Justin Vivian Bond: 20 Years of Sculpting Transgender Identity in Pop Culture and New York
By Shannon Carlin
“What might Andy Warhol say in a tweet?”
Mx Justin Vivian Bond sits at a table in a fifth floor walk-up in the Lower East Side filling out a questionnaire for Christie’s. The New York auction house is selling some of Warhol’s male nude drawings in a show called Andy’s Eye Candy that runs in tandem with LGBT pride month. Bond—a transgender performer who does not identify as male or female—was asked to take part in the questionnaire because v (Bond prefers people use the pronoun “v” instead of he or she) played the late drag superstar and fixture of Warhol’s Factory Jackie Curtis in the 2012 show Jukebox Jackie. More importantly, Bond has been one of the most outspoken trans-activists in the queer community for the last two decades.
“I’m sure you could just crack open one of his books, point at something and you’d be good to go!” Bond says out loud before typing it up furiously. “It’s a cop-out. But, oh well.”
It’s not that Bond can’t be bothered thinking up a good posthumous tweet for Warhol, but for the last six hours, Bond has been busy filling out questionnaires and fielding calls from reporters in kitty-cat pajama pants v wore the night before in hopes to drum up some interest in a show of v’s own.
In celebration of having lived in New York City for 20 years, Bond is hosting a performance—affectionately titled “Happy Tranniversary!”—at Le Poisson Rouge on June 10. The show, which as of two weeks ago Bond was still in the midst of putting together, will feature those in Bond’s life who helped v become the “trans-fabulous performance-activist” v is today including singer/producer Julian Fleisher, singer Reginald M. Lamar and Kate Bornstein, a transgender playwright who Bond says helped shape v’s perspective as a “transgender performer and a person really.”
“She’s going to sing a special song, a debut as a singer since she transitioned in the ’80s, very exciting,” Bond tells Radio.com.
From 1999 to 2004, Bond was better known as Kiki DuRane, one half of the cabaret duo, Kiki and Herb, with Kenny Mellman. The role of Kiki wasn’t an easy one for Bond, who says playing the boozy octogenarian with an attitude problem was often challenging. “She was an alcoholic, she was a terrible mother, she was sacrilegious, she was a real politically incorrect character,” Bond says. “I always thought, ‘Well, if I can get people to love Kiki and forgive this character, then I am going to be able to expand their ideas of who and what are acceptable in our culture.’ That was the joy of being that character, she was shocking to people and then they would find themselves loving her.”
Bond and Mellman had a falling out after Bond left the show to pursue solo endeavors, which included two solo albums — 2011’s Dendrophile and the following year’s Silver Wells. “I just felt like I had said everything I had to say with that character,” Bond says. “That character embodied a lot of rage and I was actually living a life that was damaging to me, physically and spiritually. I was depressed, I was unhappy, I had to make a change.” The two recently reconciled and were getting drinks right after our interview. Bond was hoping to talk Mellman into taking part in her Tranniversary Party.
“People who love each other just need space. It was just easier to not see each other and get on with our lives,” Bond says. “Now we’re friends again. Time heals wounds. We have such an amazing history together, we accomplished extraordinary things and experienced stuff that no one could ever understand but the two of us.”
One of these extraordinary things the two experienced together was a “farewell” concert at Carnegie Hall in 2004, which Bond ticks off as a standout of v’s career. Another happened two years later, when the two brought Kiki and Herb to Broadway in the show, Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway. The following year, the show was nominated for a Tony Award, making Bond the first transgender performer to earn that honor. Kiki & Herb ended up losing the statue for Best Special Theatrical Event to the ventriloquist Jay Johnson and his show The Two and Only. Looking back, Bond says this might have been a good thing. “It would have been a nightmare because people would have expected me to do that a lot more and I would have felt that pressure,” v says.
Broadway has always been just ahead of the curve when it comes to expanding people’s comfort zones when it comes to sex and gender. Last year, Kinky Boots, a musical about a British shoemaker who teams up with a drag queen to develop a line of footwear for drag queens and kings in hopes to save his family business, was the second most nominated show of 2013 with 12 nominations. In the end, the show took home six awards including Best Original Score, Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical for Billy Porter’s performance as Lola, the drag queen.
