In December, while filming the second season of I Am Cait, Caitlyn Jenner and show regular Kate Bornstein made a visit to the Church of Scientology “org” that is part of its worldwide administrative headquarters in Los Angeles.
You didn’t hear about it because what happened that day never made it into the show, which aired its season finale more than a month ago.
But now we can tell you that the visit to Scientology was a daring move by Jenner, who was there to support her friend Bornstein on an emotional journey. The two of them were there asking to see Bornstein’s daughter, Jessica Baxter, who Kate has not seen in more than 30 years.
Ultimately, they were turned away after spending about an hour at the Scientology facility. Bornstein tells us they chose not to take cameras with them, out of concern for Scientology’s security measures.
So there is no footage of the encounter. But Kate Bornstein told us all about it, and Caitlyn Jenner’s representative confirmed that the event happened.
In 2012, we put Kate Bornstein on the cover of The Village Voice to note the publication of her memoir, 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. Bornstein was already a well-known trans performance artist and author of the influential gender theory manifesto, Gender Outlaw.
Less well known was her involvement in Scientology, which had her working as first mate to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard on the yacht Apollo in the early 1970s. Kate was Al Bornstein then, and Al was a dedicated Scientologist who had helped run the Scientology org in New York City. Al was also a father, but after he left Scientology his ex-wife Molly and his daughter Jessica “disconnected” from him. Bornstein hasn’t seen Jessica since 1980, when she was nine years old.
On January 24, 1986 — the same day, coincidentally, that L. Ron Hubbard died in California — Kate Bornstein changed her name legally. In her memoir, she writes in revealing detail about her various sexual and artistic adventures as she became a leading figure in the trans community. And she tells audiences that her daughter Jessica stays away from her not because of that unconventional history as a gender theory pioneer, but simply because Kate turned her back on Scientology.
Jessica is a member of Scientology’s “Sea Organization,” the most hard core of Scientology’s employees, who sign billion-year contracts and work around the clock for pennies an hour, cut off from the outside world and from their own families. In 2014, Jessica’s photo was spotted in an internal Scientology publication. She was part of a contingent of Sea Org executives who had been moved from Florida to the Los Angeles headquarters to take over an underperforming facility. For Kate, the photo of Jessica in her Sea Org outfit was the first time she’d seen anything about her in 31 years.
Kate herself had been through the wringer after her memoir came out. She spent a year battling lung cancer, and then in August 2014 told us that her cancer was in remission. Two months later, the photo of Jessica showed up. And six months after that, in April 2015, Bruce Jenner gave his 20/20 interview with Diane Sawyer, confirming that he was transitioning to life as a woman. In June, Caitlyn Jenner famously made her debut by showing up on the cover of Vanity Fair, and the next month, on July 26, her reality TV series, I Am Cait, debuted on the E! network.
When the series was filming, Bornstein, who lives in New York, happened to be in Los Angeles for Trans Pride. She ran into her friend Jen Richards, who was an I Am Cait cast member. Richards said she wanted to get Kate on the show, and soon Bornstein found herself in a car being taken through a steep canyon above Hollywood to the home of trans actress Candis Cayne.
“And there was Caitlyn Jenner,” Kate says, still sounding as surprised as she must have felt that day. The scene that then unfolded ended up in the fourth episode of the first season; the setup was that Caitlyn had gone to Cayne’s house for a “sleepover” that, initially, only featured the two of them. As the episode unfolded, there was a lot of emphasis on fashion and what kind of lingerie Cait was going to slip into later. But then, when Richards and Bornstein arrived, Jenner seemed to realize that the evening had suddenly taken on more importance. Narrating the scene, she explained who Bornstein was, and she mentioned Gender Outlaw.
And then, true to herself, if unusual for the show, Kate Bornstein put Jenner on the spot.
“‘How are you dealing with the freak factor?’ I asked her,” Kate remembers. “She was used to a lot of adulation from all of her friends. But the outside world sees us as freaks. Cait answered, ‘I’m doing the show to normalize things.’ And I answered yeah, you wouldn’t have to do that if we weren’t seen as freaks.”
If Caitlyn was temporarily thrown, she recovered and then asked Bornstein how she handled “the freak factor.”
