Cabaret icon Justin Vivian Bond talks gender, politics and their new shows

The singer, actor and performance artist chats about trans identity, Trump and their two new Joe's Pub shows

Photograph: Courtesy Tammy Shell

Nightclubs close, luminaries leave and the wild nights of the past recede into memory. But so long as downtown’s definitive cabaret artist Justin Vivian Bond reigns, New York remains a bastion of beautiful ideas. This spring, the transgressive creator—ever a work-in-progress—hits Joe’s Pub with two shows, “Boys in the Trees” starting April 22, and “Down on Creation: On Top of the World with the Carpenters” starting May 6. We spoke with Bond about identity, gender and social media.

We’re now over a year into this presidency. You’re expected to be vocal on what’s going on, as a performer and an activist. What is it like talking about things that hurt you, the affect you so personally, onstage?
It’s wonderful. I feel as an artist that most of what I do is personal. Most of what I do is in a certain way autobiographical. I have the privilege to express myself, or even use other people’s words, in a context which expresses something I feel. That keeps me from being an imitation of anything, and makes me not have to worry so much about what I’m saying, because usually I’m being honest. I always joke that the only original or new things that happens onstage are mistakes. So I’m never afraid to make mistakes, because I know that they’re going to lead to being in the moment. And when I’m getting onstage and talking, whether it’s satirical or joking, people know where I’m coming from. And it helps me because then I don’t feel as alone or isolated in the world, which is a gift.

How do you not lose yourself in the vitriol and rage of social media?
I’m like the opposite of a crisis junkie. When I find myself becoming reactive based on adrenaline or some sort of outrage, then I just turn it off. Sometimes I don’t turn it off in time, because I feel like the whole country—right, left, center—is engaged in what I call “the ecstacy of outrage.” So as people get more outraged and angry and wound up, it’s like a drug. Half of the stuff that comes out in the media that everybody gets so worked up about are just...they’re like nothing. They’re just people saying things to be provocative. and other people responding to them. I try to stick to the facts, and I try to worry about things that I actually can have some sort of positive effect on. If it’s something that I absolutely cannot control, I will speak up about it and acknowledge it, but I don’t beat myself up about the fact that I only have so much power as an individual. When your ego gets so blown up that you feel like you’re frustrated that you can’t change things, well, you just have to change what you can without making yourself go berserk [laughs].

I am reading a lot of op-eds with the general idea of “why this moment in culture affects me personally.” Of course that’s valid, but it often feels like we are turning what offends us into our identities.
It can be that people seek to speak with authority by coming at things by saying: “I have authority on things because I am a victim of it.” You can have authority on it not because you’re a victim of it, but simply because you believe it’s right or wrong. We all have the right to address things, whether we are victims of it or not. I like people create levels of victimhood to trump one another (no pun intended), like hierarchies of victimhood. “I am a trans woman, but I am not a trans woman of color; I am a trans woman of color, but…” And those things are valid, of course, but just because I’m not an extreme of something does not mean that my opinion or my experience of something are nullified.

I recently did a story on trans comedians. Five out of seven apologized to me about their privilege. Many of them said something to me about how they could have it a lot worse. It was a bizarre moment of people almost apologizing for not suffering more.
I believe in compassion, but I don’t believe in guilt. I feel like the only time you should feel guilty is if you know better and do something. The first time you do something and you learn from it, that’s growth. Then if you don’t grow from learning by your mistakes, then you should feel guilty. And if you feel guilty because you keep making the same stupid mistakes, then you shouldn’t feel guilty—you should feel stupid [laughs]. I don’t play that guilt game. I don’t believe in it.

I feel like social media often commands us to form an identity before we’ve even created anything to substantiate it, and then it’s hard to change once we’ve defined ourselves publicly. How have you kept changing—as a singer, painter, actor, writer and beyond?
We are taught to look for absolutes, but the truth changes. So what is the truth for you one year—or one month out of one year—another year or two later, something that you really believed to be true about yourself is no longer true. It doesn’t mean it wasn’t true before. People change, people grow. You can’t be the same thing all your life. Even with my gender identity, all I know is that I feel the same no matter what, and certain days I feel responsible to put out indicators so that certain people will see me in a way that I don’t think they’re seeing me. And it’s all bullshit that you come up with so that you’ll be seen, but we are who we are. Whatever anybody says they are, that’s what they are, as far as I’m concerned. I’m not going to argue with them. Who am I to know?

But what irks me more than anything is when somebody tries to tell me what I am, because usually they’re right, but they’re also wrong. I’m kind of like...everything, you know? I was buying a phone the other day, and the girl at Best Buy called me she and she goes: “I’m sorry I called you ‘she,’ what is your preferred gender pronoun?” I was like: “Well, first of all, any one you’ve picked is probably not going to be wrong, but let’s just go with they. Technically, you could never be wrong, but I appreciate you asking.” [laughs]

It’s good you don’t let it anchor you down.
It has. There have been times when it’s been really important for me to be seen one way or another. Especially when you feel like somebody’s misgendering you in order to assert what they are insisting you are, whether you think that or not—that pisses me off. When you can tell it’s like policing. I’m not having that.

