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The Music in Me: Free at Last: The Christian and the Ladyboy

The Christian and the Ladyboy by Kenneth Yu: I would like to cruise, to make love in the backseat of a degraded nicotine-stained car. To me, cheap rough anonymous sex is incredibly alluring, sexual deviance and social transgression the sweetest of forbidden fruit.

The Music in Me
Free at Last: The Christian and the Ladyboy
[11 November 2005]

I would like to cruise, to make love in the backseat of a degraded nicotine-stained car. To me, cheap rough anonymous sex is incredibly alluring, sexual deviance and social transgression the sweetest of forbidden fruit.

Various Artists
Hedwig and the Angry Inch

by Kenneth Yu

To be free, one must give up a little part of oneself.

My journey of self-discovery began and ended with peroxide.

During my college years, every milestone in the unfolding revelation of the true Kenneth Yu Kern San was symbolized by progressively lighter shades of blonde.

And what havoc did my dyed crown wreak back then. I chose to stand out in the double whammy of Malaysian society -- where Asian conservativeness held sway -- and church, where individuality was construed as a sin. Still, I was unperturbed. After 18 years of being a black-haired, bespectacled, well-mannered, small-town lad waddling in a sea of homogeneity, I had enough.

Admittedly, my youthful eagerness for differentiation was slightly overdue because of my formative parochial surroundings. As a result, to make up for lost time, I may have been too liberal in the use of coloring agents. There were painful memories of charred scalps due to untrained hairdressers who, upon applying the bleach, unfortunately doubled up as head masseuses. However, the greatest damage seems to be the errant chemicals that penetrated through my skull, and then seeped into my mind.

As they bleached my head, you see, they seared my heart, too. It is a heart that was barely beating, walled up in a prison constructed by religiosity and suppression. The bleach slowly broke them all down, and then the heart itself was softened to the point of malleability. As my hair lost the virginity of its blackness, I started knowing me as I am known.

Light brown.

A writer. Loves words. Enjoys poetry. Sensitive poet. Craves the arts.

Reddish blonde

Enjoys "girly" stuff like cooking and couture. Into indie and art-house movies. Formidable singer-songwriter.

Dirty blonde.

Drugs. Advocate of the strange and twisted. Living on the thinnest slices of the cutting edge. Sexually curious.

Ash blonde.

Adept in swiveling hips from side-to-side. Seductive and slutty. Obsessed with beauty. Wanting to be beautiful. Desired be dominated by someone who was so consumed in lust for my beauty, to the point where my flesh is in danger of being torn asunder.

Kenneth Yu Kern San -- the Karma Chameleon.

The second season of Malaysian Idol is showing on TV at the moment. It is undergoing the closing stages of everyone's favorite segments -- the auditions. Everyone was watching in anticipation of our very own William Hung. One sloppily-dressed Indian dude came close, doing the most awful rendition of Britney Spears "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman". Atonal and out-of-pitch, it propelled an already crappy song to the level of wanton hilarity.

Yet perhaps, he may have a point. When he sang, "But if you look closely", he sounded almost earnest, even with the judges collapsing on the desk in a mirthful heap. It seemed like a plea, to gaze beyond the disheveled pot-bellied exterior, uncovering something of voluptuous beauty within.

Or not.

However, in my case, that is my hidden cry.

You see, I have never been the bloke's bloke. In my childhood, I was the reserved anti-social tyke who withdrew into the solitude of my Enid Blyton books. Over the years, I connected better with my friends' moms, sometimes even more then my actual friends since these 'aunties' shared the same passions in the kitchens and in looking good. I never was into cars and sports like many of my peers were.

I never really thought much about it, because here I was in my younger teens, an elder's kid serving in church. All I knew was God. All I lived for was God. All I loved was the God of the Christian Pentecostal tongue-speaking Holy Ghost hopping community that was my existence. My life was puritan and sanitized, and the only kinds of music I knew were the praise and worship music of Integrity Hosanna and Vineyard. If I felt adventurous, there were the CCM music of DC Talk and Jars of Clay to make me feel like an aural Davy Crockett, exploratory in taste but preserved in righteousness.

Understandably, I wasn't the most popular kid in school. I fled from my peers' dirty jokes in the effort of not being 'unequally yoked'. There were vicious rumors about my hidden doings beneath the smug self-righteous exterior. People said that I was furiously masturbating to particularly perverse strains of hardcore porn and was in general, a closet Marquis de Sade.

