Songs of Revolution

Antony’s Turning, Arca’s Xen, and other art working the fertile territory between genders.

Antony Hegarty of the American band Antony and The Johnsons and Jeffrey Tambor from Transparent.
Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, and Jeffrey Tambor from Transparent.

Photo by Rafa Rivas/AFP/GettyImages; Photo courtesy Amazon

There’s plenty that’s striking about the new concert documentary Turning, from the transgender singer-composer Antony and the queer-video-art elder innovator Charles Atlas, but what’s most startling is how nearly ordinary it seems.

Based on a tour staged a year after Antony won the 2005 Mercury Music Prize for his album I Am a Bird Now, the documentary (which is being released on DVD this month, with a related video coming to Times Square nightly throughout December) pivots in part on the British-American transgender artist’s lush, spiritual torch songs of abjection and transcendence. His defiantly delicate and fluttery, churchy croon is backed by his group the Johnsons, named in honor of the late Stonewall leader and “drag mother” Marsha P. Johnson.

Throughout, a rotating platform alongside the band is mounted one after another by 13 women, trans or cis or none of the above, of varying skin colors, sizes, ages, and ethnicities, not to mention amounts of towering hair and luminous face paint and free-flowing dress. As Antony sings, each “beauty” (as they are referred to in the film) poses as she pleases, and Atlas mixes and projects her image on the stage backdrop, scaling her up so that her presence and dignity are beyond denial.

The documentary alternates between these performance sequences and offstage clips and interviews with the cast. A trans woman from the Bronx, for example, relates her harrowing struggles coming into her identity and then recalls her first “turning” on the concert stage. At first, she felt devastatingly vulnerable, “ripped open,” she says. But when she stepped down she felt different: “Afterwards, my whole life, it felt like it changed. I felt worthy, for the first time, to be a woman, to be an artist, to be a transsexual. For the first time, it was OK.”

In itself all this is immensely moving, but eight years after it was filmed it almost reads as prophetic: Where the “turning” of the title might have once meant both physical rotation and personal metamorphosis, now it heralds a reversal of cultural tides. As Antony marveled in a recent interview with Billboard, “We didn’t anticipate that in five or six years’ time, there would be a trans-feminist revolution.”

Consider that, watching Turning this week, I couldn’t help being reminded of the female-identity spectrum spanned by the cast of one of the most buzzed-about and binge-watched hit series of the past couple of years, Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. Granted, that’s a limited victory—OITNB is set in a women’s prison, as if that’s the only place for such gender outlaws. But then this fall season came another acclaimed online series, Amazon’s Transparent, about a well-off, divorced L.A. father (played by Jeffrey Tambor) coming out to his three children as a trans woman in her early ’70s, molting from Mort to Maura.

In January, the popular mall-punk band Against Me! released Transgender Dysphoria Blues, an album about lead singer Laura Jane Grace’s gender transition. This was a place mainstream aggressive rock had never gone so explicitly before, despite its roots in Little Richard’s New Orleans drag act and the New York Dolls’ pre-punk androgyny. (I’m not counting “Dude (Looks Like a Lady).”)

More importantly, all these cultural bubbles reflect a cresting of trans activism and acceptance in public life, as inadequate and fractious as it remains. The protocols of pronouns and washroom inclusivity are increasingly commonplace subjects. A dispute over the role of trans students at elite women’s colleges like Wellesley earns a cover story in the New York Times Magazine. The clashes between trans activists and some feminist camps are examined in a major feature in the New Yorker. The awareness of the risk of violence and suicide for trans youth is higher, and supports are expanding, though in a manner that’s gravely uneven across regions and classes. Polls indicate that cis people under 50, and especially under 30, are coming to recognize the equality of trans people, at a pace lagging behind but roughly in the pattern of social progress for gays and lesbians.

This progress is galvanizing to witness, though still frustratingly slow, with trans issues drawing attention primarily through stories of crisis. But here is where I get into delicate territory. I am a predominantly straight, cis-gendered white male. Yet much of my political and intellectual formation came from queer and feminist theorists, artists, and activists of the 1980s and 1990s, who asserted that gender is at root little more than a social construct, a pattern of performance inculcated from childhood. (Insert obligatory Judith Butler reference here.)

I’m not sure I embrace that model quite as thoroughly today, but the currently dominant narrative of trans acceptance seems sometimes to leave behind the whole question of gender’s deeply unstable nature. A trans woman is a woman, and a trans man is a man. Which seems the right way to go, to claim social space and civil rights. Still, it tends to imply that woman and man are indeed immutable qualities, now delinked from sex at birth but still objectively there.

This is a testament to the stubbornness of patriarchal hierarchies, which seem much more open to expansion than to overturning. As Antony put it in a 2012 conversation with MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach, “We can more easily imagine the collapse of the entire ecosystem than we can imagine a shift toward more matriarchal systems of governance.”

Obviously, it is not for me to project the burden of overthrowing the whole gender matrix onto individual trans women and men who may just want to be able to live as they see fit without being harassed, blocked, or subjected to violence. As is clear when you listen to all the stories in Turning, in this society a trans person usually will dwell in between, whether he/she/they/ze wishes to or not.  

Amid that ensemble, however, it is Antony, who declares himself “an effeminate” and sings like both a diva and a choirboy, who consciously links himself to past avant-garde explorations of gender and sexuality, to the pioneers who first dug beneath the binary. In retaining his masculine name and pronoun, and wearing amorphous matronly/priestly robes rather than gowns and dresses, Antony practices genderqueer, offering an idiosyncratic mix-and-match of gender signifiers that disassembles any assumption of which elements belong in what drawers.

