“Women have suffered for so long” says Antony Hegarty. “And we need to support each other”

ANTONY HEGARTY is a very persuasive man. He rarely smiles, he doesn’t crack jokes, but there’s something about that whisper, which at first sounds cool and detached, then conspiratorial — as though he’s suddenly decided you might be worth collaborating with. He’s dressed in assorted black cotton things and baby-pink shoes this afternoon, and holding a book given to him by one of the Rough Trade staff entitled The Wise Wound: Menstruation And Everywoman, a discourse on feminine cycles with a foreword by Margaret Drabble.

Hegarty is pale, recovering from a nasty bug he caught in Mexico, where you can pick something up from the water just by brushing your teeth, he tells me. It puts me in mind of the bit in Sex And The City where Charlotte, who’s gone to Cancun with the girls armed with airtight boxes of biscuits, determined not to touch the local food, opens her mouth for a second in the shower and spends the rest of the holiday fountaining from both ends.

There aren’t many men you’d point in the direction of specific scenes in Sex And The City but with Hegarty you kind of forget whether you’re talking to a boy or a girl. Discussing the suffering of women this afternoon, he slips in to using the word “we” without a flicker. Just how male, and how female, he is is hard to address: in the past he’s expressed understandable frustration that journalists seem to be fixated upon what he calls his “meat and potatoes”.

“Do you like Sex And The City?” he asks me, neutrally. “In many ways those four characters are gay men’s fantasies of women, rather than real women.” [Most of the principal writers on Sex And The City are gay.] “I felt the same way when I realised all Whitney Houston’s songs were written by two gay men. These wonderful anthems of power, femininity and independence. So anyway, what are we going to talk about today?”

At Antony Hegarty’s Meltdown at the Southbank in August, actress Kim Cattrall, best known as the lusty Samantha, will be hosting a talk on Cleopatra and her relevance to modern women. Turkish protest singer Selda Bagcan — “imperilled for years because she sang out against the military” — will headline another night and New York performance artist Marina Abramovic will give a women-only lecture. There’s also the UK premiere of feminist dance troupe The Voluptuous Horror Of Karen Black, and Buffy Saint Marie is being bussed in from Hawaii. “She wields a moral authority as a native-American singer the same way Nina Simone did with the civil rights movement,” Hegarty explains.

While Lee “Scratch” Perry’s short Meltdown programme read a bit like Desert Island Discs and Ray Davies staged a kind of affectionate musical memoir last year, Hegarty’s festival is political. “I never thought about doing anything, other than what I thought was the most helpful, useful, strong thing to do with the opportunity,” he says, crouching over my dictaphone in the foyer of the Bloomsbury hotel. “I wanted to do something that represented beauty, strength and a futuristic vision. A profoundly feminine vision.”

The 41-year-old, British-born, transgender musical oddity — protégé of Lou Reed and Hal Wilner, figurehead of The Johnsons — wrote his Meltdown wish-list in ten minutes and “got 90 per cent of those wishes”. He’s even coaxed Elizabeth Fraser out of hiding for two nights headlining on 6 and 7 August (she hasn’t sung live for 15 years). “I would never be one to pressure her to do anything,” he says casually. “I just called her up and told her that I’m doing Meltdown, and of course if you would like to do something… I would be the last person in the world who would pressure you into doing anything…”

What exactly does Elizabeth Fraser represent to you?

“Trailblazing. Not just melodically and in her creative approach, but in her commitment to joy. She would collage her voice into these unusual melodies, build them into these waterfalls, these fountains, of joy. She had a unique, intuitive, phonetic approach to making sound. One of the most important lyrics that I ever heard was on the Cocteau Twins’ last single in the late ’90s — a very apocalyptic period, coming up to the millennium. She said, ‘I still care about this planet, I still feel committed to nature and to my dreams for myself’. That seemed revolutionary to me, that gentle determination to maintain her values in a changing world. After having sung so ambiguously for so long.”