Well, the depravity would come later, but in the meantime, I was learning the price of clinging on to the God who was more significant than any naughty joke. Learning the price of not having any other discernible interest besides my youth group. Learning the price of tolerating hypocrisy and disunity, even among the church eldership, counting gritted teeth as traits of grace and submission.

And after a while, I didn't want to pay the price.

My disillusionment was manifested in my musical choices. Being in the sheltered confines I was in, being both small-town mandarin-speaking Malaysian and Christian, it was music that gave me a means to taste the alluring subcultures of the so-called sinful world outside. From Seattle's grunge desperation to the whole alt-'90s tasteful love for melody, it gave credence to my teenage rebellion. Indeed, the music of the secular world was so much richer, so much more fulfilling than its Christian knock-offs.

And as for the perfect God of His imperfect disciples with their even more imperfect taste in music, my relationship with Him, akin to a marriage, has gone through its ups and downs over the past few years. Both fear and faith tempered the most inconsistent ebb and flow in my spiritual walk. And as I get to know a God who isn't all that predictable, I too discovered myself.

In the past two years, when I was completing my degree in Melbourne, Australia, God sent me various people to relay to me His will for my life. Far from any preacher or pastor, however, the ones who impacted me the most go by the name the Fab Five. Not the Beatles, mind you, but the more sharply dressed counterparts of the Queer Eye crew. It was through these blessed well-groomed messengers of God that I had not only undergone a sartorial makeover, but a soulish one as well.

You see, I realized I was an invalid, handicapped not from lack but rather from excess. I had difficulty walking because my nether regions were shaped like a tripod, a one-man oversized phallic trip. In other words, I was a hypermasculine caveman -- raised by culture and distant father and church - and that was the impediment to knowing my true self. What Queer Eye taught me was to embrace the part of me that has been ignored but always there.

With every application of product on hair and face, tsujzing of my sleeves, and the partaking of high culture, I began growing into my own pampered skin. But more significantly, as I was pretty outside I also discovered the prettiness within. Indeed, it seemed that Queer Eye sparked off essentialist yearnings in me that I never knew existed.

As with the musically-corresponded phases of teenhood, it was the music of "gay" bands that had been speaking to me in this deepening of understanding my own sexuality. In the recent tertiary years studying in Melbourne, it was the androgynous voices of the ladyboy frontmen of some of these bands in particular, that has become my solace.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Antony and the Johnsons. Phallocentric band names that seem to follow the New Age "name the fear and then overcome it" motivational mumbo-jumbo. Both fronted by larger-than-life ladyboys whose angelic voices are carried by the backing band into the crevices of one's world-weary heart. Though one of the bands may be fictional and the other nearly as imaginary, they both are very, very real and dear to me.

The character of the ladyboy is alluring to me. Dandies like Rufus Wainwright are all well and good. Their gayness is a given, the closet a redundant footnote in a flamboyant past. They are confident in their camp, proudly wearing their homosexuality on their lacy sleeves. However, it is the ladyboy's fracturing of identity and the straddling of both sides of the fences that I find appealing. Vulnerability rooted in double-mindedness is an alluring trait for folks like me, who are mired in identity crises. After all, confusion is sexy.

The disquiet voices of Hedwig and Antony vocalize what I already know, to affirm the tumultuous state of my ontology. You see, it takes a dose of ambiguity to somewhat make sense of my sexual schizophrenia. Warbles resonate through their seemingly dysfunctional Adam's apple, a shaky tenderness that mirrors the ebb and flow of a soul in torment, falsettos wearily battling against societal norms and expectations.

The cadences of their voices are as versatile as pens, reciting sad stories manifested through mere switches in tonality. Just in the vocal caterwauling alone, we are able to discern the mountains and valleys and heartbreak and ennui and victories and defeats and fears and fatalism. Lyrics are redundant, because the alternating of pitches is enough to paint sordid pictures of the wonderful madness. These blessed voices elucidate various threads from various harrowing lifetimes, coming together to write a bible of sorts, an archive of a history of bigotry, hatred, and misunderstanding. In every demure turn of the head and errant touch of their curves, new lines are constantly been written.

And yet, these master fablers still hold their heads up high.

Rapturously high.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a movie that is infinitely precious to me. Released around the same time as Moulin Range, it is the far-superior musical, delivering a swift camp kick to Baz Luhrman's balls from Hedwig's high-heeled foot. The story is rather simple. It is a typical bildungsroman that involves the protagonist's unfolding revelation of love and life. But, it involves the atypical character of a transvestite rock star with a botched sex-change operation that left him with an "angry inch", which is also the name of his band.

