BY Sam Moore in Books , Opinion | 24 MAY 21

The Art of Not Giving a Fuck According to Jayne County

The performer’s recently reissued autobiography, Man Enough to Be a Woman, offers an unapologetic blueprint for gender non-conformity

BY Sam Moore in Books , Opinion | 24 MAY 21

In her recently reissued autobiography, Man Enough to Be a Woman (first published in 1995), trans pioneer Jayne Country describes herself and her friends as ‘flaming creatures’, citing the title of Jack Smith’s fantastical 1963 film, a major underground work with a cast made up primarily of drag performers. Her attitude – to gender, music, art and life – has always been punk through and through; ‘fuck off’ is, at once, her musical and philosophical refrain. The book shines a vital light on the backstory of the liberation of trans and non-binary people. 

Raised in Georgia, County moved to New York in 1968, at just nineteen years old – like so many other rural queers – in search of kindred spirits, drag queens and artists. Her rags to (underground) riches story places her at the very epicentre of US queer history: she even took part in the Stonewall Riots of 1969 – a moment often cited as the birth of the modern, gay-liberation movement. Alongside Blondie, Patti Smith and Television, she was also a regular with her band, the Electric Chairs, at legendary 1970s dive bar CBGB, and became a stalwart of Andy Warhol’s Factory.

Jayne County with RuPaul
Jayne County with RuPaul. From the personal collection of Jayne County. Courtesy of Jayne County and Serpent’s Tail

County tells of a non-linear trans journey: she goes on and off hormones at various points in her life and presents in different ways around different people. Her experiences resonate with mine, though we disagree about the use of ‘they/them’ pronouns for non-binary people, which she writes are ‘a step too far’. In a meeting with a trans counsellor in New York – a doctor described as ‘going through the whole change’ – County is told that there are ‘different degrees of transsexualism; you are transsexual, but not all transsexuals have the full sex change’. This language feels jarring and old-fashioned. If you identify as trans, it doesn’t mean that you need to act a certain way, look a certain way or follow the narrative arc that’s so often associated with trans lives. County acknowledges that, while gender-affirming surgery is what some people want, it just isn’t for her – and that’s OK.

Jayne County with Martha P Johnson
Jayne County with Martha P. Johnson. From the personal collection of Jayne County. Courtesy of Jayne County and Serpent’s Tail

Her early career was defined by provocation, and Man Enough to Be a Woman is no exception; County dares you to get into a fight with her. She writes about reading the autobiography of US trans entertainer and author Canary Conn, calling it ‘the first time I’d read an account of a life that completely clicked with me’. She’s also willing to take some of the most sacred elements of queer culture to task; she has no time for The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and raises her eyebrow at how David Bowie appropriated the aesthetic of the trans girls and drag queens – such as Cherry Vanilla – in Warhol’s first stage production, Pork (1971). She also doesn’t view Stonewall as a defining moment in queer liberation, insisting: ‘For me and the other street queens, it wasn’t an amazingly important thing; we were already out there.’

The reissue of County’s autobiography arrives at a perfect time: following a slow-yet-steady increase in trans representation over the past few years, her story is a precious reminder that trans and non-binary folk have always been here, making art and making history. The punk individualism that defines so much of County’s philosophy gives a middle finger to respectability politics and the idea that trans people need to censor themselves to be seen as acceptable to a cis society. 

Jayne County
Jayne County, 1979, London. From the personal collection of Jayne County. Courtesy of Jayne County and Serpent’s Tail

Man Enough to Be a Woman is, in many ways, an act of refusal: a refusal to be just one thing; a refusal to be policed or censored; even, as County says several times in the new afterword, a refusal to be defined by anyone other than herself. Her defiance took root in me while I was reading the book: if I don’t look or act in a certain way, it doesn’t undermine my identity. If other people don’t get it, they can, well, fuck off. I don’t agree with County about everything – I’m less willing than she is to listen to far-right rhetoric in order to understand ‘both sides’ of an argument, and less likely to use the language she does – but, ultimately, I think that’s for the best. County wants to be herself, wants you to be yourself, and wants you to be so without apologizing or self-censoring. Man Enough to Be a Woman offers an alternative, less respectable, more punk blueprint for a new kind of trans and gender non-conforming liberation.

Main image: City of Lost Souls with Judith Flex, Angie Stardust, Rosa von Praunheim and Tara O'Hara. From the personal collection of Jayne County. Courtesy of Jayne County and Serpent’s Tail

Sam Moore is a writer and editor. They are one of the co-curators of TISSUE, a trans reading series based in London.