Instead of ending the year with a slew of Best Of lists, BlackBook asked our contributors to share the most important moments in art, music, film, television, and fashion that took place in 2012. Here, Tyler Coates shares his love for Mx. Justin Vivian Bond’s cabaret performance Snow Angel.
I started an earlier version of this piece last week before heading home for Christmas. Here’s how it started:
I was first introduced to Mx. Justin Vivian Bond in John Cameron Mitchell’s 2006 film Shortbus. Bond, who has since chosen “V” in lieu of gender pronouns such as “he” or “she,” is also well known as one-half of the duo Kiki and Herb. In the years since they disbanded, V has gone solo, recorded two albums (2011’s Dendrophile and Silver Wells, which was released earlier this year), and wrapped up 2012 with Snow Angel, a show that I was lucky to see at 54 Below last Monday. Billed as a holiday show, V’s performance was a wondrous event, combining personal stories, observations, and original songs as well as covers of tunes written by singer-songwriters Melanie and Joni Mitchell and hip-hop superstars Jay-Z and Kanye West. Bringing in the Christmas spirit in V’s own way, Bond sang “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” although with the original lyrics penned for Meet Me in St. Louis (which Judy Garland refused to sing, suggesting that “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, for it may be your last” was too depressing). “I think the ending of that movie is actually depressing,” Bond said, “since they don’t get to move to New York and have to stay in St. Louis.”
On Christmas morning, I saw that the New York Times reviewed V’s show. Of course, my first response was to scrap my own recap of Snow Angel; after all, how could my writing compare to something in the Times?
And then I read the piece, and was pretty shocked at how music critic Stephen Holden described what sounded like a completely different performance. For example, Holden brought up the "bone-deep ambivalence that is the essence of Mx. Bond’s being." That wasn’t the Bond that I was in awe of, or the Bond that I wrote about in that first unpublished draft. And I wasn’t surprised that V has responded to Holden’s piece with an angry blog post:
It may look rather innocuous at first so let me break it down for you.
Mr. Holden decides to open his hate-fueled review with this gambit:
“at 54 Below, Mx. Bond imagined that his/her self-described freakishness was caused by…”
I never called myself a freak during the show but with his twisted worldview Mr. Holden translated my observations about the “nature vs. nurture” argument and my open and direct discussion of my life as a transperson and my queer identity as “self-described freakishness”. I do not have a problem with the use of the word “freak” but when it is used as a tool to pave the way for a blatantly transphobic personal attack cloaked as a “critique” it gives me pause.
According to Mr. Holden once I have described myself as a freak I continue with my “proudly abrasive” performance in a “blonde chignon hairpiece”. (I only mention the “chignon hairpiece” because there was no hairpiece and it was not a chignon. I style my own natural hair into a French Twist.) Like my hair, I am real. Mr. Holden continues with a vague reference to a character I portrayed very successfully on Broadway several years ago and for which I received a Tony nomination, then goes on to compare me to Kim Novak -all of which is apropos of nothing. Except for the constant barrage of insults most of this ridiculous piece is, in fact, apropos of nothing because Mr. Holden shouldn’t be writing about contemporary cabaret. He has no understanding of it and he has no context for it.
This could easily be read as an artist’s angry response to a negative review, but that’d be a pretty narrow reading. What surprised me most about Holden’s review was not just that he blatantly ignored Bond’s desire to eschew masculine and feminine pronouns for "V," but he tossed out the phrase "he/she," which sounded not like an easy catch-all for a transperson and more like an offhanded, offensive remark. Bond has been pretty vocal about journalists who refuse to use "V" in print, perhaps most famously in response to a 2011 New York profile penned by Carl Swanson (which also referred to V as a drag queen). I’ve had friends suggest that changing grammatical rules to suit one person’s decision to create a pronoun is too difficult to do. My response, generally, is that it’s not that difficult or confusing, and I agree with Bond’s response to Holden’s review: "If you can’t honor my preferred pronoun then it’s best not to hazard a guess. If you aren’t sure what pronoun to use then don’t use one!" (Also, I can image that using "V" instead of "he or she" is a lot less difficult than, say, being a transperson in our society. Just sayin’!)
But enough about the brewing controversy behind the NYT review of Snow Angel. What blew me completely away was not just Bond’s tremendous talent—that voice, for starters, which goes up and down in various registers, never losing its power; the quick wit with which Bond shared stories from V’s childhood, alluding to the uncomfortable nature of growing up as a misunderstood transperson in a society that, for the most part, treats such an identity as inherently wrong or a narcissistic expression that threatens others (rather than an acknowledgement of being impeded against). What I love most was Bond’s comfort, grace, and glamour, as much as V’s personable nature after the show when greeting fans. Talking to Bond for a few minutes felt like talking to an old friend—someone who was funny, endearing, encouraging. And that comfort and contentedness is not only admirable; it’s also something I wish most people could achieve, especially myself.
I identify as a gay man, and I recognize that I have it pretty easy. I came out to friends first, of course, and my parents a few years later. I emailed my parents one evening in January 2008, a week after discovering that my father’s cancer had returned. At the time I was terrified to tell them about myself, but I understood that it was time to do it because the time with my father was running short. “I don’t think that you’d be angry or hate me because people who would feel that way toward me are, frankly, idiot assholes,” I wrote, “and I do not think either of you are idiot assholes.”
Over cocktails recently I told my mother that the only thing I regretted about the way I came out (other than via email, which in hindsight was impersonal), was that I also told them that I didn’t think it defined me as a person, or at least made me a different person than the one they had raised. The latter is true, but the former… Well, that’s trickier.
In the nearly five years since, I’ve come to realize that one’s sexual identity—especially those who do not fall into the heterosexual category—will always define them. That’s a sad truth about being in a minority; the majority has all of the power, because they are the supposed “normal” persons in our society. I’ve never been particularly comfortable or courageous enough to break free of that, but I’ve grown to admire those who are able to express their sexuality, gender, lifestyle (however you’d like to put it) very plainly and openly. And when my mother said to me, “I’ve started to realize that just because someone is different, it doesn’t mean they are wrong,” I felt proud that someone important to me, someone who has had to confront that firsthand, was able to come to such a conclusion.
I don’t know much about what it is to be transgender, and as far as I know I don’t know anyone personally who has had that experience. But that doesn’t mean I should reject it completely, or make a point to not understand it. As a writer, the most interesting part of my job is learning how people live and create art and conveying what I have discovered to others.
That’s what I love so much about Mx. Justin Vivian Bond, and what is so disheartening to see in Stephen Holden’s review in the New York Times, of all places. Rather than criticizing the art, Holden criticized the person making it. That does not encourage others to make art, but it especially doesn’t encourage any sort of self-expression when the self does not fit into the normalcy of a straight white man’s world. There should be more people like V, and less of people like Stephen Holden to express their own narrow-minded views in respected venues under the guise of arts criticism.
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