An Interview with Antony Hegarty
Sitting in the somewhat-pneumonia-inducing atmosphere (part freezing, part muggy) of the Bowery Hotel lobby, I’m wondering when Antony Hegarty will walk in and what the hell we’re going to talk about for an hour. This is not a feeling unique to this moment; even if the protocols of an interview are understood, there is always the exciting, terrifying possibility of going truly off the rails. In other words, I’ve brought questions, but I’m prepared to throw them out. When Hegarty does arrive, he no sooner compliments my pants than we’ve launched into an hour-and-a-half-long tear through the tangled concepts of gender, testosterone-crazed thinking, and the dying planet—generally, all the things that our society has gotten wrong up to this point. Students of Hegarty’s music—which he has been making under the name Antony and the Johnsons since 1998, when they launched their debut album of the same name—will be familiar with these themes.
Hegarty is a public figure whose work asks questions you might not have known could be asked on such a grand scale. After moving to New York, in 1990, he became one of the most visible figures to emerge from the ’80s New York avant-garde scene, and, since then, his artistic platforms have continually baffled a public that has trouble believing in the legitimacy of queer success stories, or the functionality of a life lived outside the constrictions of what academia likes to call “gender normalcy.” Because of this, his music is a kind of education in itself. Much of his work prompts cross-gender identification—not simply referencing but actually seeming to restore, for the moment of the song, a zone of true experimentation and fluidity.
With a kind of futuristic thinking that is itself endangered, Hegarty aims to promote his faith in the renewal and progress of this planet before a large and attentive audience, one that will hopefully help bring these things to fruition.
I. CRUEL YOUTH
ANTONY HEGARTY: [Gesturing to a woman standing in the lobby] Who is that? It’s a famous singer.
THE BELIEVER: Is it Paloma Faith? She has Paloma Faith hair.
AH: It is Paloma Faith! She’s wearing an evening gown. She’s having a conversation with the doorman.
BLVR: I wonder how long it takes her to do her hair.
AH: She’s probably got it down to an art.
BLVR: But does it involve other people? I picture a Victorian sitting room: five ladies-in-waiting with their teasing combs…
AH: She’s probably got a lot of stylists. The people I know that get really dressed do it every day. My old assistant had a two-hour prep time.
BLVR: Just to walk out the door?
AH: Yes. Before she’d even come to the office.
BLVR: Just, “Hello, world.”
AH: Exactly. It gets to a point where it’s almost like a Zen ritual. I kind of respected it. It was a very careful, beautifully structured way of buffering oneself against the world. If it takes two hours—if there’s you, the vulnerable you, and two hours between you and any possible interaction—
BLVR: Then by the time you get out the door—
AH: That carefully, finely applied layer, which is almost transparent, is at the very least a potent symbol of one’s armor.
BLVR: But then once you get outside it’s kind of like, you make yourself more vulnerable. Because then people are staring.
AH: Because you look a certain way?
BLVR: Yeah. I feel like people who are really done up, or even if you just have a sense of style, even in New York, people stare.
AH: I think it’s probably tourists. New York has become a lot more touristy.
BLVR: It’s not aggressive. It’s just that they’re like, “Oh, wow.”
AH: They’re probably relieved to see something colorful in the city. In the late ’70s, when I was a kid, we used to drive to London, and we would drive down King’s Road to see the punk rockers. It would be like going on an animal safari. I was so excited! I just wanted to see those colorful people who lived in the city. To me, they were like salvation. But now you can see them on the internet. The twelve-year-olds in Minnesota have access to absolutely everything.
BLVR: It’s true.
