One of the difficulties of writing about Bond’s reality flux is very basic: the pronoun. His friends mostly refer to him as “he,” though many go back and forth depending on the context or the fraughtness of their relationship (the musician Rufus Wainwright notably seems to use “he” just to irk Bond). For the record, he would prefer to not be referred to as he or she but rather the faux-noun v, which references “Vivian,” the new middle name he gave himself early this year. He’s also never liked being tagged as a drag queen: Alex Ross in The New Yorkeronce solicitously described him as “simply a svelte person who looks stylish in women’s clothes.” Certainly he’s never been a conventional transvestite showboat, a surface exaggeration of cartoonish hyperfemininity. He has too much interior life to be anything like the standard drag queen.
Another challenge is that Bond is constantly milling his experience into stage patter. There’s little distinction between the confessed Bond and the private one. “Never tell Justin Bond a secret,” observes Sammy Jo. “It’ll end up in a show.”
Bond’s told this story before: When he was in first grade, he took to wearing his mother’s Iced Watermelon lipstick to school, figuring that she never left the house without it on. “Boys don’t wear lipstick,” his mother told him. But Bond wasn’t comfortable being a boy, at least as a boy is ordinarily constructed; he just assumed that he’d grow up and be male from the waist down and still get breasts. His mother, protective of both her son and herself, worried about how this preposterous notion would affect his getting along in life, and derided him. Bond says he later came upon a porn magazine in the woods that showed that exact physical formulation, confusing things further for him. At this point, he was known as Stanley Huffman Bond III. His family called him Chip, as in “off the old block.” This fey, dreamy child wasn’t what they had expected, dancing around the house on his toes.
After years of weaving these disclosures between songs onstage, he’s written them down in a short memoir, Tango, coming out this fall. Like the new album, the book is about the necessity of inventing who you really are: His family—and pretty much everybody else—wanted Bond to be something he just couldn’t see himself being. When he was 9 and a girl told him he walked like a girl, he thought, “Well, I’m a boy, and this is how I walk. So I don’t walk like a girl, I walk like a boy.” That’s defiant Bond, but it wasn’t that simple. “I was simultaneously flattered and confused. I hadn’t been aware that I walked like a girl. I don’t even know that I aspired to walk like a girl. But I’m sure I never tried to walk like a boy. I didn’t like boys. I’d never really liked boys.”
Bond and his sister, Carol, were raised Christian, in the Church of the Brethren, and at various points in his childhood Bond was quite religious, going to camp and wearing large crucifixes, as if to ward off the devil in his difference.
He discovered sex with some older boys at camp (“I felt I had some power over them. They were so insistent,” he writes). He felt guilty and decided that he should tell his mother, who confronted the older boys’ parents. “From that day on, I was branded a fag.”
And he never got over it. For most of his life, he has been at war with everyone. Carol always thought he just liked the attention. But Bond says, “I feel like I got too much attention.” He would skip gym because his very presence was too disruptive. “I think a disproportionate number of queer people have ADD, and it’s because we’re hypervigilant. So it’s not attention deficit, it’s hyperattention.”
At a gala on April 25 for the 30th anniversary of the performance-arts space PS122 in the East Village, an early mentor of Bond’s, the transsexual playwright and gender-theorist Kate Bornstein, recalled meeting his mother, who she says “berated him, making Justin feel small about being fabulous.”
Awards were being given out to fellow stars of the demimonde Danny Hoch and Carmelita Tropicana, and when Bond got up to accept his, he said, “I did speak to my mother yesterday and told her I was being honored tonight. And she said, ‘Isn’t that just great. Carol! Your brother’s on the phone!’ ” The audience laughed knowingly; what downtown arts appreciator doesn’t resent his uncomprehending parents? “I’m very sad that she couldn’t be here tonight. But if it wasn’t for my family and the rage they engendered in me, I wouldn’t be here.”