Transcending The Gender Spectrum: An Interview with Antony Hegarty
Exploring the unique perspective of the new documentary film “Turning” and the rise of the Future Feminist movement
Back in 2006, Antony and the Johnsons partnered with Charles Atlas for a remarkable performance piece called Turning. In it, Antony’s profoundly meaningful songs were presented alongside an array of women quite literally turning on a pedestal. The troupe toured Europe that year, documenting the travels as they went, resulting in a concert-film of the same name that was released in theatres in the Fall of 2011. Now, the piece is being released as a DVD and CD in hopes that it finds a broader audience… and that’s all Antony has ever dreamed of for this magical and transformative project.
Cuepoint: The Turning documentary showcases female empowerment rather than the usual sexualization — highlighting the perfection of the imperfect in all of us. Even if that’s the audience’s singular take-away, that’s a success for you, right?
Antony: For me, a success is for people to see the film and for it to reach as many people as possible, especially in this phase of its life. This really was the moment when I really dreamed it would disseminate far and wide. In terms of what people take from it, I’ve found that it has quite a homeopathic impact on people… starting with me. I think that we stumbled upon a form, a kind of curation, without fully knowing what made it magical. But, having lived with the work for 10 years, I’ve come to understand it in a certain way. It’s one of the few pieces of work in my life that I really had no idea what it was when I was making it for the first time. So, it’s hard for me to talk about what I want people to take away from it.
I know what I see in it. I know what it means to me. And, to me, it represents something quite frontier. We were intuitively building a bridge between these different kinds of feminine consciousness. We didn’t even, really, have words to talk about what that was in 2006. Now, we have more words to talk about it in 2014.
But, honestly, a lot of people see Turning and all they see is the word “transgender.” And, if that’s all they take away from it, that’s great. But that was never the sum of our intentions.
From the very beginning, some of my most significant creative partners are not transgendered women; they are cisgender women. Very powerful performance artists from New York, different women who have been my creative partners over the years… people like Johanna Constantine, Kembra Pfahler. And they’re presence in the piece — and in my life in the years since we made the piece — is just as critical to me as the presence of the transgender women. The fusion of those two kinds of presences — them as part of the spectrum of presences — is really, really important for me. I guess it’s a little bit of a complicated answer. [Laughs]
[Laughs] That’s okay. Even if you took their performances away and just looked at the music and its power… take a song like “For Today I Am a Boy.” It’s your expression, but it allows others to find kinship, if not themselves, within it. When you’re writing, is that part of your intention or just a nice by-product?
I was really shocked when a song like “For Today I Am a Boy” found such… when so many different kinds of people found in-roads to the song and found ways to relate to it. I remember the first time I sang that song to a friend of mine. I said, “Listen to this funny thing I just wrote.” And they said, “Oh, you could never sing that in public, Antony. That is too much. It’s too much.” And that was a trans friend of mine. But that was probably 2003 or 2001… no, maybe earlier, maybe 1998. They said, “You can never sing that.” And it was always the “forbiddenness” of saying something like that so plaintively that drew me to it.
It’s funny to think back now on how intimidating that song used to be to me to present in public, how dangerous it felt. Because, now, it’s so normal. That song is a little triumph every time I pull it out. People love that song. But I never would have, in a million years, imagined that something I’d hidden away so shamefully or felt such a shameful pang about would become something that people could relate to. But that’s often true in music. Something that’s a hot spot can end up being something that has a universal appeal.
Sure. We think we’re the only ones feeling a certain way and, yet, there are thousands of others out there going through it, too.
Yeah, I would say the extreme version of that is “Hope There’s Someone” which was probably the most personal song I ever wrote. That became my most wanted song. That song, I used to think it would be impossible to sing that in public. Now, I’ve sung it probably thousands of times in public.
It’s amazing when you don’t write that many songs and you walk with a small catalog of very crystallized ideas through the years, and you watch the songs have their own life, to watch them transform so profoundly in meaning from their lonely origins, oftentimes, to these giant star-fares of communication.