AH: I mean, they’re so far ahead of the game, it’s scary. I’m saying this because my nephew is far ahead. He’s more street than anyone. It’s antiquated—the idea of an underground that’s more for different people. It’s like now people are creating their underground by curating weird snippets of mass culture in such a way that they have their own private underground. There isn’t, like, one kind of stodgy scene in the city. It just doesn’t exist anymore in the way that it did twenty-five years ago, where you’d go to the center of the city and that would be where it was happening at a very late hour on a certain day of the week, and you would suddenly see the other forty people within ten states who were thinking the same thoughts as you. It’s not like that anymore! Now the kids just pop online, they curate their palate, and they’re wild! It’s like just one gigantic mass of in-jokes and bizarre references. It’s an entire generation of Nico Muhlys. Nico in a weird way was a flag bearer for that scene. I saw him and I was like, What the fuck is that? And now, ten years later, my nephew is watching it. It’s this hyper-absorption remix culture where they’ve just absorbed everything and they’re on their game. They don’t give a flying shit!
BLVR: I kind of like the other way, where it’s literally four other people and you have to know about it, and these people are supposed to be one with your thinking. I feel like it’s lonelier the other way.
AH: Well, I don’t know what kind of town you grew up in, but I grew up in some really conservative towns, and some of the weirdest people I ever knew were in those towns. Much weirder than New Yorkers. The freakiest, weirdest, drug-using tweakazoid hybrids. So it’s funny. I moved to New York to be with weirdos who were organized, or where it was more of a united front. But I feel like kids in the suburbs are still in communities. Even if it’s like there’s three girls next door and two girls down the street—they’re all on a circuit on their blogs, and they’re all watching each other’s vlogs.
BLVR: But there are still these suicides. People feel so alone.
AH: Internet-related suicides, or gay suicides?
BLVR: Gay suicides, queer suicides, adult suicides…
AH: But those have always been there. They were worse thirty years ago. In 1980, you literally couldn’t even talk about being gay till you were in your twenties. I mean, you could, but it wasn’t that easy. Now there are, like, out twelve-year-olds. Such a thing did not exist in 1984. The only thing was the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which I think came in the ’90s, which was one school for innercity queers in New York City. Even just talking about gayness and young people was illicit, because the whole idea of sexuality or gender has always been made such an adult issue. People have been unable to talk about gay or trans kids, because they think it’s an issue of sex, and they can’t see that it’s not even necessarily about sex, and certainly it’s not just an issue of sex. I don’t even think it’s primarily one. It’s an issue of children. Children in the community, children in the family. Totally developmental. No one wants to say, “Oh, that twelve-year-old is gay,” because it’s like you’re assigning them an adult sexual orientation. But it’s like, actually, no, the child is behaving in all these ways that correspond to a typical model of a kind of child. There should be a different word that isn’t about pigeonholing them into a sexual orientation, but we can start to acknowledge that there is gender variance in children. It’s something to be celebrated, something to be embraced. It’s beautiful, it’s innocent. Even the emergence of sexuality in children is filled with innocence and beauty. But you weren’t allowed to talk about it and now there’s people talking about gender-variant kids or young gay kids. In the ’80s, when I was growing up, if you said you were gay it was like “gay equals AIDS.”
BLVR: End of discussion.
AH: It was gay equals AIDS, child molesters. Even if you were thirteen years old or twelve, it was like, “Gay, AIDS, pederasty, get them out of the schools, stop them from teaching, they’re spreading AIDS.” When I took anthropology my freshman year of college, we each had to do our own little sociology study, and I did mine on young gay people. Like, “What had happened to you?” And I went to, like, twenty of my friends, who were freshmen in college—this was 1988—and I said, “What was your experience?” And I transcribed of all their experiences of their childhoods, and two-thirds of them had been thrown out of the house. Many of them had been disowned, a lot of them had raised themselves through high school, a lot of them had been emancipated, many of them had been institutionalized. There was only one person who said it wasn’t really an issue, and he was, like, a passing straight guy who came out in high school. Everyone else had a radically traumatic time. And that was a total eye-opener for me. All the lesbians and all the gay boys just had these atrocious, abusive experiences. That was the norm. Now I meet younger people in their early twenties, mid-twenties, late twenties, who didn’t have as bad of a time. Who weren’t subject to physical violence at school.
