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6 December 2018

The night that changed my life: Olivia Laing on the New York cabaret that helped her discover her queer identity

“I’m trans,” I told a friend on the steps outside, after one of those dazzling nights.

By Olivia Laing

Back in the 2000s, I was obsessed with a film called Shortbus. It was about a queer sex club in Brooklyn, and it was mildly notorious at the time because none of the sex was simulated. I loved it because it was so honest about the difficulties of physical as well as emotional intimacy. I also loved it because of the club’s beautiful MC, a gender-ambiguous chanteuse called Justin Bond, who sang an anthemic song called “In the End”.

A few years later, I was at an American residence with someone who’d starred in one of the orgy scenes. I said something about Justin, how much I loved his voice, and he said, “Oh, but Justin isn’t ‘he’. Justin is called Vivian Bond now, and their pronoun is ‘v’.” It was right at the beginning of pronouns. I knew lots of trans people, but they were all one thing or another. Viv was the first person I’d encountered who claimed the middle ground, the shifty sweet spot between genders. (V also pioneered and campaigned for the non-binary title Mx.)

After that, Viv’s shows became my church, temple, doctor’s surgery and place of refuge. I was living in New York at the time, in a crumbling walk-up on East 2nd Street and whenever I could, I’d go to Joe’s Pub. The name was deceptive. It wasn’t a pub at all, but a pristine cabaret theatre in a brick building on Lafayette Street. Inside, I’d sit as close to the stage as possible. Mx Viv would stalk on, a beautiful glamorous human dressed in silk and heels, a human who could slam through emotional states, shifting from songs to hilariously untethered, free-associative rambles.

There were two songs I wanted, two songs that seemed to kick open an emotional space inside me, like sledgehammering down a wall and finding yourself facing the sea. The first was a cover of “22nd Century” by the Bahamian voodoo priest Exuma. Viv would snap up like a cobra, hissing and snarling, energy ricocheting through their body. The song was about gender, and part of its power for me was that the person on stage had palpably spent their life pushing and pushing against a constriction I also felt suffocated by. “Sex changing, changing, changing,” Viv sang, a radiant icon of future possibilities.

The other song was Kate Bush’s “Aerial”, with its intoxicating refrain, “I feel I wanna be up on the roof.” It was like someone was doing psychic surgery up there. There was more space, they were making more space, there was a kind of impossible expansion happening in the small dark room.

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“I’m trans,” I told a friend on the steps outside, after one of those dazzling nights, and I didn’t mean that I was one thing becoming another. I meant I lived there, in that neither and both space, that I kept coming back because I was home.

The night that changed my life: read more from our series in which writers share the cultural encounters that shaped them

This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special