Bond didn’t intend for the special treatment when coming up with a way to identify vself within a particularly limiting lexicon. “I was trying to keep it as simple as possible, frankly,” v told me as we sat in vs East Village apartment on a balmy May afternoon. Simplicity seems to be a foundation of Bond’s life; the apartment is a modest one that’s surprisingly sparsely decorated. Its major features are a piano, where Bond writes and plays songs, and a gilded vanity that takes up a prime location in the living area. Bond has lived in the East Village for most of the 19 years since v has been in New York, and v calls the apartment “my dream dressing room bungalow,” slipping into an Old Hollywood affectation.
It’s not what I expected, frankly, when I entered the space. I’m much more used to the glamorous side of Justin Vivian Bond. In the last few months I’ve caught vs performances at 54 Below and Joe’s Pub, and at both cabaret venues v sported some form of evening wear. At home Bond is casual, dressed in a blousy denim shirt and black pants. It’s hardly loungewear, of course, and the outfit seems to fall into Bond’s self-professed identity as an “aspirational white woman of elegance.” The notion, of course, is not just a casual joke — like most of Bond’s humor, there’s an added layer that speaks to the idea of identity in general. “I’m not a white woman of elegance,” v admits, “but that looks like an appealing way to live! Why shouldn’t I be? But what does that entail, and why is that something you’d want to achieve?”
That identity is an aesthetic one. In terms of gender, Bond does not subscribe to the notion of there being a binary — Bond vself has never felt comfortable picking either male or female, an idea that many people have trouble wrapping their minds around. It’s why Bond also does not fit in with the most commonly accepted ideas of transgender. He did not become a she. On vs website, v provides a frank explanation for why v began hormone treatment: “I want my body to be a declaration and physical manifestation of my transgendered spirit. When I was younger I used to refer to myself as a ‘non-op transsexual,’ meaning I was a transsexual who didn’t need to have surgery to assert what I was. But I was wrong because without assertions people can only make assumptions and I no longer wish to indulge or refute the assumptions or labels other people choose to place on me, I simply want to inhabit my very clear vision of myself.”
It’s that notion of individuality that is equally refreshing and maddening to those expecting Bond to be a poster person for the marginalized trans community. “I, for many years, said I was a drag queen, because I would feel like I was betraying my drag queen sisters by saying, ‘I’m not a drag queen,’” Bond says. “I don’t have a problem with the word ‘tranny.’ I can understand why trans people are upset by it, but I know that ‘tranny’ came from trannies themselves. Kate Bornstein once said, ‘They don’t like the word because they don’t want to be like us.’ That might be trans people or gay people — they don’t want to be what others think what that is to be.” Ultimately, Bond had to decide how to identify vself without worrying about others’ reactions. “Instead of coming out and saying what I wasn’t, [I had to be] real specific,” v says. “I guess you could say it’s… what’s the word? Not treatise, but manifesto! My tranifesto!”
Bond has been in New York City since 1994, when v moved east from San Francisco. V had already been performing as Kiki with Kenny Mellman as Herb in San Francisco, but v was ready for a break in New York. “I didn’t perform for around six months or so because I kind of wanted to get a lay of the land,” Bond says, but it didn’t take long to get back into the swing of things. “I performed at SqueezeBox, which was this rock ‘n’ roll drag thing, and I was also hosting clubs in the East Village. I was myself, and it was really trashy and fun. It was that time that Giuliani was cracking down and even gay people were really anti-sex and anti-public sexuality, and I was feeling a responsibility to keep things sexy — but whimsically sexy. We did all these crazy live sex acts that were really fun and really outrageous. You would never see that today.”
In the early ’90s, New York was still feeling the ramifications of the AIDS epidemic, and it was out of that context that Kiki DuRane expressed, with comic overtones, that pain and rage. Kiki and Herb, who found a home and a following in New York at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Greenwich Village, were much more than a parodic lounge act. “When I got here, they had just started SqueezeBox, and they had drag queens singing live with a band, and that was kind of revolutionary at the time,” Bond says. “There was this burgeoning queer performance scene that was kind of coming out of the East Village arts scene, and that intellectual art world scene was seemingly merging with what was going on at the clubs. I think if I were to put myself into a context, that’s what Kiki and Herb did. We married the nightclub scene and performance art scene and the cabaret scene and brought all this together and made it whatever it was that we made it. But we made it!”
Nearly two decades later, however, Bond is hardly wistful for those radical days. “I definitely talk about the past and put things into historical context, but I’m not a nostalgic person,” v tells me. “Giuliani started really cracking down on clubs and harassing people. Then Bloomberg came in and you couldn’t smoke in clubs anymore, which I frankly didn’t really mind because it was so stinky. But on the other hand, I loved smoking in clubs, and it was just another encroachment. Then the Internet came in, and those things have affected what people do socially, for good or evil. It’s changed things.” But Bond’s contribution to entertainment — the union of nightlife and performance — still provides a place in which people can gather. “It might not be as social, it might not be some place where you’re as likely to hook up or whatever, but it is maybe more intellectually stimulating,” v suggests. “It might actually contribute to more of a progressive worldview, even if it leads to more conservative personal behavior, paradoxically.”
Bond’s rejection of nostalgia is one way for the artist to keep evolving and, in the same vein, so does vs avoidance of barriers — both cultural and self-imposed. “[Mainstream acceptance] was almost my goal in a way,” v admits, “not to compromise what I was doing performatively, but to show other queers the possibility and to prove to myself that the hard work, intellect, discipline, and the validity of what I was doing would, in a merit-based art world as opposed to one that’s based on prejudice, would allow me to succeed.” A boost of necessary confidence came from Jack Doroshow, who performed in drag as Mother Flawless Sabrina. “I was asked to move from one venue to another, and it was bigger and cost more money,” Bond explains. “I liked doing shows for queer people, and to go to a venue where there would be more straight people and I didn’t know the owners, and they were making money from my work — I didn’t know how I felt about that. [Jack] told me, ‘You owe it to yourself to find out how large your audience is.’ After that I realized I had to do what is important for me as an artist.”
As a solo artist, Bond seems more comfortable with vself and the places the performances take v. There are no wigs, no stage makeup, no costumes. Vs performances include a mix of covers (v is particularly fond of folky singer-songwriter Melanie’s catalog) as well as original work, which Bond recorded for vs 2011 album, Dendrophile. (Bond’s second album, last year’s Silver Wells, is a collection of songs by Ronee Blakeley, Kate Bush, and Leonard Cohen, among others — “My comfort food songs,” v tells me.) In between are stories from vs life, past and present, that are sometimes both hilarious and heartbreaking but always delivered with vs affirming charm. Compared to the Kiki DuRane days, however, the performance style is more subdued. There are the signature growls that frequently erupted from Kiki’s mouth, but as vself Bond has seemingly embraced a more serene style — “aggressively neutral” is one way Bond describes vs aesthetic ambitions.
Bond, who turned 50 in April, has taken ownership over vself and put that identity back into the world in a raw and unapologetic fashion. Each performance from Mx. Justin Vivian Bond is a transcendent experience, providing some necessary critical thought as well as a comforting explosion of self-expression. It’s also clear that it’s a good moment to be V. “I like today better than any other time,” Bond says, “and thank goodness!