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New London - Author, performer and activist Kate Bornstein had a clear message for the audience assembled to hear her talk at Connecticut College late Friday afternoon.
"Do whatever you need or want to do in order to make life worth living," she told the group of about 75 students, faculty members and community members. "Just don't be mean."
Bornstein's address, titled "Hello, Cruel World: A guide to staying alive for teens, freaks, and other outlaws," was the keynote of the school's mental health and wellness fair and focused on some of the mental health issues facing LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) youth.
"Sexuality and gender are bully magnets. People get bullied for not looking like a real male or a real female or not acting like one," Bornstein, 65, said. "The bullying often becomes intolerable to the point that it is not worth living anymore. What I try to do is encourage youth who want to be sex positive, who want to break the rules of gender, do just that."
Bornstein's latest book is her memoir, titled "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."
As the title suggests, Bornstein grew up in New Jersey as Albert Bornstein and for almost 12 years was an active member of the Church of Scientology before becoming disillusioned and leaving the movement in 1981.
"I was assigned male at birth and when I was home as a little kid it didn't bother me. But living (as a) boy and eventually a man felt like a lie," Bornstein said.
So, in 1986, Bornstein had gender reassignment surgery and became a woman, but "it felt like a lie, too," she said.
"I'm not a man, I know that much. I tried being a woman, but it felt the same way as when I was trying to be a man," she said. "I can say now that I know I'm not a woman. Being free of that, I don't have an obligation to act within the limitations of either gender. I can play around."
In the last 20 years Bornstein has published a half-dozen books and traveled the country giving talks and leading workshops.
"She's pretty legendary in the queer community as a gender theorist and transgender advocate," said Jen Manion, director of Connecticut College's LGBTQ Center. "She also has quite a big persona online, on Twitter especially, as Auntie Kate, and queer youth all over the country reach out to her and lean on her."
In fact, @KateBornstein has nearly 20,000 followers on Twitter and she encourages fans to connect with her there.
"What I really like is that someone will come and say, 'What do I do about the fact that I'm asexual? People get down on me about that,'" she said. "So what I do is I ask for comments from other people and tell them to tweet so-and-so and then I serve as a conduit for a whole bunch of people coming to this person's aid."
Bornstein's visit to Connecticut College and New London was no accident. The college was recently named by the Huffington Post a top LGBT-friendly campus as a result of college policies, such as having a gender-neutral housing option.
In June, New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio and his partner, Todd Ledbetter, who are legally married, were invited to the White House, where the city was recognized nationally for its commitment and support of the LGBTQ community.
Jasmine McTigue, secretary of the New London-based LGBTQ activism group OutCT, said Bornstein emphasizes to young people that no matter their sexual identity, they have a place in the world.
"Kate is so important because she is positively visible in talking about things in an educated fashion," McTigue said. "And she sends a message that says, 'Stand up and be a part of life and be a good, constructive part.'"