I caught the musical during those influential Melbourne years, in a dilapidated space of the campus vegetarian cafeteria, which doubled up as an activist's meeting spot in between meal times. Reeking of day-old eggplant curry and discarded pumpkin waste, it was Free Movie night on campus, and its most fervent after-hours denizens -- the more left-wing members of the student council and queer collective -- came out to play.

At that time still I was naïve about the wiles of the world. I was more than a little perturbed at the sight of the ragtag bunch of garish-looking vagabonds that epitomized the socialist pothead queer activist community then. I sat still with my legs crossed, intent on completing this lesson on freeloading off the university, in whatever small ways possible.

Admittedly, Hedwig may be the poor man's version of Boy George or even Antony, with a range that is passable but not transcendently great. However, his earnestness ensures that the music does not lag too far behind. Lead actor John Cameron Mitchell does a great job of projecting his voice, in all of his limited glory, ascending to the level of that great narrative of finding oneself in and out of the bodies that we are born in.

The movie itself was good shit, but more importantly, it was my first encounter with the "Origin of Love", one of the few songs that have left an indelible impact on this naïve psyche. Penned by Stephen Trask, it sounds like a rockified Steven Sondheim track gone all mystical, cheesy, and insane. An ode to love grounded on Platonic mythology; it begins with an infectiously plucked electric guitar wrapped in a pleasant chord progression, opening with the vivid verse: "When the Earth was still flat, and clouds made of fire".

It is prog-for-dummies, really, simplistic rock rhythms that switches tempo in a few Who-like sequences. The gist of the song lies in the gods splitting up mysterious creatures that "had two sets of arms / They had two sets of legs / They had two faces peering / Out of one giant head". Unfortunately, the middle portion is draggy to the point of repetition, but it is tolerable, if only to wait for the awe-inspiring closing portions. It is this part that speaks to me in all counter-pitches of tenderness.

It is revealed that the creatures who "just split in two" are humanity today, "the sad story" of us "lonely two-legged creatures" who are deprived of our other halves, circumstances begetting the search for the One. In the same manner at that time, in a new country with totally unfamiliar surroundings, I feel a tangible void within, searching for a companion to make sense of it.

As Hedwig mouths the heartbreaking "So we wrapped our arms around each other / Trying to shove ourselves back together / We were making love," I came to a realization, the line echoing in the process of month upon month, that I was a polymorphous pervert. As I searched for myself, my heterosexuality was slipping from my loosening grasp. I badly needed to intertwine with another body and soul, gender constraints be damned. I wanted to taste sweat and be reassured that I am loved as I am capable to love. I wanted to be whole, to be holy. My libido was contorted by the forces of emptiness.

The wig is a significant allegory in the Hedwig story. Various characters covet it because it seems like the adornment that transfigures the mundane into magnificence, akin to a magical amulet found in tons of anime, transforming everyday people into extraordinary beings. By wearing the platinum blonde wig, it interpellates the person into the world of glitz and glamour, a transformation into a Marilyn Monroe-like superstar diva.

This concept is encapsulated in the song "Wig in a Box". Hedwig laments that when "the world's a bit amiss" and when life stresses him out, his proposed prescription is to

"Put on some make-up
Turn up the eight-track
I'm pulling the wig down from the shelf
Suddenly I'm this punk rock star of stage and screen
And I ain't never,
I'm never turning back."
He role-plays with so much firm belief that his imaginings of fame and fortune almost concretizes into reality.

Hedwig is following the Queer Eye ideology: embellish the exterior, and the inside will follow suit. And in the same manner, I embraced this philosophy to my own edification.

Carson Kressley was my guru as he led me by the hand in the enhancement of self. Over the last few months of 2003 and most of 2005, I have dropped 15 kg's, went down two waistlines, gave away a bulk of my oversized wardrobe, and bought a whole shitload of clothes with the "Made in Italy tag. The fat, bulbous duckling became a tastefully-accessorized swan. I was growing into the tastemaking fashionista that I knew I would one day become.

My dressing-up for work or play seemed to be a ritual akin to Bruce Wayne morphing into Batman -- meticulously and systematically putting on piece-by-piece of my "costume", usually comprised of vintage tee and jeans, a nice wrist cuff, my golden Havaianas sandals, a funky pair of earrings and my out-of-bed hair. I was a peacock looking for a mate of similar plumage.

