Bonding with gender
by Jim Piechota
Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels by Justin Bond; The Feminist Press, $16.95 paper & e-book
For the great sake of proper names, political correctness, pronoun accuracy, and the reluctance of this reviewer to piss off anyone important, we'll call the New York City-based singer, songwriter, and Tony-nominated transgender performance artist Mx. Justin Vivian Bond by the preferred "V." And just leave it at that.
The list of accomplishments this artist has racked up is astounding: V is one-half of performance duo Kiki & Herb, and has appeared on and off Broadway and at Carnegie Hall ("twice") to critical acclaim; V released two musical CDs and a DVD, and has appeared in John Cameron Mitchell's film Shortbus, among others, and on television in Ugly Betty and Late Night with Conan O'Brian. And that's just a small sampling of a much larger repertoire. A slight, potent taste of this larger-than-life entertainer can be found in V's new book Tango, a slender, uneven, anecdotal collection of vignettes describing the childhood and adolescence of this unique persona.
In the book's lovely preface, Hilton Als, a writer at The New Yorker, calls Bond "Mx.," a surname pronounced "mix" that V prefers (as noted on his website) because it "clearly states a trans identity without amplifying a binary gender preference." For V, gender-bending has been innate since grade school, where wearing lipstick was a natural part of life's "glamour rituals," much to his mother's chagrin. Now 40something, the popular performer admits in the book to being diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and mild depression, but trudges onward with lively discussions of his Hagerstown, MD childhood as an active Cub Scout obsessed with gowns, while wanting "to be just like Sandy Duncan and survive a brain tumor so that everyone would know what I was made of."
V's first sexual misadventures at Scout camp are hilarious: "Bobby said, 'Blow me, blow me.' I had no idea what that meant, so I began to blow on his penis." V eventually mastered oral sex with longtime best buddy Michael, and ditched the huge Christian crosses worn around his neck since "I didn't really like being called a Jesus freak any more than I liked being called a fag." Attending college during the height of the AIDS crisis, V somberly writes, "While most of the gay boys in my college class were experimenting sexually, I was trying to find true love. Most of those boys are dead now."
V's engaging story meanders up and over his youth, then abruptly ends with the disclosure of now being "gratefully childless" and mid-40something. The unexpected ending of the book comes as a shock and a surprise. Readers will be left wanting more: more modern experiences, more "now-moments," life on the road with a traveling chanteuse, something more tangible, perhaps.
Whether fans will feel shortchanged or not, Tango is a witty, sardonic, sassy and thoughtful little book. In 134 pages, V's short memoir draws us in closer to the multi-talented performer who identifies as neither male nor female, but is wholly consumed with the art and dance of life and show.
Just don't call V "he," which noted gay author Benoit Denizet-Lewis made the mistake of doing in a New York Times review where he, some say, is guilty of intentionally misgendering V, even though V's gender-identifying intentions were made clear at the outset of the piece. The requisite firestorm of rebuttals ensued, even forcing the newspaper to change the review's header. Yeesh.
While I'm all for the freedom of personal expression, at what point did self-identification become such a prickly, complicated issue? I'm just hoping that I got all the he's and she's in the right place for this piece. I'll be hiding in the men's room if you need me.