He speaks in perfect sentences, as though trained for debate. To coincide with Meltdown, Rough Trade will release Cut The World, a selection of Hegarty’s songs given the symphonic treatment by the Danish National Orchestra. Track two is an odd one — a seven-minute lecture called ‘Future Feminism’ in which he proposes that the human race is, not to put too fine a point on it, buggered unless we shift to “more feminine forms of government”.

“I made a big mistake because I said I wanted to move from patriarchal to ‘matriarchal’ systems of government,” he is quick to say today. “The word matriarchal is terribly flawed — you can still be using male, hierarchical systems within a matriarchy, just like Margaret Thatcher did. There are lots of really powerful women that have managed to participate in male systems — Sarah Palin really wanted to, she tried her best…”

So what exactly do you mean by “female” as opposed to “male” government?

Why must technology, population and consumerism be exponentially developing, advancing, without any kind of regulation or conversation about where we want to go? I don’t know if I would call it male per se, but I would definitely call it “virulent”. A feminine idea would be a more sustainable system. It’s a terrible stereotype but you can’t deny that the basic biological feminine impulse was designed by nature to create a safe circle in which life could emerge. Living with humility within nature, in other words — as opposed to conquering it, and dominating it.

I went to this monastery in Spain last month and there were 40 rooms of paintings. In the first room was a tapestry with pre-Christian depictions of the world. It was this dangerous paradise, filled with feminine vipers and ambiguous menacing forces — beautiful and voluptuous but not to be trusted! Then every other painting in the place depicted a young man suffering for the ideas of his father, and a woman in the corner who was basically not much more than a chattel. We’ve got religion to thank for this. Two thousand years of women have been raised under that premise — even within families, mothers are responsible for teaching their daughters to hang back while the boys are treated as little kings. It’s awful! Women have suffered for so long — it’s only been a couple of generations that we’ve really been able to start talking about how we support each other.

One thing people love to talk about is the difference between the minds of men and women. The small, silly things — like our relationship to music, for example. Men might have an exhaustive collection of alphabetised discs, women a connection to the material that is more emotional. But I’m not sure that’s quite right, is it?

A year ago in the Guardian there was an article by a female scientist claiming there was actually no difference between male and female minds at all, and I thought that was preposterous. She has every reason to make that claim, because of course we all know what follows a statement that women are more “emotional” — we know exactly what that argument is used for… We are so used to rational thinking being highly regarded, and emotional, intuitive thinking being disregarded. But this idea of such a thing as unemotional, “rational” thought is a complete illusion! Men’s so-called “rational” decisions are so often motivated by emotion — competition, pride, anger — but it’s all subliminal. Meanwhile, a woman can be speaking with a much clearer set of thoughts, but because it seems to be emotionally based, her ideas will be discounted.

Surely you’re not suggesting we kick all the men out of government?

I want to suggest that we embrace the differences between men and women’s thinking systems, because both are equally important. Emotion and intuition are utterly essential to any human decision. It’s not just in the best interests of women if we move towards feminine systems — it’s in the interests of everyone if we mean to survive as a species.

What male traits do you have? Do you see any of the “typical bloke” in yourself?

I definitely feel I have some very male characteristics, certainly in my willingness to occupy space and assert myself. But I can flip into female systems too. If you get on to a train, you always see it — the boys will spread their legs and occupy as much space as they want, and people fall in around them. A woman will look for the space that’s available and hold herself within it. I tend to be one of those people who looks for the space. Emerge into the space — don’t pillage it! They gave these monkeys toys at birth to see if it was social conditioning that boys played with trucks and girls with dolls. And the boy monkeys played with trucks! Boys are wired to interact with space in different ways, drawn always at first to dynamic, physical things that thrust into the space.

When you were a little boy, were you drawn more to boy things or girl things?