BLVR: I saw some statistic the other day that was like, 57 percent of American transgender people were rejected by their families and 19 percent have experienced homelessness. I feel like those statistics have just shifted.
AH: They always say that when you start pushing the envelope in terms of visibility, the situation seems to get worse. Now everyone’s talking about gay suicide, there’s this consciousness about it, but believe me, they were always dropping like flies, it’s just no one was talking about it or assigning it to that. In a way, that sense of an increase in the problem is really just an agent of visibility of the problem. And of course, there’s the backlash that comes from the visibility. The haters try to crush you more because you’re more visible.
BLVR: Isn’t it weird that the people who are the most violent about it are the Christians, who are supposed to have a conscience about this stuff?
AH: Well, Christians were never really a reliable source for raising peaceful people. A thousand years of executing people left and right.
BLVR: It’s obnoxious, because there are some beautiful things about it.
AH: I’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater on that one. I just feel like the church can’t be redeemed. I have no interest in negotiating with it unless they’re going to take some radical steps. Re-anoint Jesus as a girl, put in a female pope. Everyone that’s a man right now in the church, make a woman, and then we’ll see how it looks. Maybe if they did something like that we could talk to them, but I feel like there’s no point. They’re just crazy. It’s just a big boys’-club, a big penis-club.
II. EARTHLY DELIGHTS
BLVR: You say in your song “Future Feminism” that you’re interested in Jesus as a girl.
AH: I’m not a Christian. I was raised a Catholic, but I was really seduced by Christian imagery when I was younger. I really believed in it when I was little, and I really felt like Jesus was my first boyfriend, in a way. I was so in love with him, and I wanted him to take me away, like a tall, dark, handsome stranger. But once I moved through that fantasy life, I guess because I’ve ingested so many of them I just don’t find male spiritual archetypes useful anymore. I lean on more-feminine ones. They’re more useful to me. And that’s just personal—it’s about creating your own personal mythology, something that works. I don’t really feel like I’m in any kind of dialogue about the mythology of Jesus anymore. I don’t believe in the system that he was serving; I’m not hypnotized by it. I don’t believe that there’s somewhere to get to. These guys are so desperate to get out of Dodge—to get up to heaven as quickly as possible and pass through those pearly gates and be anointed and saved. I don’t have any wish to be saved. I’m perfectly happy being part of the natural world, and being an animal like the other mammals.
BLVR: That’s pretty healthy.
AH: I believe in that creation. But it’s not even about believing in it—I am a part of it. I don’t want to be a part of that crazy male fantasy that they’ve superimposed on us and forced us to ingest like poison, covering us like filth. These horrible, constricting ideas, alienating ideas. Christianity and Catholicism are so noxious with alienation and trying so hard to separate us from what we are and where we are. If I believed in aliens, I would think, This must be some religion invented by aliens, because why are they so uncomfortable with being a part of the earth? Why do they seek so desperately to divorce us from that? That was the first thing they did: subjugate the female, and cut off any sense of a relationship with a female deity and the earth as a creative source. Immediately it was like, “We come from the sky, from a sky god, we come from the heavens, our creator is up there, and one day we’ll come back to him as quickly as possible, we’ll be away from this serpentine natural environment!”
BLVR: And he’s always watching.
AH: Yeah—which used to really upset me as a child, the idea of always being watched. But maybe they were just preparing us for modern-day surveillance. This sense of—because again, there’s a sickening and insidious collaboration between apocalyptic religions, patriarchal religion, and capitalism. Even right down to surveillance. Because in so many ways, apocalyptic religions, especially Catholicism and this idea about the end of the world, have totally paved the path for corporations to rape the land of all its resources because they’re just preparing for Judgment Day. If this place is all going down in a puff of smoke and we’re all going up to heaven, then let’s gobble this place up as quickly as possible. We’re just serving the terms of the Bible. We’re just moving the story along. This place isn’t worth anything anyway. The real value lies in paradise elsewhere, not this feminine place. This feminine earth, this birthing, weird, creative miracle that we all crawled out of.
