I was afraid of that.
You mentioned you were a member of the Sea Organization. In a nutshell, what does the Sea Organization do?
They're the top level in the hierarchy of Scientology management. They are enforcers. If someone does something wrong they go out and fix it. They are unquestionable leaders. Whatever a Sea Org member tells a Scientologist to do, they have to do.
You dedicated the book to your estranged daughter and grandchildren. Have you had any contact with them lately?
No. My hope in getting the book out is that somehow word will get back to [my daughter] that Dad's trying to say Hi, I love you.
You use the word Dad.
I'm her dad. I'm not her mom. She has a mom [Bornstein's ex-wife] and she has a [stepfather], actually a nice guy. I met him before I left. He's a nice man. But I'm her father. There's no getting around that. The fact that I walk through the world like I'm a woman doesn't change that effect at all.
What was your role while you were with Scientology?
I had many different roles. I was first mate on L. Ron Hubbard's ship. I was a deckhand. I worked with L. Ron Hubbard developing public relations policies for the church. I was a salesperson. I was a public lecturer. I was one of the public faces of Scientology. I'd go out and give these lectures saying how great we were. And for a while I was in charge of the entire Eastern United States and Canada for Scientology. So I did a lot of different stuff.
What was one of your biggest challenges when you first started living as a woman?
Looking like one. And it's not just the dress. It's not just the makeup. It's how do you move? How do you talk? How do you handle space between yourself and another person? Where do you look? Where do you cast your eyes? Where don't you cast your eyes? All of these little tiny bits.
On the flip side, what was one of your biggest delights?
I felt pretty. All my life, that's really all I wanted. That's the only reason I've gone through this whole darn metamorphosis. I just wanted to be a pretty girl. More importantly, I didn't have to be a guy. That was joyful. I didn't have to be big in the world. I didn't have to take up space in the world. I didn't have to take charge. I didn't have to be an alpha-wolf, if you will. I could simply be a source of delight and that's all I've ever really wanted to be.
In your book, you write that your mom initially had a bad reaction to your decision to live as a woman, but she later called you and told you she loved you and accepted your decision. How did that pan out over the following years?
Couldn't have been better. My mom and I had a unique mother-daughter relationship. I got to be an adult daughter to my mom without the baggage that comes with being a child daughter to a mom. I had the best relationship with my mom a person could have. I was her son when I was young and I was her daughter when I was older. We had seven wonderful years together before she passed.
Why can't you be gay in the Church of Scientology?
Scientologists believe that -- and this is why I joined -- you're not your body. You're not your mind. You don't have a soul. You are your own immortal soul. You are an immortal spiritual being. You've lived many, many lifetimes. Some as men, some as women. But you've lived forever, you will go on living forever. That's just the way it is. But because you have no body -- except lifetime to lifetime -- you, the spiritual being which they call a thetan, because you're an immortal spiritual being, you have no gender. This is an example of the George Orwell 1984 style Doublethink that L. Ron Hubbard uses in the Church of Scientology. No matter that -- being gay, or in any way not heterosexual, or in any way not acting like a manly man or a womanly woman, is a sign that you are evil. It's a symptom. It makes no sense. But again, Doublethink is the bad use of paradox. It's yes, you have no gender, and you're evil if you're gay. Makes no sense, right? I wasn't kicked out because I was trans. They all knew I was trans, or at least the people who were doing my spiritual counseling knew. But I was making money for them so they let me stay.
What do you think about the rumors that Tom Cruise and John Travolta are gay and that the church is working to cover that up?
They're rumors. I don't know whether they're true or false. I do know that if they are true, if either of those men are gay or bisexual, which is probably more likely, yes, the church would work to cover that up. Absolutely.
Why hasn't there been an openly gay Scientologist?
Because that would be an evil person, and there are no evil people in Scientology. They're kicked out. Or they leave, like me. Everybody in Scientology is very, very good. No evil people. Their word for evil person is Suppressive Person. SP. We would call that person a psychopath. It fits all the rules for a psychopath ... Suppressive Persons like me only tell lies, only ever tell lies. We never tell the truth. And sexual perversion, quote unquote, is a sign that someone is either suppressive or in some sort of relationship with a Suppressive Person. And you're not allowed to be in touch with a Suppressive Person because then you would take on those traits yourself and become evil which is why my daughter and grandchildren are not allowed to speak with me.
Do you want your daughter to leave the Church of Scientology?
Yes. For the longest time I thought Okay, it's the only world she's ever known. I'm not going to go in there and wreck that for her. But the bullying has gotten worse over the past ten years. A common bully tactic -- one of the most common -- is my way or the highway. It's black and white thinking. It's this is good, this is evil. It's like that pretty much everywhere. But in the church you're not even allowed to question any of the words of L. Ron Hubbard or of the current leader David Miscavige. You cannot question them without getting into trouble. And you get bullied until you obey. It's written into the canon of the church that it's okay -- if a person is messing up on their job -- it's okay to yell at them, scream at them, do what it takes to get them to, in their words, produce. People talk about being put in a private prison for up to ten years in Scientology. It's a double-wide trailer, and as many as 30 or 40 people sleep on the floor in there. One shower a day if they're lucky, if they have that privilege. And they spend their days screaming at each other to confess their crimes. It was referred to as The Hole. I don't want my daughter or my grandchildren to be subjected to that kind of bullying. I am working to put myself in a position to get word to her to please come out.
So, if a Scientologist tries to recruit someone, what should that person tell them?
No, thank you. Most Scientologists are decent people trying to save the world. Scientologists are not the problem. It's the bullying and the black and white thinking that's built into the philosophy of the church that's the problem. They will do anything in the name of income. Right now they're doing crazy fundraising stunts. They're buying property all over the world.
When you say they, who are you referring to?
International management of Scientology under the leadership of their self-styled chairman of the board David Miscavige has launched a fundraising campaign for building capital. They're just draining as much money as they can from current Scientologists. Their focus hasn't really been to get new Scientologists. It's getting money from who's already there so that they can have more buildings.
What else should readers know about A Queer and Pleasant Danger?
It's funny! There's a lot of comedy in it. It's a good beach read.
'A Queer and Pleasant Danger' is available in hardcover and electronic formats.