I look younger than I am, and people often treat me like I’m a 17 year-old twink bottom with no power or assertion of my own. I resent that others can decide what role I’m supposed to play.
It’s insulting. And it’s usually based on some sort of power-play misogyny bullshit.

I should ask about your shows. What draws you back to Karen Carpenter again and again?
I feel like she was such a comfort to me when I was young, that she’s sort of like comfort food. I feel this deep connection to her and her music, but also to her experience. She was this sort of tomboy softball player drummer, who had this gorgeous voice. Her brother was the star. He was the boy and he was the first-born, and she was just kind of expected to go along with what he said. He picked the songs, and he did the arrangements. And as she got older, they were forcing her into this gender role, and took her away from her passion—which was the drums—and dressed her up in these outfits, and made her be this thing that she really wasn’t. They basically stripped her of her identity and the thing that gave her the most joy, and she became this kind of thing that had nothing to do with her. And so, as time went on, she began to disappear. She became an anorexic because that was a thing that she could control, and she made her body go away, and then she went away, because she couldn’t be herself. She died at the age of 32, looking like a 50 year-old person, and she didn’t have a voice, and who was she? I don’t even think she knew. I mean, she died in her parents closet.

She had so many gifts, too.
And no ability to really authentically explore it.

So you’re kind of liberating her.
It feels nice. If she’s out there, hopefully she likes what I’m doing. But I don’t make jokes at her expense: I find the story to be very heartbreaking.

The April show, “Boys in Trees,” features the songs of stars you’ve had crushes on. Who have you been fantasizing about?
Ha ha! I wouldn’t necessarily want to have sex with all of them, but the things I like about these songs are: I feel like so much of what we do in our social media world is try to be desirable. It’s like our whole thing is to make ourselves be these things that we hope other people will find interesting, and it’s kind of nice to figure out what you yourself are attracted to, or what you find interesting. I get tired of having to be interesting; I like to be interested. All these songs for these dudes were written to be seductive.  

A big awakening I’ve been going through, which I think straight guys are automatically entitled to, is: What would it be like follow my own desires, rather than spending my time trying to get people to desire me? It’s a rush.
It’s a very seductive thing to have somebody be interested in you. And that’s what a lot of people go for—they want to have someone interested in them. I saw this show, it was a show about love, and it was like: “Why doesn’t anybody love me?” And I was like: “Why don’t you try loving somebody else?” People joke in the gay world that there’s not enough tops. There’s not enough people that are willing to be flat out interested in other people. Everybody’s a catcher, but there’s not that many pitchers. And so I’m singing songs by the pitchers. I’m going to be doing some pitching in this show [laughs]. So get ready, because the balls are going to be flying [laughs].

That’s real activism [laughs].
Exactly [laughs]. Active activism.

I’m coming to see you on my birthday in May, and I’m so excited.
Work, Taurus! Mine’s the ninth.

And I think we have Cate Blanchett and Tina Fey in there, too.
Oh, you mean the Taurean women? We have Cher, we have Barbra Streisand, we have Audrey Hepburn—there’s a lot of amazing Taureans I love.

We have Streisand?
Yes, Girl! She’s a Taurus. Ella Fitzgerald. Some of the greatest singers ever are Taurean women because Taurus is all about the throat. Our power center is our throat—our voices.

Mine has been blocked my whole life.
Get yourself some singing lessons. Even if you don’t want to be a singer, it’s good. It opens you up. That’s the power of our chakra.

I think I’m afraid of my own voice.
Oh, I am too. I don’t want to hear it. I wrote a thing on my Facebook wall the other day about coming to terms with the sound of your own voice, because it’s intense, and it changes, and you’re like: what the fuck? When I went through puberty and my voice changed, talk about grieving a loss. Suddenly I had this uncontrollable baritone voice, and it was like: “Fuck, am I going to sound like this for the rest of my life?” No! Because I’m going to smoke and drink too much. That’ll help.

I always went between my parents’ houses, and I had straight brothers. So i developed different voices for different family members so that everyone would like me. And now I am trying to get just one: Mine.
That’s what I’m saying, that thing about what’s yours, and figuring out that you can live with that instead of creating indicators for everybody. That’s what I think about gender, not just for transgender people, but for everybody. Everybody’s supposed to be a certain way so that they can be loved or accepted—whether you’re a cisgendered male or a transwoman—everybody is trying to put something on themselves so they can be acceptable to everyone else. That’s what gender is, I guess. At this point, I’m 55 years old; I’m sick of playing that game.

Fuck yeah.
And your voice does it. The voice is so powerful. I don’t want to have a fake voice so people can think I’m a nice lady.

And I don’t want to have a voice that makes people think I’m a nice twink.
A nice twink bottom. Unless you feel like being a twink bottom that night, which is perfectly fine.

But my voice shouldn’t have to change.
No [laughs]. You can only be a twink bottom for so long anyway, so do it while you can.

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