BLVR: I see why the earth is coded as feminine, but—
AH: You say “coded,” but I don’t think it’s just a code. It is feminine.
BLVR: I think it’s just because I don’t understand the word feminine. I understand it only in terms of semiotics. I understand the metaphor of pregnancy and the earth—
AH: It’s not even a metaphor, it’s the reality of pregnancy and giving birth.
BLVR: But the earth is nongendered and still gives birth— so isn’t it kind of like gendering the earth to call it feminine? Because when I think of nature procreating, I don’t think of it as having a gender, just as being a thing that procreates. Like trees.
AH: But trees do have genders. Or they have sexes?
BLVR: Do they?
AH: Yes, male and female trees. There’s the system of pollination and receiving—I think there are some things that aren’t sexed, but I don’t know enough about it to really talk about it. But I think it’s a biological reality as well as a metaphor. Receptivity and birthing versus creating an exterior thing that will penetrate and fertilize. But that thing that comes out and fertilizes comes first out of the female. They create a male form to fertilize, and then the female pours forth more. I think the Christians’ whole trip was that they couldn’t bear the fact that the female was the central, the neutral. You know how everything’s male-neutral? I actually think in reality things are more realistically female-neutral. I know we like to say the earth is just a lump of elements or whatever, but actually, at the very least poetically, but also in so many ways biologically, it’s pouring forth. It’s birthing. Animals were birthed out of the sea, the amphibians—things came out of a primordial ocean. And the earth gives birth to plant life—it literally pours out of it, and the animals pour out of each other. I guess I just think of that gesture itself as feminine. But I guess everyone has their own definition of it, the idea of this mysterious creative abundance. The male aspect doesn’t do that. The male aspect can do it in its mind—they have all those Greek myths about people being born out of a man’s head or his side or his thigh—but he can’t pour forth. All he can really pour forth are ideas. But the whole construction of penis envy—I think it was all about vagina envy from the very start. The sense of creative impotence, mixed with a realization that they have more physical power that maybe has motivated them to throttle everything almost to the point of extinction.
BLVR: But how much did the fact that women used to die directly after childbirth contribute to that? That getting coded as weakness…
AH: Recently I’ve been putting forth these preposterous theses—one of them is that with women there’s a real hormonal basis. Coming from the queer community, you see women taking testosterone, female-bodied people taking testosterone, male-bodied people taking estrogen; you watch the shift in consciousness and physicality of the person. In the queer community we have this unique insight into the reality of the biological differences between male and female. Most people are raised to believe that the difference between male and female is truly mystical and unfathomable. Men and women could never fathom each other’s consciousness.
BLVR: “Men are from Mars.”
AH: That whole thing. But the closer you get to the queer community and the trans community, this is really just about salt and pepper. The estrogen makes you this way and the testosterone makes you this way. Or the estrogen creates certain tendencies toward certain kinds of manifestations. You obviously can’t say, “It’s always going to make you this way, testosterone’s always going to make you more sexual and more aggro and beef up your muscles and estrogen’s going to make your muscles softer and make you more emotional and more nurturing,” but you can make generalizations. Because it’s a tendency—there’s a prehistoric basis. Nature has emerged and evolved those roles for a reason—to survive as prehistoric people. This is my idea. We needed the males to go out in little teams and patrol the perimeter of the camp and kill anyone that came too close, and expand our hunting areas and kill dangerous animals and kill other people who might be coming toward us. So they arranged themselves into hierarchical teams to give commands, and foot soldiers—they formed military triangles that would go like viruses around the camp, like white blood cells—and the females formed a circle in the middle and they held hands and protected the children and created a safe circle in which the children of the community could emerge. And they had to make decisions more communally.
