Have I Been “Hate Crime-ed” By The New York TImes?
I woke up on Christmas Day with more than a lump of coal in my stocking. No, instead it was an offensive, transphobic review from the paper of note’s increasingly out of touch music critic Stephen Holden:
Sun Pokes Through the Rage
Justin Vivian Bond Sings Melanie at 54 Below
Several months ago in an overview of the current cabaret scene Mr. Holden wrote,
“With its embrace of drag and transgendered performers, the downtown scene illustrates what might be called a crisis of masculinity throughout cabaret.”
As my friend Elizabeth Koke, P.R. Guru for The Feminist Press, said, “An Absence is not a crisis.”
And yet Mr. Holden’s violent language toward gender variant performers has not only continued but escalated. With his latest review of my holiday show, Snow Angel, he has really crossed the line.
It may look rather innocuous at first so let me break it down for you.
Mr Holden decides to open his hate-fueled review with this gambit:
“at 54 Below, Mx. Bond imagined that his/her self-described freakishness was caused by…”
I never called myself a freak during the show but with his twisted worldview Mr. Holden translated my observations about the “nature vs. nurture” argument and my open and direct discussion of my life as a transperson and my queer identity as “self-described freakishness”. I do not have a problem with the use of the word “freak” but when it is used as a tool to pave the way for a blatantly transphobic personal attack cloaked as a “critique” it gives me pause.
According to Mr. Holden once I have described myself as a freak I continue with my “proudly abrasive” performance in a “blonde chignon hairpiece”. (I only mention the “chignon hairpiece” because there was no hairpiece and it was not a chignon. I style my own natural hair into a French Twist.) Like my hair, I am real. Mr. Holden continues with a vague reference to a character I portrayed very successfully on Broadway several years ago and for which I received a Tony nomination, then goes on to compare me to Kim Novak -all of which is apropos of nothing. Except for the constant barrage of insults most of this ridiculous piece is, in fact, apropos of nothing because Mr. Holden shouldn’t be writing about contemporary cabaret. He has no understanding of it and he has no context for it.
There is nothing wrong with being ignorant. But the arrogance behind this ignorance is damaging to the Times and is extraordinarily hurtful to me and to transpeople everywhere. There is a difference between being a drag queen and being a transgender cabaret performer. There is a difference between portraying a character and singing from a deeply personal place. There is a difference between referring to yourself as gay or as a transperson or even a freak and having a clearly hostile critic lead their review with, “his/her self-described freakishness”.
And where did this “his/her” business come from? I am transgender and I prefer the pronoun “v”. If you can’t honor my preferred pronoun then it’s best not to hazard a guess. If you aren’t sure what pronoun to use then don’t use one!
“The show is a caustically sarcastic holiday celebration in which this eager-to-offend transgender diva sings aggressively and mouths off about everything. Sample: “The Tea Party is the Klan without sheets.”
I’ll admit his section is confusing to me. Is it that I’ve said something derogatory about the Tea Party that makes me an eager to offend transgender diva? Or is he asserting that I should be more aware of “my place” and exhibit more respect for my oppressive elders? Perhaps he thinks I should just, you know, camp it up a bit. Maybe he believes that the cabaret is no place to “mouth off” about politics. But according to Mr. Holden I don’t just mouth off about politics, I mouth off about “everything“. He hates queers and wants us to be quiet and go dance in the chorus. We embarrass him. Evidently, by taking two slots a week and selling them out at 54 Below I am preventing other performers -the ones who know their place and who will stick to the nostalgic songs Mr. Holden treasures- from the opportunity to drive yet another venue into the ground.
Mr. Holden reveals his transphobia just as equally with his praise:
“Mx. Bond has a harsh voice with a deep baritone lower register that sounds a little like a more forceful David Bowie. The bigger the vocal sound, the more commanding the vocal presence. And there were moments, especially in the Killers song “This River Is Wild,” when Mx. Bond, aiming for the rafters, became a ferocious, full-scale rock belter.”
In other words I sound best when I sing like “a man”.
And then there is this:
“The bone-deep ambivalence that is the essence of Mx. Bond’s being was distilled in a single observation: “I’m an optimist, even though I see the worst in everything.”
Just because I refuse to dismember my brain and see the world through a one-dimensionally fundamentalist perspective does not make me ambivalent. And how dare that dodo bird presume to define my “essence”. He has no idea.
Maybe I do see the worst in everything but there is no way for me to just let this kind of bile go unaddressed because the internet doesn’t allow it to just hit the stands on Christmas Day and then disappear. It will be around forever. Fortunately for the cabaret community and The New York Times Mr. Holden won’t.
Other cities have thriving, diverse cabaret scenes. As luck would have it TimeOut and other publications have done a terrific job of supporting the ever expanding cabaret scene here in New York. But as it stands The Times is placing itself in a very untenable position by continuing to give Mr. Holden this platform on which to exercise his out-moded bigotry and to display his contempt for the genre on which he has been assigned to report.
I realize I have chosen to present my work in commercial show business venues and I want my performances to be seen and discussed by as diverse an audience as possible but I refuse to be be bullied by the pseudo-intellectual, biased garbage put out by an arrogant writer whose time has passed. Let him review what he understands but please don’t send him to review anyone who has been exposed to any advances in intellectual or cultural theory since 1976.
I am indeed an optimist. I think that in general humanity is evolving and progressing toward a more holistic and loving way of experiencing and appreciating the diversity within all of us. But as someone who is capable of critical thought I am also capable of seeing the worst in everything and this ridiculous “critique” is a tiresome example of the worst.
The headline for the piece was “The Sun Pokes Through the Rage”. I am not an angry person. I would prefer not to be responding to this today. But if I let this kind of thing just pass by as if it’s okay then violent haters like Mr. Holden would win and I don’t want to end up with -and here’s Mr. Holden’s final flourish:
“a tiny, crumbling candy heart.”