Transgender Etiquette

What's in a pronoun?

Thanks to a recent dustup between transgender performer Justin Vivian Bond and New York magazine, we began thinking about how to treat “trans” issues – both in the media and in our own lives. In many ways, the profile on this extraordinary entertainer (very popular within the gay community) and the publication (yep, we have a copy on our nightstand) illustrates exactly what can go wrong when it comes down to something as “simple” as a pronoun.

Bond – a fixture on the downtown scene in New York – has always played fancifully with gender, especially when portraying Kiki as part of the fictional Kiki and Herb lounge duo who packed houses in cities including Philadelphia over the years (confession: we’ve seen Bond shows too many times to count and loved every minute of it).

The last concert in Philly was at gay-owned L’Etage where Bond captivated a room packed with men, women and plenty of Radical Faeries. The elegant singer also stayed around afterwards to chat with fans and sign a few EPs. It’s not what you might expect from someone who can sell out Carnegie Hall or who rubs elbows with the likes of Jake Shears and Sandra Bernhard. But for all the talent and poise, Bond is very down to earth.

In recent years, Bond – who prefers to be described as a “v” rather than a “he” or “she” as a way to express gender identity – has taken to Twitter, Facebook and the microphone to share thoughts on what it means to be a transgender artist. It’s exactly what the world needs – even the LGBT world, which is not always as accepting of transgender people as one might hope. Bond’s own music is fused with honesty, humor, truth and a certain sad beauty that’s both poignant and affirming. From the singer and the songs we learn that in the same way sexual orientation can be a complicated business – the same goes for gender identity.

And while gay civil rights have made great leaps in recent years, the transgender discussion is really only getting started.

In Illinois recently, where same-sex civil unions will be legalized this summer, a group of transgendered persons have sued the state for failing to adjust their genders on birth certificates after sex reassignment surgery. And in Philly, transgendered people have been fighting for the right to not have their gender labeled on SEPTA cards, which can often cause problems when the card holder does not look like the gender listed. The local transgender community has also battled law enforcement who, they say, stop and harass them on the street more than other segments of the LGB population. The Mazzoni Center is even asking trans men and women to share their stories with the center’s legal services department.

And just this week Chaz Bono, the only child of Sonny and Cher, opened up about his gender transition in a new documentary – Becoming Chaz. He’s been making the rounds on talk shows like Oprah and Letterman to discuss the film and start a new conversation about identity. And while his transition may sometimes make mainstream audiences squirm (cue the pathetic late night jokes and SNL skits), it’s a pretty heroic step toward finding a bit of solace in what can only be considered … “progress?”

In this latest “V Said, He Said,” played out on the pages of a major metro magazine and on several social media sites where there’s no shortage of commentary, Bond has taken exception (rightly so) to being called everything from a crossdresser, drag queen and transvestite to a one who “wishes” to embody both sexes. At one point the writer even refers to v as a “faux-noun.”

This hoopla all comes on the heels of Bond releasing a solo CD called Dendrophile and an upcoming book Tango: My Childhood Backwards and in High Heels in September. Anyone who has paid attention to Bond’s work over the years might notice that the artist has been very candid about being transgender, even as some of our gay and lesbian friends go so far as to question why trangendered people are part of the LGB “community.” We’ve heard many progressive LGB people criticize transgendered people over the years, presumably as a way to somehow normalize their own behavior – as if there is such a thing as “normal” anyway.

But for the sake of our transgendered friends and readers, we hope to continue the conversation – respectfully so. We all possess an inner perspective about ourselves that doesn’t always match up with what the world thinks of us. And for some, this can be especially trying.

So we’ll leave it to the experts to set us straight. To quote Bond, “For the record, my ambition is not to be both sexes at once. I am both sexes at once. My ambition is to articulate who I am clearly and effectively. I am not a woman and I am not a man, I am not a crossdresser. I am a trans person.”