Yeah. One of the pieces in Turning that is really striking is “I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy” when you get to the part where you pose that inevitable question of “Are you a boy or a girl?” Having that juxtaposed against these representations of the gender spectrum. What does that representation mean to you — having you, your voice, and your songs alongside those women?
It’s funny. When I sang that song, I probably never once was singing it inquiring of the women who are part of the piece.
Right. Exactly. But that’s the beauty of it. You’re posing this binary question against a spectrum.
But I probably never once had in my mind that it was asking that. Although, a lot of people in the group would’ve had a lot of experience with that question, especially growing up in America. That was a constant taunt when you’re 12, 13 years old and just beginning your pubescence and children are really starting to differentiate around their gender. It’s quite a cruel question that people asked you. At least in the 80s, your peers would scream that at you: “ARE YOU A BOY OR A GIRL?” It would kind of be the last thing people would say before you’d get a fist in your mouth.
It’s funny because that question was really something that was thrust upon me as a child. It wasn’t a question that I asked myself as much as it was urgently thrust upon me as evidence of my not fitting into society at that point and the crisis that represented for other people. Oftentimes, I would say that 90 percent of the trans experience is an internalization of a crisis that our identities present for other people. You know what I mean?
I know very well. It’s a strange and beautiful thing to move through the world as someone who unnerves people with their mere presence.
There have been other cultures, other societies… there’s an amazing book called Spirit and the Flesh which is about the Native American tradition of two-spirits. That was very clarion for me and a small group of us in New York in the early ‘90s that were looking for other representations, other models of how trans people could be seated within a culture, within family, within society. The idea that a trans person could be held up as particularly precious or that a trans child could be held up as a precious gift from God that would be celebrated by the family for his or her difference… that it’s precisely his or her trans-ness that makes them a special boon from the Heavens and the Earth. That’s cause for celebration, like a harvest.
Those kinds of ideas… I remember discovering those with my friend Chloe Dzubilo, who was a great trans activist in the ‘90s in New York. We used to delight over those ideas. They were such a revelation to us. We used to imagine we were a part of that, almost, as a way to heal ourselves.
Sure. I have a Native American tattoo for exactly that reminder.
Those tribes were matriarchal societies, for the most part, so they honored the feminine and Mother Nature. Do you think patriarchy is the root of the problem?
We have to be kind of careful because a lot of Native American cultures were not that way. Some of them were certainly matrilineal and some of them had beautiful places for trans people. A lot of indigenous cultures tended toward matrilineal passing of wealth through the women as opposed to through men. It’s not as if those cultures didn’t observe binary gender roles, but they made space for people that existed beyond the parameters of binary gender roles. The establishment of separate purposes, generally speaking, for the sexes wasn’t in order to subjugate one of the sexes. It was done to divide the tasks at hand and survive.
That’s been an interesting conversation for us, especially in the last couple of years. We’ve been doing Future Feminism in New York — me and a group of the women that were in Turning, some of my best friends and partners like Johanna and Kembra, Bianca and Sierra from CocoRosie. It’s been interesting to talk more deeply about what each of us perceives as archetypes of masculinity and femininity, and discuss the root of those things. It’s been almost forbidden in the last few decades of feminism to take an essentialist perspective and suggest that there’s a sort of biological basis to many aspects of the difference between men and women, generally speaking, simply because women have been so deeply penalized for having been biologically different from men. That was the basis for us being disqualified for participation in governance and in all sorts of things.
The Future Feminist point of view that we’ve been taking, in defining our point of view from 2014 from us as a group of artists in New York, is that it’s precisely those differences, those aspects of femininity that we actually think should be at the forefront in guiding us in governance, for instance, whereas we’ve relied for so long on masculine archetypes to guide us in governance. To also just see both aspects as totally innocent, emerging from our bodies. Just in the way that boys and girls are born, and testosterone and estrogen course through our bodies in the most natural and innocent ways. And that we, as transgender people, we’re out on the front of the wave expressing the joy and the mutability of gender, the mystery of gender.
