Viva Viv

Murray Hill and Lance Horne at Justin Vivian Bond—Trans/Art/Family: The Vivification of NYC, September 11, 2016. (All photos: Kevin Yatarola)

“IS IT A MAN OR A WOMAN? The answer is no!” zinged Murray Hill, downtown’s favorite Drag King of Comedy—heir unapparent to the likes of Henny Youngman and Rodney Dangerfield. The occasion for Hill’s hot buttering of cold one-liners (and totally Catskilling it) was Trans/Art/Family: The Vivification of NYC, a night at Joe’s Pub in celebration of the singularly brilliant performer Justin Vivian Bond. Downtown being downtown, the event was also a fundraiser for two essential cultural institutions: Participant Inc., the nonprofit art space led by superhero Lia Gangitano, and The Gender and Family Project, which provides space and services for the families and loved ones of gender-talented children. Although home is a precarious concept in New York City—and that day marked the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11—the audience that night came together like family for Mx Bond for a show that could have been called This Is Your Fabulous Life.

“You are gorgeous people!” the gorgeous Sandra Bernhard shouted as she took the stage, and the crowd applauded wildly in agreement. Bernhard told the room that she’d written no memorial Tweets that day, no posts “riding on other people’s tragedies”; she publicly shared no memories of 9/11. Why? “I didn’t see anything,” she snapped. “We were living in Chelsea—facing the other way.” In other words: She would respect the real victims by not playing one tonight—or, really, ever. Then, in the spirit of sanity and all the joy that follows, she belted Laura Nyro’s “Save the Country,” and brought the house down (as it were). #ImWithHer

Sandra Bernhard and Thomas Bartlett at Trans/Art/Family: The Vivification of NYC. September 11, 2016.

Performer NathAnn Carerra appeared devilishly angelic in a sleeveless black sateen number and a hat that looked like a swan wrapped its wing around his head. NathAnn, Bond’s former (or not) lover, told the story of their fateful meeting. Once upon a time, v spotted NathAnn standing by a parking meter outside a theater San Francisco. On their first date, they went to a singalong Xanadu. Soon after, they headed to a Queeruption gathering in Canada where Bond (being Bond) decided to liven up the scene… by organizing a bukake party in one of the festival’s designated safe spaces. An act of insurgence, or just a little redecorating? In a funny way, Carerra seemed to say, that’s v’s m.o. to a T.

Playwright, performer, and gender genius Kate Bornstein—who also appears to be sunshine in human form—stood up to play clips of a circa 1990s Bond performing as the hermaphrodite Herculine Barbin in a San Francisco production of Bornstein’s pioneering production Hidden: A Gender. “Are any of you to tell me how I am to be a man when I am both a man and a woman?” the younger Bond challenged, pleaded, as Barbin. The audience went silent; you could hear a hairpin drop. Would that all home movies were this tender, this proud, of family.

Family was at best a bittersweet subject in the room that night. As Hill joked at one point: “The more you applaud, the more I forget about my childhood!” When Jean Malpas, director of The Gender and Family Project, stood up to thank Bond for the support v had given the organization over the years, a photograph was projected above his head of Bond sitting in a convertible at Gay Pride wearing a T-shirt that read PRIDE IS FOR KIDS TOO. For many sitting in Joe’s Pub, community has been the way forward out of the shortcomings of personal history. After all, we build the support we wish to see, and be, in the world. It was tender powerhouse Toshi Reagon who, before she performed, commented that she and Bond only met a few months ago, but that didn’t matter. “You can make community,” she affirmed. “You don’t need to know nobody personally.”

Left: Kate Bornstein. Right: Toshi Reagon.

But chosen families can wound too. “I’d like to leave you…” sang Kenny Mellman, pausing just long enough to contain the ambivalence that stirs inside of intimacy. And then, he continued: “…with something warm.” For years, Mellman has been one of Bond’s closest collaborators, and there have been times, Mellman said, when the two were not on speaking terms. Tonight, he appeared only filled with gratitude for all their times, wishing Bond in song: “maybe an angel to keep you from harm, or a little light that will shine you all the way back home.”

Bond has always been the darling of the spotlight, and when v finally took the stage that evening, v was—as always—luminous. “Beautiful!” someone shouted, to which v replied, “Thank you for noticing!” After thanking all the performers—and before launching into a few stunning solo numbers—Bond explained to the audience why v does the work v does. Years ago, on a trip to Seattle, Bond heard about the NEA Four—Holly Hughes, John Fleck, Tim Miller, and Karen Finley—artists who had their arts funding ripped out from under them because their art was deemed “obscene.” Back then, of course, “obscene” was often shorthand for “queer.” “I decided at that moment I was going to dedicate my life to making that work,” Bond said, and v has. That work—and the rage that has always propelled it—was also born of the AIDS crisis, and from the stage that night, Bond remembered Doris Fish, Miss Kitty, Benjamin Smoke, and other “queens that did not live.”

Thomas Bartlett and Justin Vivian Bond.

Bond is of the generation who has never been silent about the deaths of their friends and loved ones, though what it means (and has meant) to be a survivor of the AIDS crisis—to bear those memories, to make “that work,” to be or feel responsible for legacies other than one’s own—is an enduring question. Earlier this year, as part of his three-part exhibition at the Artist’s Institute, writer Hilton Als read from a work-in-progress in which he shifted Joe Brainard’s incantation I remember into his own grievous refrain, I don’t want to remember. This fall, Ishmael Houston-Jones and Will Rawls have curated Danspace’s 2016 Platform “Lost & Found,” in which they’ll present the work of choreographers, dancers, and artists who did not survive AIDS, and sift through the continued impact of their absences. Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, currently in performance at St. Ann’s Warehouse, is also in part about sorting through the wreckage of this legacy, “to remind people what they’ve dismissed, forgotten, or buried.” Which is perhaps just to say that while some memorials rearrange the skyline, others are built from truer, more transient material: that of a raging and incandescent aliveness.

At the end of the show, Bond was joined by Mellman and the two commanded the stage not as Kiki & Herb (as such), but as themselves: glorious, hilarious, and never missing a beat. They launched into a whirling medley that somehow blew through Mary J. Blige’s “Deep Inside” to the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” to Radiohead’s “Creep,” and on and on until the room was ready to burst. When a cake came out in celebration of Bond’s twenty-fifth “Tranniversary,” the room roared, and one could feel—palpably, proudly—the love for a single person expressing the love of a community, of a city, of those who paved the way, and of those who’re still waiting in the wings, preparing to take their rightful place on the world’s stage.