III. THE TRUTH ABOUT SALT AND PEPPER
BLVR: We were talking about hormones.
AH: I think we develop different skill sets in order to survive, is what I’m getting down to. I think that male and female—it seems like we evolved different skill sets and different specialties in order to collaborate and survive in harsh conditions. And those skill sets have run us into the wall now. You’ve got men functioning as a sex—collaborating, consciously or unconsciously, even across borders. Many men in America and the Middle East are collaborating more with each other than they are with the women in their cultures. To keep the feminine aspect subjugated and to keep women subjugated. They’re collaborating with each other, entertaining each other’s passion for military behavior and for amping up these kinds of war games and doing the same thing as they did when they were prehistoric men. Business as usual, just sort of unconsciously following the commands of their hormonal systems. They haven’t really been able to step back enough and say, “Why am I pursuing these particular lines of thought or avenues of behavior? Why do I think that this is the appropriate way forward?” Just imagine if all the men in the world had to take a treatment of six months of estrogen, or if all of our leaders took treatments of estrogen. How would it change things?
BLVR: It would be amazing.
AH: And people think that’s so preposterous. Men are so afraid to feminize their approach to world governance. Even though it would so obviously have all our interests at heart. The feminine approach has the best interests of the family, by extension the community, by extension nature itself. You want an environment that’s clean and beautiful and clear in order for children to be raised. Mothers want safe environments for children to be raised. They don’t want poisonous environments, or depleted environments. They want sustainable environments. These are just archetypes. That’s a female archetype, that a female lion would die for her children, she would fight to the death for the best interests of her children. Men are hypnotized in a whole different kind of reverie. That’s the female reverie. What’s the male reverie? What’s getting them off? Why are they playing these war games? This is supposedly rational behavior. We’ve also assigned the male thought process as a rational thought process. Feminine hysteria or emotionalism or intuition is denigrated. Women don’t even want to own that. It’s like, “Well, my estrogen makes me a little bit more intuitive, a little bit more emotional,” and that’s actually a good thing that makes your thinking clearer than someone who’s not connected emotionally and intuitively to the world. Scientists like to parade around saying, “Oh, my thinking is rational—it’s not gendered.” Some scientists have taken issue with me saying, “It shouldn’t be about male thinking or female thinking, it should be about clear thinking.” It’s like, are you an expert on that? What system are you operating with? You’re either operating on Windows or Mac! There’s no such thing—how can you separate yourself from your software? You’re either thinking with estrogen or you’re thinking with testosterone.
BLVR: But since this separation between male and female biology has this oppressive history, it does become the enemy, even if it’s based in truth.
AH: It seems like a lot of feminist talk is smart people who hate stereotypes about male and female; they really don’t want to be oppressed by an idea about male and female tendencies. That’s a popular line in feminism: why are you trying to contain us with this idea that biology makes us any particular way? And I really feel like two-thirds of that aversion is a response in women to the fact that their female aspect has always been used against them. It’s been used to disempower and subjugate women, to degrade women. As a child I was constantly berated with the mantra “You’re too emotional. Why can’t you be rational?” Emotionalism was considered degrading. It was considered to be an unclear line of thought. The Victorians would have just told you you were unclean. Now we’re told that we’re unclear, that emotions make our thinking that way. As I’ve gotten older I just feel like we’ve got these different systems. Feeling is one system, intuition is another system, thought is another. We also need to come to some conclusion—and the best I can come to is a collaboration of all of those systems. If I think something is right but it doesn’t feel right, I’m still going to be like, “Eh.” If my intuition knows that something is right, but I don’t want to do it logically… really the best kind of thinking is a collaboration of all those systems.
BLVR: But how would we begin to do that on a grand scale? You’d have to convince everyone of these things everyone’s already resistant to.
