I started reading Justin Vivian Bond's Tango on the BART en route to San Francisco Pride and I can't remember if I finished it that day or the next day but it was one of those books where reading it felt like eating it. It was tiny, I swallowed it whole. It felt meta, almost, V writing about ADD while I remarked to myself how easy it had been to maintain focus while reading this book. I liked it. I related to it, unexpectedly. There's some kind of universal "growing up queer" sentiment V touched on and rolled around in, that specific way we perceive the world as children who know they are different and often aren't entirely sure why.
Justin Vivian Bond is a transgender actor, performance artist, singer-songwriter and "a fixture of the New York avant garde," best known for playing Kiki in the drag cabaret act Kiki and Herb, which ran for nearly 14 years. If you feel like you've seen V before, it may have been in Short Bus. V was nominated for a Tony in 2007 and has won an Obie Award, Bessie Award and Ehtyl Eichelberger Award. Bond retired Kiki -- "an elderly alcoholic woman who would perform covers of pre-existing songs in her own distinct style" -- in 2004 and went on to a prosperous solo career, eventually releasing a solo album called Dendrophile in 2011. V's book Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels, comes out this September.
ANNIKA: Let me first just say that I have so much respect for Justin Vivian Bond. I struggled enough with coming out as a binary-identified trans girl in San Francisco in 2011; I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like to be a gender-variant child in a small town in the late 1960’s, especially since V’s gender identity and expression don’t fit neatly into the societal categories of male or female. As a trans* activist, I tend to get so focused on the current struggles for equality that I often forget how much progress has been made in the past few decades. We are truly indebted to an older generation of queers like Mx. Bond, for fighting the battles that helped pave the way for where we are today.
In the final pages of Tango, Mx. Bond imagines what childhood would have been like if V had never been the target of transphobia or homophobia. V recalls a recent dream V had "that a time will come when queer children can be themselves without any questions, able to experience the same dramas, heartaches, and joys that any other kids would have to go through, no more and no less." This "luxury of normality," as V describes it, really resonated with me. As a trans girl, I feel like I missed out on a "normal" childhood and adolescence. I sometimes feel sad when I see a young girl in a cute dress and bows in her hair, because she is enjoying a simple pleasure that I wanted so badly as a child but couldn’t have (of course, it is possible that this presentation is not in line with their true gender).
sometimes feel sad when I see a young girl in a cute dress and bows in her hair, because she is enjoying a simple pleasure that I wanted so badly as a child but couldn’t have.
I found Tango very engaging because it allowed me to compare my experiences as a trans child with Justin Bond’s. For V, being denied the "luxury of normality" as a child meant that V was the target of homophobic and transmisogynistic ridicule, as well as a source of parental anxiety, because of V’s overtly feminine presentation. For me, it meant withdrawal and suppression of my true nature. I can’t pinpoint a specific incident that made me realize that I needed to hide who I really was, but I had definitely learned it by the time I was in first grade- the same age that V was proudly wearing V’s mother’s lipstick to school. I loved lipstick too, but I only indulged when I had the house to myself, making sure to wipe all traces of this forbidden pleasure from my lips by the time my parents got home. When I finally came out to my family earlier this year, the near-universal reaction from my relatives was “We had absolutely no idea.” My father even tried to use the fact that I hid it so well as proof that I couldn’t have possibly felt this way since childhood.
When reading Tango, I found myself wondering, “Why did I withdraw when V did not?” To be honest I’m not really sure. Maybe it comes down to differences in our personalities. I tend to be rather demure and soft-spoken, whereas Justin often found vself at the center of attention as a child. Maybe I just didn’t have the courage V did to be myself. I don’t think I would have been able to handle walking down the hallway in 8th grade like V did while other students jeered and hurled insults like “faggot” at me. I much preferred the safety of invisibility, even if it meant that I was miserable inside. Maybe the difference was circumstantial. Justin writes that as a child “I was my mother’s most glamorous accessory…I was mostly surrounded by women and girls…I was raised by girls and I liked it.” The opposite was true for me. Most of my preschool friends were girls, but I didn’t have any sisters or female cousins to look up to, and my mother wasn’t the least bit interested in anything you would describe as “glamorous”. My father was eager to teach me, his first-born child, how to be a man. When my family moved to suburbia when I was 8, my female friends at school were replaced by the neighborhood boys, who wasted no time in socializing me to not be “such a pansy.”