By owning it, Kate responded.
“It made a big impression on Caitlyn,” Kate says, and the proof of that was that Kate was asked to become a regular member of the cast for season two.
We asked Kate how her involvement in Scientology had come up with the other cast members.
“It came up big time when we visited Caitlyn’s alma mater, Graceland College in Iowa. We were on stage and the whole student body was there, about 1,000 students,” Kate says. The school was originally affiliated with the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, known as Community of Christ today. So the students had numerous questions for Caitlyn and her friends about their thoughts on religion.
“I talked about Scientology, and explained that my daughter is a Scientologist, and active, and by the rules of that church, she’s not allowed to speak to me, not allowed to hear from me. That’s just the way it is. The students looked stricken,” Kate says.
“The other ladies on the bus kept asking me questions about Scientology after that — all the questions that are so embarrassing to an ex-Scientologist,” Bornstein says. “And some of that got aired. The Daily Beast pegged me as Caitlyn Jenner’s Ex-Scientologist Friend.”
But then, away from the cameras, Jenner brought the subject up with her.
“Caitlyn asked me later, what’s up with your daughter? Have you gotten back to see her? No, I told her. I’d sent her a letter, birthday cards. I’d done an Internet search and found that she was living in Tarpon Springs, Florida. But then she had transferred to Los Angeles with a Sea Org command team. I learned that from [former Scientology spokesman] Mike Rinder,” Kate says.
“Caitlyn said, wait she’s in Los Angeles? I showed Cait the picture I have of her. She said ‘Let’s go see her!’ That’s how she is,” Bornstein says with a laugh. “I’ll go with you, she said. You will? I asked. Yeah! she said. That’s how it came up. Caitlyn is a champion. That role for her is comfortable and she knows how to walk that walk. She will champion people’s rights. And she will fight injustice. And so she agreed to come with me to Scientology.”
Bornstein said she explained to Caitlyn what the pitfalls might be. She told Caitlyn that Scientology was notoriously retaliatory, and might attack them for even making the attempt.
“What are they going to say that hasn’t already been said?” Caitlyn responded.
Several weeks later, in the middle of December, Bornstein was staying in a hotel in Los Angeles while shooting for the series was going on. She got a call from Caitlyn. “You still want to do this?” she asked. When Kate said yes, Caitlyn told her she’d come by to pick her up at the hotel the next morning.
“Caitlyn has a bunch of cars, and one of them is a huge white Escalade with tinted windows — you cannot see inside that sucker,” Kate says.
She sat in front with Caitlyn, who was driving. Producers for the series, carrying cameras, sat in the back seats. Bornstein was armed with information about where Jessica might be stationed at the “Big Blue” complex, Scientology’s administrative headquarters in Los Angeles, whose centerpiece is the former Cedars of Lebanon hospital that the church purchased in 1977, just a few months before the FBI raided the place.
“Mike Rinder had pulled a few strings and found where Jessica was stationed and what her office was,” Kate says.
She directed Caitlyn where to drive, and they pulled into the parking lot off Sunset Boulevard and in front of the “Los Angeles Org,” the “Ideal Org” that is on the compound’s north side.
“It was about 10 in the morning. No one was in the parking lot. And this huge white Escalade pulls up, facing the front door. I told Caitlyn I was worried about Scientology’s security people,” Kate says.
“No, this is exciting,” Caitlyn responded.
“We sat there and realized, what are we going to say?”
They weren’t there just as a stunt, Kate explains. They really did hope that they could convince Jessica to see her “father” for the first time in decades. They sat in the Escalade, talking over the approach that might actually convince the Scientologists to cooperate.
They decided that Caitlyn should introduce herself, and say that she’s with her friend, but mumble Kate’s last name so that it wasn’t really discernible.
“And that’s what she did,” Bornstein says with a laugh.
“We walked inside and went up to the front desk, and Caitlyn said, ‘Hi, I’m Caitlyn Jenner and this is my friend Kate — mumble — and we’re here to see Jessica Baxter.’ There were four people behind the desk, and none of them recognized her. And that threw her for a loop. Caitlyn’s not used to being unrecognized. Her name opens doors,” Kate says.