AH: It’s a big job, but big things happen all the time. Collective consciousness can shift in massive ways. My ideas are right for me, and if everyone starts talking about it and muddles through what’s correct for them… I’m also in a unique position as a trans person, because I’m always picking this shit apart. Maybe I oversimplify it, too. I radically oversimplify it. I have this whole, really grandiose idea that transgender people are really useful right now because we have this wealth of experience that makes us understand our dispositions and our predispositions. Trans men are the ones that can infiltrate male communities and start to educate them about emotions. Because they know about them, they have a history of emotions. I find it very exciting. That when a trans man says: “I started on testosterone and my emotional life kind of withered and I stopped crying,” that’s really powerful testimony. There was an amazing experience that happened in my family years ago where someone who was very hypermasculine suddenly started to become more emotional as he got older. He became very emotional and very empathetic, and everyone was like, “Why has this person changed so much?” He would start crying a lot more and was much more tender, and then we found out after about two years that he had a brain tumor on his pituitary gland that was producing more estrogen.
AH: And it shifted his behavior. And this was one of the patriarchs of my family. It changed him, it changed his personality in this very tender way, and it emerged before anyone knew what was going on, but I was like, “My god, that’s so ironic. This is what I talk about all the time!” But imagine a future society that didn’t allow a major decision to be made without passing through both testosterone- and estrogen-based systems of thought. I think our future leaders will have to… they’d have to pass through both systems, the emotional, empathic, intuitive system as well as the rational systems in order to make a good decision.
AH: Like if you’re really going to press the button, if you’re really going to go to war, you have to hear it from the feminine perspective, too. We always say, in the arts especially, “Everything’s old. Nothing’s new.” But there’s this gigantic frontier of systems that have not been invented. Even political systems. We’re like, “If it’s not communism or capitalism or socialism, it doesn’t exist.” And we also assume that those are gender-neutral systems. But what if there are new systems that haven’t even been invented yet? Isn’t that exciting? I find it tremendously exciting, and it’s something I’ve started thinking about only in the last month or two. We’re so used to thinking we’re at the end of civilization, the end of technology, that we’ve reached this climax as a species, but what if we’re just barely out of the caves? We’re still behaving as cave people, but with really sophisticated technology. Mentally and spiritually we haven’t evolved as quickly as we’ve evolved technologically. When John Lennon was shot, that was an amazing moment in American history. They asked Yoko Ono, “What do you want to happen to Mark David Chapman?” She said, “He’s a sick man and he needs help.” I feel like that was a monumental moment in American history, when she didn’t say, “He should be killed, I’m so angry.” It’s so futuristic. That’s the future of the way we treat each other.
BLVR: I’m glad you’re optimistic.
AH: What else are you going to do? Give up?
BLVR: Numb yourself. I think I’m there.
AH: Well, for so many years I was so depressed about it, but then this new idea about new systems not having been invented yet—that kind of excited me. The work ahead of us is tremendously inspiring. Talk about evolution! We have to evolve as a species in all these really profound ways, and we can each participate in that. There’s so much worth fighting for here, still. All over the world. They’re saying the coral is all going to be gone by 2050, all the coral reefs. They’re predicting the death of the ocean in the next one hundred years. It’s a great time to participate. Everyone do what they can. I’m doing what I can do—talking to the press and attaching my work to these kinds of ideas. And I’m a fucking idiot—I know I sound like a fool. I’ll walk away from this interview feeling so humiliated and embarrassed by my lack of knowledge,
BLVR: Don’t be!
AH: But I will, because I’m not an expert. Laurie Anderson has that song that’s like, “Only an expert can deal with the problem.” I know I’m not an expert, I know I’m clumsy, and Bob Dylan would scorn me for trying to change things when nothing can be changed and all the rest of it—but I think if everyone just participates, even if you just talk to the person next to you. I mean, I’m not as optimistic as Björk—
BLVR: Who could be?
AH: But I am more optimistic than I was in college.
BLVR: I feel slightly more optimistic now.
AH: Well, hope is a good thing. Hope is useful.