Trans Artist Justin Vivian Bond Envisions a World Without Binaries
The New York performer recently curated a five-day festival, "Mx'd Messages," that explores everything from trans-theology to afrofuturism.
Photo by David Kimelman
Justin Vivian Bond, known to friends as Vivian, is a transgender singer-songwriter, author, painter, performance artist, actor, activist, and everything else in between. (Bond uses the pronouns they/them.) Based in New York City's East Village, Bond recently curated New York Live Art's annual Live Ideas Festival, which ended this weekend.
In response to reactionary, right wing narratives that increasingly dictate our lives, Bond centered the festival around building new narratives across all marginalized communities. The festival's keynote, "Queer as in Fuck You: Under The Influence of Homocore," was a tribute to the queer anarchist punks who "set the stage for the conversations that eventually led to queer theory and changed the way we demonstrate and advocate politically," Bond said in an interview with Broadly.
"We had Kenny Malman, who was a street activist from San Francisco; Christie Road, who is this punk illustrator and rock musician in her early 30s; and Lenny Breedlove, who is non-binary and this crazy butch dyke in this dykecore band called Tribe Eight," Bond said. "They were so hardcore in the early 90s. They would wear strap on and cut it off—but not before they would get head from someone in the audience. Then they would cut off their strap on and throw it at people, which I loved."
Another panel focused on "creating black futures" and there was a workshop by HIV doulas. The resulting showcase, Mx'd Messages, brought together "artists, activists, academics, educators, doulas, filmmakers, writers, and performers" to examine the idea of a world without binaries through a series workshops, performances, and film screenings. The weekend ended with a queer, pagan, punk rock dance party to celebrate the Vernal Equinox.
We caught up with Bond and spoke with them about the importance of queer communities in their life.
When were you able to discover who you are?
I grew up in a very conservative, religious town in Maryland. Overall, I felt loved by my family, but that love was very conditional. It was difficult to really be honest about who I was. I wasn't able to really be honest with myself until after I got out that town. Then it felt safe to discover myself and explore. After leaving Maryland I moved to San Francisco and, in 1990, I met Kate Bornstein. She invited me to be in a play that she had written about her experience and the stories of Herculine Barbin, who was an intersex woman in the 19th century, whose journals were found by Michel Foucault. I played Herculine Barbin and that was when I found a safe space to start exploring my gender identity. We toured women's studies departments and LGBT theaters. We always had discussions afterwards and it was a fascinating and interesting time. That was really how I became who I am.
How would your life been different if you hadn't been able to learn and live as yourself?
I had this horrible dream where I had kind of done what my family had expected me to do. I was a middle-aged man who was an art teacher in my hometown and I was just horrifically depressed. My apartment in my dream was a nightmare, covered in food and mess. I had this disastrous lonely life and had become sort of a recluse. In my dream, my sister and my cousins came to check up on me and I hid behind the hot water heater so that they couldn't see me. When I woke up, I really knew that I made the right choices because that was what I thought would have happened to me had I stayed in my hometown. I'm sure.
That is terrible and so vivid.
When I was in high school, I had a French teacher who was gay. He was one of the few people I knew of who was gay in my hometown. I graduated in 1981, and a year or two later, he was bludgeoned to death in his apartment by some rough trade he brought from downtown. [Apparently,] people could hear him moaning for two days before he died and no one called the police. I didn't see positive experiences for gay and trans people when I was growing up, but fortunately, when I moved to San Francisco—even though it was during the AIDS crisis—there were really fierce, vibrant, exciting people. That was when I was able to really accept who I was and become fierce about it.
Do you think now there are more mainstream media narratives of people that aren't heteronormative?
I think so. I wish there was less assimilation and more celebration of people being really freaky. But I love my friends who are in the band, PWR BTTM. They call me their drag mother, even though I don't really like that expression. I think they are doing an amazing job. Of course, I also love Laverne Cox. We both moved here in 1994. We ran around together back then. Watching her blossom and advocate for oppressed populations has been truly humbling and amazing. There are definitely positive stories.
I've tried to do the best I can to be an activist while maintaining the ability to be a creative person.
Do you view yourself as a representative of the trans community?
I've tried to do the best I can to be an activist while maintaining the ability to be a creative person. That's a hard balance to achieve. If you're a writer or an artist, so much of your time is spent being solitary and working on your craft. It takes a lot of time to become a fierce advocate. [Taking that time] can make you feel like you're cheating your creativity. [Creativity] is what saved me in the first place. So it's a balancing act.
If you had the opportunity to give a young person advice or reassurance, what would you say?
[Laughs] I don't know. It depends on what the issue was. The important thing is to honor your truth and be aware that the truth changes. I think a lot of people start to believe something about themselves, or about the world, and they become so entrenched in that belief that they don't allow themselves to grow and change. But growth and change are what makes life exciting and keeps you engaged.