Girl things. But every family has one person like that… Go back through any family and you’ll find someone gay or transgender, it’s as normal as having brown eyes, or any other variation in children that can occur. They can serve the family in different ways…

What can gay and transgender children offer a family?

Gay children can be very dazzled. They can be very elemental children, partly because they are often estranged from bigger systems that don’t accept them. You learn pretty early on that you don’t fit in with the boys and you sort of fit in with the girls — and you don’t fit with your family or the religion into which you’ve been indoctrinated. You develop your own set of rules from an early age, partly born of loneliness. But it’s also the nature of a male-to-female child to be in a reverie of light and colour — it’s a very creative identity; you have this male body but you possess this feminine dream, and it can be so dazzling.

Were your parents supportive of you? Were you allowed to be dazzled?

It wasn’t quite that simple, to be honest. But anyway.

In an alternate reality, there is an Antony who never left for San Francisco at the age of 12, but stayed in Chichester where he was born. What would he be doing now?

He moved to London at 17 and became friends with Leigh Bowery and tried to find the London scene, went to art college. It would have been a disaster, to be honest. I wouldn’t have been the same person at all, because the American experience has been so positive for me — I got to enjoy that sense of a frontier. In America, especially New York, you’re not building on a legacy. In Europe you’re always building on the idiosyncrasies of the past culture — which is wonderful, as you always have the sense of belonging — but it’s very limiting in terms of how far you’re allowed to dream before being pulled in by the cynicism of society, correcting your course, saying you’re going too far now, get back in your box. In America, as an outsider, there is that sense of frontier — not so much in how they consume the land any more, but there’s still a frontier consciousness.

How English do you feel?

I don’t really quantify it.

But you love English things.

What do you mean by that?

English music, for example. Boy George, Cocteau Twins — the records you packed up and took to San Francisco when you were a child.

I have a funny theory about English singers, and it’s a result of us having such a sense of entitlement. For so many years we have colonised and appropriated other cultures, and one of the most positive things we have got from that sense of entitlement was the ability to appropriate any kind of artform or singing form that we saw buzzing around the world. For instance, when rock and roll came along and black people started doing ecstatic secular music in America, within a couple of years the English had perfected it and sold it back. We are incredibly good imitators, the British. We’re are very good at imitating the forms of the world.

Boy George-type acts already existed in America, didn’t they? There were already drag queens, Divine, etc…

Oh no, I would not compare Boy George with acts like that at all, oh no. George was more in line with Smokey Robinson, in the same way Tom Jones was inspired by black American voices. George is a soul singer, an amazing black American voice coming from the body of a 20-year-old London queen. You’re too young to remember, but to think back on it now, it still stuns me. People compared it to David Bowie, but it was nothing like that. Just because they saw the makeup, they assumed it was the same sort of artifice. But while Bowie used makeup to heighten his prowess, George used it as a revelation of his vulnerability and his femininity. It was a revelation, it wasn’t a costume. It was the truth.

“I WANT TO look at your questions,” Hegarty says when we’re done. I hand over paper with things like “Get him on to male brain systems!!!!” and “transgender = transsexual?” scrawled on it in red pen. “You know what they used to call women in my father’s day?” he says, leafing through. “Birds! (laughs) Can you believe it? Birds! Now what do you mean by this: (reads) Avant-garde stuff like this is alienating to us?”

The Brits are a bit less open to far-out performance art than the New York audiences you’re used to, I suggest. People find it a bit exclusive — maybe even pretentious?

“Oh, you must DARE to be pretentious,” says Hegarty, standing up. “If we don’t dare to be pretentious, how can we change anything? People must come along to see it for themselves. That’s all you need in order to bring stuff into the mainstream. I am very, very lucky to have this public platform, and I’m going to take advantage of it. I am trying to encourage journalists to collaborate with me. We have so few opportunities to see our dreams reflected.”

© Kate MossmanThe Word, August 2012

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