It was Sigmund Freud who equated narcissism with homosexuality. He implied that I am in love with my own reflection, even to the point of autoeroticism. In order to fully fulfill my own insatiable vanity, I needed someone similar to me in looks, consummating my sexual desire of self. It is the Ricky Martin complex, if you will. It is the state of the handsome man who is rumored to hang out with other boy-toys even though he could obtain any girl of the planet. He wants himself and he extends that lust to those boy toys like himself

Though Freud's ideas are wonky at best, and always to be taken with a bucketload of salt, but this time round he may have a point. I wanted other beefcakes to take on my maintained prone body. I was good-looking and I wanted other good-looking folks to partake of my goodness. Girls are ugly and scrawny and dull, and they don't deserve me, thank you very much.

In the final line of his classic book Nadja, Andre Breton, father of surrealism, proclaims something that is also well-known to Patti Smith fans from the back cover of Radio Ethiopia: "Beauty will be convulsive or not at all."

It is ironic that my most formative years have been the most recent ones. Perhaps everything that is me has always been innate, because there never had been external circumstances to affect me otherwise. Another hidden element of my sexuality that I unwrapped recently is that the fact that I was interested in imperfection, in brokenness. I was a follower of wabi-sabi. In event of a choice, I always pick the incomplete and the unsavory. Even in my dressing, I have an affinity for deconstructed sports jackets with frayed ends and asymmetrical trims, my hair a tangled mess to complement the whole package of chaos.

Confession time: I would like to cruise, to make love in the backseat of a degraded nicotine-stained car. To me, cheap rough anonymous sex is incredibly alluring, sexual deviance and social transgression the sweetest of forbidden fruit.

I went to a gay bar once, to celebrate my 23rd birthday. It was a lesbian couple or more rather, an ex-couple who brought me there, as they broke up a few weeks before. However, old habits died hard I guess, because they were still rather affectionate. Whilst one of them went dancing with me, her butch partner got picked up by a straight guy since, well, gayness is cool these days. When I went to the toilet, I came across a queue of excited-looking men wearing rubber gloves. Something told me that they weren't just been extra hygienic. When they ask me to join the fun, I fled the scene, simultaneously disgusted and turned on.

I can't bring myself to take the next step I guess. It is like the situation that is reenacted by Scissor Sisters in "Lovers in the Backseat". As they sing "I'll take you to a side street / In the shadows you can touch one another now / And I'll just watch the show", I too, am content to be only a voyeur hiding in the silhouettes for now.

However, in my impudence, I would like to have my cake and eat it at the same time. My psychic explorations of this seedy underworld brought me to Antony and the Johnsons.

The band's music heavily resembles that of my childhood, when I was in my grandparents' house in some small dusty Malaysian town, whiffing incense as I idle the slow days by. In the midst of quietly playing with my cousins in the corner, the blaring music of Taiwanese singers Theresa Teng and Yu-Tien permeated the atmosphere. Lo-fi erhu-laden and keyboard-heavy ditties accompanied the deep mournful voices rendering themes of honey-sweet love and the moon that represents one's heart.

It is the same strain of melancholy that Antony operates in, but this time round, the singer who is taking the reigns has a voice that defies any kind of easy description. He channels an operatic capacity, driving his blues to a new dramatic level of melodious tragedy. With every swinging of his pitch from one gender boundary to the other, he exposes every possible shade of decadence into the light.

If famed lesbian photographer De LaGrace Volcano was the gender terrorist that she proclaims, then Antony would be her quiet jihad warrior compatriot-in-arms.

The opener from the group's latest album, I'm Like a Bird is "Hope There's Someone", one of the tracks that has pricked my heart of hearts, causing me to bleed. I remembered hearing it for the very first time in the dank confines of a cybercafé through my headphones. Falling victim to the enchantment that is the expression of Antony's tortured soul, I cupped my face with my palms, and I wept.

There is such a dense blue tone to the whole song, a HIV-ridden tragicomic melodrama that is imbued with a twisted sense of romanticism. There is a sense of fatalism to the desperate hedonism. It is the cause-and-effect of the poverty for affection, and when one hungers for sex and the embrace that it brings without counting the cost, its momentary satiation can lead to death via AIDS.

"Oh I'm scared of the middle place /Between light and nowhere / I don't want to be the one / Left in there" expresses an angel's voice. Loneliness begets loneliness; as the song plays, I recall the imagery of the album cover of a dying Candy Darling. Suddenly, a wave of despondence washes over me.

