Justin Bond, like Michael Jackson in some ways, embodies a kind of whimsical gender-play defying category or classification. Of course, in Justin’s case, this is something he embraces and celebrates, and it is key to the power and integrity of his work and working environment. His collaboration with, almost a mentorship of, Our Lady J, the shimmering trans singer-songwriter behind Justin’s piano is a perfect example of this. Last night Justin called her, “The most glamorous woman on Earth.” With something like a peacock feather daringly perched in her peaches-and-cream pile of platinum hair, effortlessly banging out her dynamite and popular pastiche, “Pink Prada Purse,” piss-elegant and swanky, Our Lady J more than justified the compliment.
I couldn’t help but think back to the boy in a dress, who started subbing for Justin’s regular accompanist a few years ago. Our Lady J was always a virtuosic musician and the work has never been anything but inspired, but this gorgeous lady has flourished as some of Justin’s stage charisma and comfort have clearly rubbed off during this sensitive period of Our Lady J’s increasingly public transition.
In thinking of how Our Lady J has taken inspiration from Justin, although the two divas are at distinctly different places on the gender role continuum, I think about how we are instructed by people who are different than we are. Most gay people are products of this, having been raised by straight parents. I got a little weepy this week, sitting at my day-job when I got an email from my (straight) dad telling me how moved he was by my blog last week about my desire to be a (gay) dad.
I think we spend a chunk of childhood worshiping our parents, the first stars we follow, and another chunk rebelling against them for all the ways they are different from who we want to be. If adulthood is about reconciling these opposing energies and coming to peace with our parents – and our selves – as flawed and autonomous people, then growing up can be even more difficult for gay people. After all, we first learn to worship something different than we are, and we venture out further from that, and ultimately, we have a longer journey to “get back home.” My family situation is actually somewhat more complicated than that. My dad is technically my stepfather who adopted me, a couple years after marrying my mother, when I was eleven. My biological father is a gay man, who came out of the closet and divorced my mother when I was 8. So, in a sense, I am a gay man who has had both a straight and a gay dad.
When I become a father, as an out gay man in the 21st Century, I know that I will set an example of how to live with pride and integrity. To do this was much more difficult for a gay man in the 1970s when my biological father married my mother and had me. I don’t know whether I’ve always known I was gay – I didn’t have a concept of what gay was, or sexuality at all, in my early childhood. But I have always known that I was different. The examples were easy to find – I liked to play with dolls or play dress up or do many of the things girls were supposed to do, and I recoiled at almost everything boys were supposed to. My awareness of my differentness went deeper, I knew there was something in me that was inherently other. And I knew that it was in my father too.
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that I was raised in some in some kind of oppressive conservative environment, discouraged to be myself. To the contrary, my parents, and later, to a greater extent, my adopted stepfather, were the picture of liberal Jewish American hippiedom. Unfortunately, my biological father was not raised like this, and at least through my childhood, he struggled turbulently to make sense of himself. It was hard for me to watch and confused me as to who I wanted to be like.
I knew I was a lot like him, but he hated himself, and I didn’t know what to think. A lot of aspects of his personality and lifestyle, circle of friends, etc. appealed to me, but it all seemed tainted, dangerous. Years after our estrangement, I found myself experiencing guilt around healthy, harmless things in my life that reminded me of him – despite the aforementioned open-mindedness and nurturing of my mom and (straight) dad. We’re so affected by our influences, but ultimately, it’s all got to come from the inside.
Of course, at least in terms of sexuality, I had no choice about who I was going to be. It was actually kind of a burden to think about my gay dad and my own gayness in the early 1980s when my friends’ only references to homosexuality were a couple of AIDS-related Rock Hudson jokes. I didn’t want to be like him (Rock Hudson or my father), but my therapists told me I couldn’t know whether I was gay until I developed sexual feelings for guys. So, the years between my father’s coming out and my puberty, were an anxious waiting period.
When I finally reached adolescence, I cautiously monitored anything that could be construed as sexual attraction. If there was a shred of straight in me, or even a bit of bi, I wanted to build on it and see where it went. No? Not really? Okay, then, I was willing to accept myself. But I didn’t know who I wanted to be like, besides Patti LuPone.
I saw my gay father’s life as a failure. Even when we briefly connected while I was in college, he was not someone who I aspired to be like (although I did enjoy his fabulous drag parties . . . ). I was very lucky to have a close uncle who is gay (and, incidentally, a major show queen) who I could look up to and who showed me an example of a gay man leading a successful life. In my 20s and now in my 30s, I have pursued my version of that, sometimes experimenting with things that have ultimately not suited me or been self-destructive. It’s ironic how, running from my biological father’s legacy, I often sought out much of what I had judged in him, almost like a mother’s dress that I just had to try on. Only seeing myself in his proverbial shoes, in his high heels, could I allow myself not to fear becoming him, and begin to understand myself in the resonance and dissonance.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I was telling my mother how proud I was of my post about, well, Pride, and that I had sent it out to a big mailing list – giving her grief for not having already read it within the hour since I’d sent it. She said that she was eager to read it and that she’d already heard great things from some of her friends to whom I’d sent it. I hadn’t actually emailed it to them; they had just seen it on my Facebook wall. I corrected her immediately, “Mom, I didn’t email it to your friends. It talks about sex and drugs.” Something felt great about that. I wasn’t trying to shock my mother with hedonistic stories, and I wasn’t shutting her out by claiming total inexperience. I felt good enough about myself to just be honest.
The more I have had moments like that, the more I have felt strong and sure in my own skin, the more I am able to see all the ways I am like – and sometimes want to be like, sometimes not –– all of my parents. Accepting them for who they are, loving them for who they are, means that I don’t have to run scared from who I don’t want to be.
Last night, I experienced Justin Bond as a priestess of this gospel of self acceptance, with everyone in the audience as a worshiping congregation. I blissfully surrendered to the visceral power and beauty of Justin’s songs and sharply tinged spice and warmth of everything he had to say. All of us in the room were fortunate to have for a hero a star like Justin.