Or perhaps the difference between the way Mx. Bond and I experienced our respective trans* childhoods lies in sexual attraction. Tango is rife with V’s intimate escapades with boys V’s age, which are often described in graphic detail. By acting on V’s sexual urges, Justin was already engaging in “deviant” behavior, and it’s possible that this transgression of societal rules allowed V to do the same with regard to V’s gender expression. By contrast, my sexuality fit neatly into the heteronormative narrative that everyone expected for me. I was allowed, even encouraged, to express my attraction for women, since everyone viewed me as a good straight boy. As a teenager, this societal reinforcement made it a lot harder for me to come to terms with the fact that I was both attracted to girls and felt like one inside. Once again, I chose suppression where Justin did not.
So while Mx. Bond and I often dealt with being trans* in very different ways, there are a few common themes found in both of our experiences of childhood- something that all queer kids can probably relate to to some extent: feelings of confusion and isolation, of not fitting in, of wondering we why aren’t “normal” like everyone else. I recall walking to school at age 14 on a particularly dreary Seattle morning, and feeling like my entire existence was a façade. Like my life was a movie and I had to act out the role in which I had been cast, even if everything felt fake and meaningless. I wondered, “Is this all there is to life?” Ten years later, I can thankfully say that the answer is no. Now that I am no longer pretending to be something I’m not, I am able to feel truly alive and authentic for the first time. Justin’s story has a happy ending as well. V now tours the world as a successful performer and cabaret artist. For both of us, things really did get better. Hopefully though, one day Mx. Bond’s dream will become reality, and the next generation of queer kids won’t have to wait until adulthood to feel happy and loved as themselves.
SEBASTIAN:I admittedly am lacking expertise in the area of queer memoirs. Keep that in mind when you read my next statement:
I have never before read something that so resonated with not only my desire to be seen as normal but also my experiences with the homophobia, transphobia, and gender policing that tried to mold me into what was seen as normal.
At the conclusion of the book, Justin Vivian Bond recounts a dream V had in which V sat at a neighborhood picnic, with long hair (noting that V was not a girl in this dream, just allowed to express V’s natural femininity), next to the boy V had been having a sexual relationship with. In the dream no one was passing judgment or telling Justin Vivian how to look or act. V could just be – a normal teenager, “nothing more nothing less.” V called it “the luxury of normality” – what V’s experience would have been like sans the homophobia and transphobia.
In adolescence, as I was first exploring the concept of identity and what mine might be, I discovered two intense themes. The first was my distaste for conformity. The second was my desire to not be different. It was confusing because a) it seems paradoxical and b) I didn’t have any sense of my gender identity to help give this some meaning.
What I think I was seeking was a way (or place) to truly be myself but have that be normal. And in the heteronormative, cis-centric world we live in, I think that most trans and queer people can relate to this (too often unfulfilled) desire. I was seeking “the luxury of normality.”
The book reads sort of like one side of a conversation – if you’re used to having conversations with nostalgic people seriously suffering from attention deficit disorder.
So Tango is the story of a kid who isn’t normal and struggles because of it. Not only is Justin’s struggle external (battling with parents, facing threats in hallways), but it is also internal, as V is trying to figure out who V is, what V likes, what V wants to become without any sort of model narrative or even language to serve as a guide.
Before I go on about how great this book is, I want to be honest: the first time I read it, I didn’t like it that much. I think I went into it hoping that as a memoir from Justin Vivian Bond, someone who has navigated the world “between” genders with grace and poise, and even glamour, that Tango would offer some real insight into gender and gender identity. One friend who read the first half or so said it seemed like “a lot of regurgitation without reflection.” And that’s how I initially felt – I wanted V to tell us what it all meant, damnit! Plus I had a hard time wading through the stories of sexual rendezvous between teenage boys.
But then I read it again. And I realized my expectations of the book were all wrong. It’s not a memoir of Mx. Bond’s life or career or a study of how V bends gender– it’s a memoir of V’s childhood. It’s not supposed to be some insightful reflection or an educational piece.
It’s a story (well lots of stories) about a kid who is still trying to figure shit out… without the luxury of normality.