There’s so much going on, increasingly, for me. You asked me about what people take from Turning. My focus is ever more on the connectedness between trans consciousness and Future Feminist consciousness and ecological consciousness. We’re talking also about indigenous connection, indigenous role models, and returning back to Earth-centered spiritualities. We’re talking about patriarchal versus matriarchal systems and we’re very much there. That’s very much part of our conversation. I don’t think I could separate a conversation about trans feminism from a conversation about indigenous governance and ecology. You know what I mean? For me, that’s the same conversation because we don’t have any time left. Because half of the wildlife has disappeared in the last 40 years. Because we’re expecting a 70 percent extinction of them by the end of the century. Because we don’t have the luxury of time to think that the story ends with the full expression of our self-ness.
I’ve come more and more to realize that this aspect of self-ness is just a microcosm of a much, much bigger system of joy and brokenness that we urgently need to attend to. And, as trans people, we have the potential for a unique perspective and a unique point of view that could be helpful. I think there’s an expect of being trans that is about service which is about modeling potentialities. Obviously, everyone has their own point of view and there are plenty of twisted trans people out there that don’t have the world’s best interests at heart, so I always end up putting my foot in my mouth when I see some of the shit that’s going on out there. [Laughs]
But, in my mind, that’s been how I’ve organized these relationships between trans and feminism and ecology. It’s very different from someone else’s point of view, but it’s my point of view, I guess.
You just answered about five of my questions in one fell swoop, which is great. On that unique trans perspective of having a lens into both the masculine and feminine worlds… do you think if more people had that more expansive view the world would be a better place?
For one thing, anything that affords a person “outsider status” in society affords them, also, more perspective on that society because the farther you stand from the center, the clearer the view. You see more of the forest for the trees. On one hand, I think outsiders always have an interesting point of view. That’s separate from the trans issue, altogether.
I do happen to think there are applications for the experience of trans that could be of tremendous service to the rest of society in terms of helping women to see a road toward personal empowerment and to help men to find not just the humility, but also to see the reward in exploring the greater spectrum of their gender potential… or to become more aware of it, you know what I mean? To deconstruct their male privilege across the board, for men and women to deconstruct some of these notions that oppress us all, systems that we’ve employed over the years that now oppress us, one and all.
I’ve come to the point of thinking that misogyny is as much… I can’t really say it that emphatically, but misogyny — as atrociously as it impacts women — it has also an impact on men. In unpacking our self-imposed limitations that we unconsciously inhabit around gender, there’s a potential for spiritual growth — and even emotional, personal, psychic, intuitive growth — for all of us. And a greater quality of life for all of us. And I happen to think it is also impossible for us to create a sustainable world in relationship to the rest of nature without doing that.
So, again, I have lumped them all together. It just seems to me like the same course of action of starting to figure out ways to reconnect with the earth, to realize that we’re part of the earth, that we’re spiritually made of the same material as the earth, to walk away from some of the brutal severing of us from the earth that has been put upon us by different sky-God religions. I think, in order for us to stop subjugating nature, we have to stop subjugating femininity. We have to stop subjugating the feminine within ourselves. We have to stop subjugating women in society. And I think it would follow that we would stop subjugating and, literally, raping the earth as our creative source… and these women as our creative source for thousands of years now. I feel like it all walks together.
These ideas aren’t new. They are as old as time. I have learned these ideas from my elders, from people that I grew up in community with… feminists and free thinkers and ecologists. I don’t claim ownership or authorship of them. But I do feel like, as an artist, I feel very compelled to use my sphere of influence to broadcast those ideas in an effort to participate as vigorously as I can in presenting a voice of dissent or opposition to the trajectory of the dominant culture.
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