Leigh Bowery Multi glasses from Taboo art showing.
Leigh Bowery.

Photo courtesy British Council/Creative Commons

Collaborating cross-generationally with Charles Atlas is another way that he tends to that legacy. As I watched Turning I thought of a remarkable series of scenes in Atlas’ 1986 BBC art video Hail the New Puritan, made for the BBC with the Michael Clark experimental dance ensemble. At the end of a day of rehearsing the company’s latest dance show—extravagantly and perversely costumed, flamboyantly transgressive and yet casually flip—Clark visits the iconic queer performer and muse Leigh Bowery at his flat. There, friends exchange invective, flattery, and vodka shots while trying on a potentially infinite series of outfits: Willy Wonka–like psychedelic soldiers’ uniforms, peekaboo diaphanous gowns, bulbous sugarplum dresses … Theoretically the aim is clubbing, but the group seems content to stay in, on its own delirious loop.

Clark eventually ends up at the club on his own, pickpocketing kisses from Wonderland creatures of myriad unnamable sexes, and then leads the room in a lengthy round of saucy Simon Says–style choreography until everyone collapses to the dirty floor. Finally, he wanders home through the harsh dawning drabness of 1980s London, his leather straps dragging on craggy paths. Back in his apartment, he strips down and dances slowly in the mirror to Elvis singing “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”: “Now the stage is bare, and I’m standing there, with emptiness all around …”

New Puritan is hypnotic in its post–New Wave dayglo dazzle, but its utopian world of druggy dances and gender sans frontières, as that last scene sighs, is largely a mirage. In Thatcher’s England, outside their safe rooms, these dissident bodies had no right of way. And so, 20 years later, in Turning, those escapist fantasies necessarily evolve into demands for recognition. But they retain some of the phantasmagoric array—people coming out not only as all manners of women and men, but as feminine animals, angels, chimeras, or as Antony sings it, perhaps a “bird gerhl” who’s fallen in love with a dead boy.

Those kinds of options have yet to be adapted for TV. But there are countless other artists searching for means to give those spirits voices. The new album by the young Venezuelan-born, London-based electronic-music producer Arca (Alejandro Ghersi), for example, is called Xen, after his lifelong feminine “ghost” or alter ego. Ghersi is gay, not trans, and as he told the Fader, “Xen is not really a boy and it’s not really a girl, and her mere existence is kind of repulsive and attractive at once, and so I imagine her under a spotlight, in this room full of people just staring, wide-eyed, openmouthed.”

The music on Xen clatters like a poltergeist and bends and wobbles like borrowed time, with occasional snatches of overheard voices. Its mood swings are lent visual form by Ghersi’s collaborator Jesse Kanda: In the video for “Thievery,” Xen is incarnated as a digital hybrid being with a monumental backside that invents more anatomical contortions than are dreamt of in Kim Kardashian’s philosophy.

No doubt Ghersi, 24, is only one of dozens of such explorers set to emerge into the rising trans moment, to test potentials and variations that stand apart from politics and court cases. Just off in the wings we can make out Michael Quattlebaum’s drag rap persona Mykki Blanco, out with a new mixtape last month, and the trans producer and remix artist DJ Sprinkles (Terre Thaemlitz), who’s released a steady stream of material for almost two decades.

Even the more mainstream entries can be more complex than they sound. When I first heard about Transparent, I envisioned something prestige-cable dreary, a domestic comedy-drama about a father who comes out and a conventional family who then has to adjust. But on closer inspection (spoiler alert) it turns out that Maura’s revelation unsettles the very psychosexual ground on which the family stands, and all the characters’ orientations and identities are sent spinning.

In some of my favorite scenes, in fact, Maura reminds me a little of Antony—just hanging around her family or her apartment, wearing a muumuu, her grey weave hanging loosely, speaking softly. In such moments, these figures, declared men at birth, become female not by enacting it or proving it to anyone, but simply by willing it, abstaining from all other options, and forcing the room to shape itself around the fact, like a concert hall around a song.  

While Transparent’s creator and showrunner Jill Soloway was famously inspired by her father’s own coming out—and rigorously consults trans people in constructing her stories—ultimately she isn’t trans herself, and she seems to be constructing a more sweeping story about how trans awareness could alter society’s broad sense of itself. Perhaps this is the kind of speculation that falls to those of us who are not on the front lines. I wasn’t surprised to read a recent interview with Soloway in which she mused:

Beyond the identities of trans women and trans men, there’s the identity of genderqueer, people who don’t necessarily fit into either categorization—that could be where Maura ends up identifying at the end of five seasons …  

Each night on the Turning tour, Antony would gather the cast in a circle and offer up a little impromptu mental imagery to help them through the performance: “Picture the moment in your life when you felt the most loved,” he might say. Or, “If you’re tired, you can imagine you’re already dead … with the wind blowing through your bones.” But one night he went another way: “I always think about America—I know it seems crazy, but everything that’s most beautiful about America, you know what I mean? As immigrants, as people from all over the world, as people who have felt marginalized … that’s a big part for me about bringing this out into the world—a true dream, about where we come from.”

And about where we might go. As Antony sings in one of his own incantatory, enfolding, ever-turning songs:

I’m only a child, born upon a grave,
Dancing through the stations, calling out my name …
Kiss my name, ooh won’t you kiss my name?
Kiss my name. Kiss my name.

Whatever we each finally name our names to be, he is imploring, find it in yourself to hear, embrace, and adore them.