Walking the fine line 

Challenging traditional perceptions of beauty -- and androgyny

It's been a long time since I witnessed a performance as riveting as Antony Hegarty's in the documentary Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man. Antony -- professionally, he uses only his first name -- sings Cohen's "If It Be Your Will" in the movie.

His performance is captivating mainly because of his unearthly pain-filled voice. But his appearance is disorienting, too. Antony is completely androgynous.

On first seeing him, one has no idea if he's male or female. He's over 6 feet tall but projects the same fragility that his voice incarnates in the film and on his two records. Those, featuring his own lyrics, were recorded under the name Antony and the Johnsons, a chamber ensemble.

Several of his songs, including one devoted to Divine of Pink Flamingos fame, express his frustration with gender. Although elements of drag were part of his past as a performance artist in New York, he now assumes the role of someone who transcends gender rather than intentionally subverts it in the way a drag queen does.

Not surprisingly, of course, that doesn't fly as well in America as it does in Europe. Born in Britain, he has lived most of his life in the U.S. and, while the New York Times Magazine profiled him last year and he sold out Carnegie Hall, Antony is still relatively marginalized in this country. Last year, he won the U.K.'s prestigious Mercury Prize, awarded for artistry instead of commercial success, and he has a much broader, nearly mainstream following there.

Androgyny remains mainly taboo or the subject of ridicule in America. (Remember "Pat" on "Saturday Night Live"?) Although performers like Mick Jagger, Annie Lennox and David Bowie had success in the past here with "gender bending," it's only been considered OK if the artist assumes the normal characteristics of his gender and sexual orientation offstage.

Or, if the performer is a drag queen -- like RuPaul -- he must adhere to that role and the stereotype that all men who dress like women are gay. If one is transgender, a sex must be decided upon -- none of this confusion of true androgyny, of shifting, indeterminate gender, of play with possibility.

I've had several clients over the years who were truly androgynous. They have been of both biological genders, and all of them have been young. All of them, too, were beautiful, at least to my eyes. And all had been deeply wounded by their rejection by families and classmates.

Most of them also were attracted to their own sex, and the men in particular found themselves rejected by most gay men, who have largely adopted hyper-masculine cultural norms. One of my clients, about age 24, decided to transform himself into a gay stereotype. He took steroids, hit the gym and the sales racks at Abercrombie & Fitch.

Within six months, he had more friends than he'd ever had in his life. He even appeared on the cover of a gay magazine in town as its weekly pinup. After the rush of acceptance wore off, though, he perhaps predictably fell into even deeper misery than before. His heart ached continually.

The turning point arrived when he was at a party and a young, very androgynous man his own age entered the room. The man my client was talking to at the time turned his back and made a disparaging remark. You can guess the rest of the story. My client released 24 years of pent-up rage on the spot. Then he moved to California.

The world needs more people like Antony Hegarty to show others like him the way. One of my favorite singers, the beautifully strange Diamanda Galás, said of Antony, "Every emotion in the planet is in that gorgeous voice."

And that is the beauty of androgyny: Its heart may be broken but, by transcending the polar opposites of gender, it makes worlds unknown to most of us.

Give Antony and the Johnsons a listen.

NOTE: I am deeply grateful for the many e-mails I received expressing condolences for my mother's death. I heard not only from regular readers, including many in other countries, but long-lost friends stretching back to childhood. Those who knew my mother invariably mentioned her sense of humor and eccentric manner -- and my inheritance of these traits.

I never thought I would say I was flattered to be compared to my mother. I do not think I could bear her 14 years locked in her body without speech, writing or reading. What I wish to say is that in the end she bore life's pain with amazing dignity.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology.

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