And Mx. Bond is really good at telling stories. The book reads sort of like one side of a conversation – if you’re used to having conversations with nostalgic people seriously suffering from attention deficit disorder. One of my favorite quotes illustrates this style:
"There was a lot to think about. First of all, if I had ADD it would mean I would have to get a prescription. I hadn’t had a prescription for anything other than antibiotics for an occasional strep throat or passing gonorrhea since I was a child. Even then I didn’t have to take any anything for an undetermined period of time. Could I afford ADD medication? Perhaps ADD was an affliction to be indulged in by people of a higher economic bracket than mine. Maybe I was just telling my friend’s father these things because I wanted to keep taking Adderall. Maybe I was unwittingly becoming a speed freak. Maybe the romance of being like so many of my fallen idols – Judy Garland, Edie Sedgwick, Neely O’Hara – was getting the best of me."
It bounces around, loosely following a narrative path from V’s early childhood dabbles with femininity (and ultimately punishment and restrictions following those), through pre-adolescent friendships and sexual exploration with boys, through school life and authority figures that offered no guidance or refuge, to adolescent sexual relationships (with a young man and a young woman) that provided both confusion and enlightenment.
I think the brilliance behind this is Justin’s ability to express the thoughts V had at the time the stories were taking place. At one point early in the book Justin goes on a tangent about Sandy Duncan (V’s favorite TV star at the time), writing, “I wanted glasses too. I wanted to be just like Sandy Duncan and survive a brain tumor so that everyone would know what I was made of.” I felt like Mx. Bond’s 10-year-old self had written this. And we see the narration mature throughout V’s memoir. Observations and expressed desires become less childlike. Justin also loses some of V’s fantasy. In the beginning Justin talks of waiting until V’s breasts come in, or how V will dress upon reaching womanhood. Though there is no story depicting when V realized this would not happen naturally, there is a turning point in the narration, as V later just dreams of waking up with breasts or long hair or a closet full of glamorous dresses.
But this isn’t a book report is it? So I should stop getting into so much detail. It’s just the more I think about it the more I really like this.
In the first Chapter, Mx. Bond states that V “was attracted to outsiders” and that is where most of the book’s entertainment comes from. Justin Vivian seemed to find (or perhaps attract) all the eccentric characters in V’s small world, and in Tango, V manages to relay all their quirks and the eccentricities of their encounters and situations so well. It reminded me of a David Lynch film where everybody under the surface is a total weirdo and Justin Vivian Bond could see through whatever veil they were wearing, see them for the characters they really were. This is one of the things that makes the book so easy to read – the characters (who are real) draw you in.
A couple of times in the memoir, Justin Vivian mentions that V is 46. What you might not know about Mx. Bond is that V is a cabaret star and musician, had a major role [playing my favorite character – V’s self, really] in Shortbus, and has collaborated/is collaborating with some of the greatest minds in art and performance. So Tango becomes a survival story to a certain degree. You read this knowing that not only has V survived, but Justin Vivian Bond has thrived. Interestingly, though, V’s story is paired with another narrative – the story of V’s ex teenage lover, David, whom Justin recently learned had gone crazy and was arrested multiple times, the latest under the assumed identity of “Tango.”
I think it is really significant that the title of the book is an homage to V’s lover. By using the title Tango, Mx. Bond is saying that David’s story, that of a confused kid seeking normality and comfort but never finding it, never finding himself, ending up truly lost under false identities and criminal charges, is just as significant as V’s own.
“Our parents were aspiring toward safe, secure, middle-class normality… As much as I despised David at the time and as difficult as it was for me then, I realize now that because he and I were so different from what our parents had hoped for and what society had expected, we became targets, lightning rods for the dissatisfaction of those around us. We were the victims of people who felt the shifting sands of identity and sexuality, and who were sure they could manipulate, cajole, and torture their children into being what they thought was necessary for the survival of some misguided social contract that we are all supposed to sign on to.”
They both start out in the same battle against (and for) normality. And there was/is something in Justin Vivian’s spirit that made V victorious where many others (like David/Tango) fall. I think that “something” comes out in the pages of Tango.
I’ve written too much. But really, this book is worth your time. I recommend reading it at least twice.