This year, at the 68th Annual Tony Awards, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a glam rock musical that tells the tale of an East German transgender singer, took home four of the eight awards they were nominated for including Best Revival of a Musical and Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical for Neil Patrick Harris’ portrayal of Hedwig.
While Bond only has kind words for the show’s writer, John Cameron Mitchell—who v worked with on his 2006 movie Shortbus—Bond is quick to mention that Hedwig is not a true transgender story since in the end Hedwig is basically born again, leaving behind the woman he had become to be the male God wanted him to be.
“The show is great and it gives lot of people a level of freedom when they see it. But that show is not about the trans experience,” Bond says. “But if they’re feeling liberated by it, then it’s a good thing. And I think that’s why I don’t have a problem with [the show] at the end of the day. I don’t think there’s anything revolutionary about the politics of Hedwig, but what is revolutionary about it is people are now going to be performing it in universities. It gets a lot of young queer performance students a role in that they can begin to step into a consciousness about queer art.”
In Bond’s opinion giving transgender roles to performers who are not actually transgender isn’t “harmful, but a missed opportunity” and that it can often become “exploitative” because people are trying to speak to an experience that they have no knowledge or understanding of. It’s a similar argument Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace made about Arcade Fire’s video for “We Exist,” which stars Spider-man actor Andrew Garfield as a man struggling with his gender identity.
“Traditionally it has been in Hollywood that they hire trans people as consultants and that’s their sort of insurance policy,” Bond explains. “I’m not going to say someone’s a bad actor who convincing portrays a trans role, or a terrible person for taking the part and getting paid to do it.”
Of course there’s trans-female actress Laverne Cox, who currently stars on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, which launched its second season last week. Bond says v and Cox moved to New York around the same time and used to hang out together at the underground club Jackie 60 in the Meatpacking District. This was before Cox publicly transitioned so watching her gain success for her role as the trans-female inmate Sophia Burset has been rewarding for her friend.
Cox recently appeared on the cover of Time next to the headline, “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s Next Civil Rights Frontier.” Bond does believe the role is making a difference. “Anyone who was a decent actor who might have played that part could have done something with it, and made it an interesting role, but the fact that Laverne is a trans-woman of color playing that part is what makes me so grateful to her. And to the producers who had the insight to cast her in that part because it’s really making change and she’s really making change because she’s so right on.”
Everyone’s trans story is different, and Bond says more of them need to be brought to both the big and small screens and stages. “There’s a diversity of trans-ness, whether it’s a drag role or living as a trans-person that is post surgery and doesn’t want to acknowledge their trans-ness,” v says. “There are so many people and different roles that have yet to be played or written.”
After ditching Kiki, Bond wrote a memoir called Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels in 2011 that chronicled v’s experience growing up trans with parents who didn’t quite know what to make of their little boy who liked wearing lipstick. It wasn’t easy to write, but it did put things into perspective for Bond. “I guess at the end of the day it was healing, because now I do look at it from the perspective of an adult who’s lived through all of that, and has moved on and had a different life,” v says. “It seemed to help a lot of people. And if it gave people language or a springboard from which to analyze their own experience or to analyze someone else’s then I think it’s really good.”
In Bond’s two decades in New York City, v’s always fought to help the transgender community earn their rights. Whether it’s to be able to marry whomever they choose or the right to refer to ones self as “Mx” instead of Ms. or Mr. if they don’t feel like the binary codes of gender work for them. Bond will even fight side by side with RuPaul for anyone’s right to use the word “tranny” however they so please.
“People are afraid to take a position, because once you take a position then you become a target,” Bond says. “I don’t really mind being a target, I just want people to know what they’re attacking me for. And in order for them to do that, they have to have a context and in order to have a context I have to provide it.”
As Bond gets older, v says v gets “less aggressive with my political goals. And more intent and focused on my personal life.” In other words, Bond is finally ready to enjoy some of the things v fought so hard for. In Bond’s opinion it’s time for the next generation of trans-activists to take the torch while v goes back to the stage. The place where v feels most free.
“I feel really blessed because I’ve done most of the things I dreamed of doing. I hope that I will be able to continue to do the things that I love. And the thing that I love doing the most is singing and telling stories in front of live audience. That’s what I hope I can continue to do. Share my art,” says Bond. “I’ll do all those things whether people come or not, but hopefully people will still be interested in coming.”