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Justin Vivian Bond’s Tango – A Book Review, Backwards And In High Heels

by J. Rudy Flesher on September 17, 2011

in culture,News

Photo by Michael Doucette

First, the vital information on one Mx Justin Vivian Bond, in case you happen to (currently) fall outside the “very boutique audience” who consider v a world class artist: Justin’s honorific is neither Mr, Mrs, Miss, or Ms, but rather “Mx,” pronnounced “mix.” Bond’s preferred gender pronoun is neither he nor she; neither the increasingly popular they-as-gender-neautral-singular, nor even my own preferred (and non-binary) gender pronoun, “ze.” Bond’s pronoun is “v,” as in, “my, v looks really fabulous in that shade of lipstick.” Which, I assure you, v does. The New Yorker has called Bond “the greatest cabaret artist of this generation,” and anyone leaving v’s show, be it at Joe’s Pub or Carnegie Hall, will tell you that the New Yorker is technically correct, but also that no written praise will capture the exact electricity, drama, macabre humor, political acumen, and sexual tension that typify an evening with the indomitable Mx Bond on stage.

Bond recently released a memoir, Tango: My Childhood Backwards and in High Heels, and I have been eagerly anticipating reading it. I have also been eagerly anticipating writing this review, ever since I read the transphobic shit-show penned Benoit Denizet-Lewis, and run by The New York Times. The Times isn’t the first publication to repeatedly misgender Bond in print, but for article written by an award winning gay journalist, and which opened by acknowledging v’s preferred pronoun, I did not expect the rest of the article to refer to Bond as “he.” Intentional misgendering is an act of bullying and abuse because it implies that trans people are either delusional or deceitful. Misgendering does real violence to trans people, and Denizet-Lewis and his editor should both be ashamed. Furthermore, the article puts words and phrases like “queer” and “trans child” in scare quotes, the same as when right wing fundamentalists write “gay ‘marriage’ ” to imply that it is counterfeit. (Perhaps it was Bond’s response to the wildly problematic review that, at the least, got the original online title, “A Schoolboy in Lipstick,” changed to be the same as the print title, “Gender-Free”)

Problematic coverage of the book aside, I loved Tango. Kate Bornstein said it best when she wrote, “…Tango is like listening to your favorite eccentric cousin or auntie tell you hair-raising tales…Justin Vivian spins a one-of-a-kind story that you won’t be able to put down.” She nailed it on both accounts: the book feels incredibly conversational, as though it were not a book at all, but a collection of Bond’s famously biting asides between songs at a cabaret. Secondly, I truly could not put the book down. I lied to myself, saying I would just read until I was tired, and then tucked myself into bed some hours later, book complete, in the wee hours of the morning.

Tango is largely the story of Bond’s relationship with v’s childhood lover, who was also v’s greatest tormentor in school. This intersects with the various ways in which the adults in v’s life tried, through various means and with varied success, to regulate v’s clearly emerging queer sexuality and gender. The moments range from the utterly traumatic to the touching to laugh out loud. Justin’s mother forbade v from wearing her frosted pink lipstick to school, v’s pop pop bought v Barbie coloring books without question or issue, and v’s Cub Scout troupe found v the odd boy out who picked Sandy Duncan as the figure in history that v would most like to be.

The story is uniquely structured, with steady chronological progression sometimes interrupted by jumps forward or back in time, snatches of introspection, and the odd pop culture trivia woven into the narrative. All of this is prefaced by Bond’s diagnosis with ADD. Either because I’m also so diagnosed or because I enjoy the loose style, none of this was a problem for me. In all of the ways that life is messy, nuanced, and without promise of a neat resolution, so is the book. In the end, Tango reads less like a single story, and more like a gaze into a crystal ball, reflecting the most painful, hilarious, poignant, and defining moments of a queer childhood within the social confines of small-town Maryland in the 60′s and 70′s.

Bond closes the book with a dream, one v had about a childhood without trans- or homophobia. “I’m grateful to that dream. It was the first time I ever experienced the feeling of what I now call ‘the luxury of normality.’ I can’t say I aspire to living that way myself because my life has been a constant series of adjustments and acceptances, but I do hope 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.”

Amen to that, Mx Bond. Amen to that.


J. Rudy Flesher, a Philadelphia based actor and author, holds a B.A. in Women’s and Gender Studies from The College of New Jersey, and is an award-​winning feminist scholar. Ze blogs here and at The Pistol in Bed Thirteen, works with PhinLi Bookings to connect LGBTQ and sex positive talent with audiences, and is currently writing hir first book, an essay collection on the daily experiences of a genderqueer life.



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