Monday, August 8, 2011

REVIEW: Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels by Justin Vivian Bond

Just a brief note of reference for those who may be unfamiliar with the fascinating (and fantastic) Mx. Bond – born male, but proudly trans, Justin deliberately avoids gender honorifics and pronouns in an attempt to “clearly state[s] a trans identity without amplifying a binary gender preference, or even acknowledging the gender binary at all.” For that reason, I have chosen to honour that wonderful sentiment, using Justin’s preferred Mx (over Mr/Mrs/Ms/Miss) and V (over He/She/It). It may seem confusing at first, but it really does flow nicely off the page once you get used to it.

Largely stripped of any sense of celebrity (Mx. Bond is, after all, an award-winning singer, songwriter, and performer), Tango focuses on the experiences of Justin’s childhood, inviting us into a world of innocence, awkwardness, and confusion to which any reader can relate. Told in a casual, almost conversational style, this is a memoir that truly hits home – even if it sometimes hits harder and deeper than we may always be comfortable with.

The story is largely framed by two relationships. The first is with Justin’s mother, a relationship that both defined and restricted vs emerging trans identity. It’s this relationship, and the parallels to my own childhood, that initially drew me into the story. Aware from a very young age of feeling different, Justin’s trans identity was shaped by rituals of the women around vm, with mom’s frosted pink lipstick serving as a powerful symbol of that early gender struggle. For a brief period, Justin got away with wearing it to school, taking a sense of comfort and confidence from its caress. Looking back, thinking of what it was like to be so young, it’s remarkable to imagine how much power that lipstick had over not just Justin’s sense of self, but vs sense of self-worth. When mom displays such horror in taking away the lipstick, it’s all too easy to imagine just how much of that sense of self was stripped away with the slender plastic tube.

The second relationship that frames the story is with Justin’s childhood friend, Michael Hunter. It’s a call from a friend about Michael’s recent arrest that triggers Justin’s memoir, and which leads us into the tango in which we dance with vs memories. As we look back, we see that their relationship was just as fractured as their identities (Justin’s gender, and Michael’s sexual), with the two privately validating one another, while publicly doing the opposite. To call it a love-hate relationship would be far too simple, but it’s clear that their sexual excesses, and the motivations behind them, had a lot to do with one another’s journey of self-expression. It’s when a teenage Justin realises there’s a difference between acting like a woman and feeling like one that v finally turns the tables, denying Michael the power to belittle vm any longer, and forcing Michael to confront the truth about himself.

It’s in that moment that Justin first begins to rise above both mother and Michael, no longer looking elsewhere for self-expression, but inwards for self-identity. It’s a difficult journey getting to that point, and one in which Justin suffers greatly (at both the taunts and the hands of Michael), but you have to applaud v for having the courage and the confidence to determine vs destination.

Although the story may be framed by two relationships, there is a third that keeps it grounded – that of Justin’s best friend, Lesley Pearman. A young woman with issues of her own, Lesley welcomes, accepts, and encourages Justin’s struggle for self-expression. Her bedroom full of stuffed animals becomes a refuge for a young trans soul and, in many ways, is just as powerful a symbol as mom’s lipstick. Closed off, walled away, and filled with fairy tale and fantasy, that bedroom was somewhere both could go to escape their respective worlds. Later, when Lesley overdoses on pills and is sent to a sanatorium, Justin is forced to emerge from both the physical confines of the bedroom, and the mental refuge it represented. It is only then, with a friendship intact but both adolescents forced to embrace their freedom, that we really get to see the true Justin emerge.

Powerful and motivating, even (or, perhaps, especially) when uncomfortable, Tango is the story of the kind of childhood that I suspect is more common than most people would like to think. The sexual experimentation between adolescents may be too much for some readers, and the violence between them too much for others, but you can’t truly appreciate the "luxury of normality" that Mx. Bond has achieved without first understanding where v came from. My only complaint about the book is that it's too short, and ends rather abruptly, but it is the tale of a childhood, not a life, and not a career. Hopefully, the lovely Mx. Bond has another story inside vself, one that we'll get to share. Until then, however, Tango serves not just as an entry in the "It Gets Better" theme of literature, but of a welcome glimpse into vs origins.

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