Martine prefers not to limit herself to available words: She’s suggested using “Pn.,” for “person,” in place of “Mr.” and “Ms.,” and “spice” to mean husband or wife. But “trans” is a prefix she likes a lot, for it contains her self-image as an explorer who crosses barriers into strange new lands. (When she feels a connection to a new acquaintance, she says that she “transcends.”) And these days Martine sees herself less as transgender and more as what is known as transhumanist, a particular kind of futurist who believes that technology can liberate humans from the limits of their biology—including infertility, disease, and decay, but also, incredibly, death. Now, in her spare time, when she’s not running a $5 billion company, or flying her new helicopter up and down the East Coast, or attending to her large family and three dogs, she’s tinkering with ways that technology might push back that ultimate limit. She believes in a foreseeable future in which the beloved dead will live again as digital beings, reanimated by sophisticated artificial-intelligence programs that will be as cheap and accessible to every person as iTunes. “I know this sounds messianic or even childlike,” she wrote to me in one of many emails over the summer. “But I believe it is simply practical and technologically inevitable.”
During our first conversation, in the beige United Therapuetics outpost in Burlington, Vermont, Martine made a distinction between boundaries and borders. Borders, denials, limits—these are Martine’s siren calls, pulling her toward and beyond them even as she, a pharma executive responsible to shareholders and a board, must survive every day within regulations and laws. She was sprawled across from me on a sectional couch, her hair in a ponytail and her long legs before her. “At times I sort of feel like Queen Elizabeth,” she said. “You know, she lives in a world of limitations, having the appearance of great authority and being able to transcend any limitations. But in reality she is in a little cage.”
Martin Rothblatt was raised by observant Jewish parents in a working-class suburb of San Diego; his father was a dentist. His mother, Rosa Lee, says she always believed her first child was destined for greatness. Days after Martin’s birth, “I was walking back and forth in the living room and I was holding him like a football. And I remember saying, ‘Menashe, honey’—that’s his Hebrew name—‘I don’t know what it is, but there’s something special about you. You will make a difference in this world.’ And she is.”
The Rothblatts were the only Jewish family in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood, and Martin grew up obsessed with difference, seeking out families unlike his own. Rosa Lee remembers her child as a fanatical reader, the kind of kid who would spend an entire family vacation with his nose in Siddhartha, and Martine herself sent me a list of the books that as an adolescent had been influential: Exodus, by Leon Uris; anything by Isaac Asimov; and especially Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin. But Martin was an unmotivated student and dropped out of UCLA after freshman year, because he wanted to see the world; he had read that the Seychelles were like a paradise, and with a few hundred dollars in his pocket he made his way there.
The Seychelles disappointed. Cockroaches covered the floor of his hut at night, and when he turned on the light, moths or locusts would swarm in through the open windows. But a friend of a friend was working at an Air Force base tracking satellites for NASA, and one day Martin was invited to visit. Outside, there was a “big, giant, satellite dish.” Inside, “it was like we stepped into the future,” Martine told me. “Everything was crisp and clean,” she said, like a vision out of science fiction made real. “It seemed to me the satellite engineer was making the whole world come together. Like that was the center of the world.” Martin hightailed it back to California to re-enroll at UCLA and transform himself into an expert in the law of space.
Martin first met Bina at a networking event in Hollywood in 1979. “There was a DJ, and the music started, and there was a disco ball and a dance floor,” Martine remembers. “I saw Bina sitting over there, and I just felt an enormous attraction to her and just walked over and asked her to dance. And she agreed to dance. We danced, we sat down, talked, and we’ve been together ever since.” They were from different worlds: Martin was a white Jewish man on his way to getting a J.D.-M.B.A.; Bina, who is African-American, grew up in Compton and was working as a real-estate agent. But they had much in common—starting with the fact that they were both single parents. Martin had met a woman in Kenya on his way home from the Seychelles; the relationship had not worked out, but had produced a son, Eli, who was 3. Bina’s daughter, Sunee, was about the same age.