But they were in luck. After they were kept waiting for about ten minutes, Kate says, one of the women behind the counter told them it was all right for them to go see Jessica.
“You can go to her office, she said, and then she pointed to a place around the corner,” Kate remembers.
The office was located in the American Saint Hill Organization, a large rectangular building that features a sculpture of a lion out front — and it’s literally just next door from the LA Org, a few hundred feet farther down L. Ron Hubbard Way.
“Caitlyn wanted to drive,” Kate says in a way that makes it plain that if that’s what Caitlyn wanted, that was what was going to happen.
“We got back into that honking big thing. And then two security guards showed up, stopping us as we pulled out of the parking lot. Hey there, where are you going? Caitlyn was getting pretty cocky at this point, telling them, yeah, we’re going down there, to the lion. So they let us go.”
Kate says they didn’t see where to park the car, so they looped back around the compound and ended up back in the parking lot they had just left.
“Now there were six security guys, in uniforms. What’s with the uniforms? Caitlyn asked. They wear uniforms, they have ranks, I explained,” Kate says.
“This is great! It’s like being in a spy movie!” Caitlyn said.
The two of them got out of the car, and it was obvious that the security guards knew, or had been told, who Caitlyn was.
“Thank you for coming, they said. And Caitlyn was doing all the talking,” Kate remembers.
The guards told them they were trying to find Jessica for them, and asked them to go back into the LA Org lobby and have a seat.
“We went back to the same place we’d been half an hour earlier,” Kate says.
“They brought us water and tea, and asked us if we wanted a tour. Two of them, a man and a woman, tried to engage us in conversation,” she says.
When they asked about why they were there to see Jessica Baxter, Kate says she faltered.
“I wasn’t as brave as I thought I was going to be. I didn’t say, ‘I’m her dad.’ That left me,” she says. “It didn’t actually even occur to me. Which is weird. I was kind of scared by this time. They were talking to Caitlyn. Does Jessica know you? they asked her. Caitlyn operates by this idea, ‘everyone knows me.’ So she said, yeah!
“They weren’t asking me questions. So I just shut up and drank their water and some of their tea. We were there for another 30 minutes. I pointed out that we were being filmed, and Caitlyn said, ‘Well, you and I are used to that.'”
Eventually, they were told that Jessica was unable to talk to them, and they were asked for a number where they could be reached.
“Caitlyn whipped out her phone, and I said no, why don’t you give us Jessica’s number and we’ll call her. The number they gave us was the main number for the org. And that was it,” Kate says.
Kate says she knew the chances of an actual reunion had probably been small, “but I did get my hopes up for seeing her.” Afterwards, she spoke with Rinder, who told her that at least Jessica would know that someone was interested in seeing her.
When Kate told him that she worried her visit might have gotten Jessica into trouble with the notoriously punishment-minded organization, he told her, “Maybe that’s just what she needs.”
We asked Kate what Caitlyn’s impression was after the encounter.
“She was struck by how tightly wrapped up everything was. She got that they weren’t being genuine to us. ‘They don’t really care about people,’ she said. And she said that they were overly protective and they had no reason to be. Right again.”
The only footage they had of the encounter was what the producers had shot in the car on the way to and from the Scientology headquarters. Kate told us about the event when it happened, but asked us to keep a lid on it until the show had a chance to put something together. Only after the season was over, and Kate realized that it wouldn’t be mentioned, did she agree to let us write about it.
When we reached out to Jenner for a statement, her representative Alan Nierob sent us a message.
“This email will confirm that our client, Caitlyn Jenner, went with Kate Bornstein to the Scientology facility in Los Angeles to see her daughter last December,” it said.
We sent a message to Scientology spokeswoman Karin Pouw, asking about the church’s reaction to being visited by Jenner. We’ll let you know if she responds.
Kate, meanwhile, is philosophical about her odd day at the Scientology headquarters with her famous friend.
“Caitlyn had no idea how doomed to failure our little jaunt was, but it made me feel good to try. And it made me happy when Mike said that Jessica knows now that someone wants to see her.”
Chris Shelton on recovering from Scientology
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UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists
GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice
SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts
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