Hope there's someone who'll take care of me.

I touch myself, and I explore all available crevices, and then I lunge out to the nearby spectators. Why? Because I covet somebody even if it leads to my own destruction.

When I die, will I go?

Yes, even to the jaws of death itself. Because ennui is simply no alternative.

Hope there's someone who'll set my heart free

Loosen my shackles. Relieve me of the responsibilities of church leadership and shining one's light and leading righteousness lives and hypocrisy and duty, for my heart yearns to beat once again.

Nice to hold when I'm tired

So weary of this entire struggle. Wouldn't someone snuggle me and coo that everything will be okay?

And then, there is the violence.

The song "Fistful of Love" is the sequel to "Cripple and the Starfish", found in the earlier eponymous debut. It starts off innocuously enough -- with the venerable Lou Reed saying," I was lying in my bed last night / Staring at a ceiling full of stars". It is the story of the dreamer lying in his bed. But after that, the song rapidly degenerates into the memories of a domestic squabble that went really, really awry. As Antony sings about the "Memories of your devotion", he masochistically savors the symbols of his violent lover's attention, where every bruise, scar and wound seems like marks of foreplay.

My relationship with life is a sado-masochistic one. My relationship with God is a sado-masochistic one. We struggle and tussle and often I'm left with a limp and a dislocated hip. We quarrel over the trivial and the monumental, from life choices to rejected girlfriends to careers paths to Christian monkeys to chastity and we often come to blows. Most of the time, I lose and I remain faithful to my Lord.

Thus, sometimes I throw tantrums and I want to misbehave, to submit to the delicious temptations that are always somehow kept at bay. Antony continues to seduce, and I want to make love to aches and pain, plunging into the glory hole of unfound identities and unstable emotions. Truly, swaying to wanton lickings and fingerings and limbs and orifices without the burden of gender is the most intimate form of union ever. After all, the body is not accustomed to stimulation this heightened, and the highs create junkies that in turn create sluts.

Fistful of love. Fist inside me.

Having said all that, no matter how tempted I feel, I refuse to identify myself with GLBT community. Mind you, it is not because I'm in denial, but I would be irresponsible in labeling myself gay or bi when my desires are not as clear-cut a need as to fuck other men. In fact, if all the salacious experimentations were whittled down to its very essence, I don't so much need a cock as I need some essential side of me fulfilled. My interests and even my career path are stereotypically queer. I love Pedro Almodovar, am a gourmet cook, and work in the fashion industry. And yet, as author Mark Simpson, originator of the term "metrosexuality" quips, "buggery does not make you innately tasteful."

Thus the main crisis lies in this: When does Queer Eye end and queer life begin?

Well, maybe the direction of pop culture has provided me the means to elude the question. Two years ago was the rise of the metrosexual, that infamous term that gives license to vain males to pamper themselves as much as their female counterparts. Then this year, the New York Times reported on the Gay Vague phenomenon, where the existing notion of the feminized straight man is taken the next step, where the tell-tale signs of differentiating someone's sexuality are no longer effective. Furthermore, the modern male doesn't mind remaining ambiguous even as he sets off all kind of faulty gay-dars.

To eschew any convenient deus ex machina, I will label myself as a metrosexual who keeps his options open, and who probably won't explore them because of the fundamentalist principles that still bind me. Perhaps, all my histrionics are but a roundabout way of discovering the way my heart beats, the manner in which I tick. Christian author Gil Bailie says, "Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

Indeed, it is both Hedwig and Antony, surrounding me in a not-quite-manwich, that has made me come alive.

Hedwig and Antony are obsessed with freedom, the liberty to be true to themselves. In my case, I too, want to be free. Free to be me in all my creative sensitive feminine glory. Free to be needy, weak, and vulnerable. Free to desire being dominated as I am called to subdue the earth. Free to find myself not in church traditions or societal expectations but on my own terms.

In of the closing tracks of I Am a Bird Now, Antony's ally, the Japanese albino hermaphrodite Julia Yasuda performed an amazing rendition of a North American Slaves' spiritual gospel chant. Named "Free at Last", the second verse goes something like this:

"On my knees when the light pass'd by
I thank God I'm free at last
Tho't my soul would rise and fly
I thank God I'm free at last."

I'm learning to fly. I'm taking off and soaring. And one day, I will break though the clouds of societal structure and religious fundamentalism. To make sense of it all

I will be free at last.

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