Vitriol can be put to positive effect — if you know how

Doug Wright, Ian Chapman and Pania Simmonds perform during a 26-show tour of New Zealand. Photo:...
Doug Wright, Ian Chapman and Pania Simmonds perform during a 26-show tour of New Zealand. Photo: Brian Blanchard
I recently found myself staring unexpectedly into something ugly: the face of bigoted intolerance. I’ll provide some context ...

My band has just completed a five-week, 26-show tour of Aotearoa. "Ian Chapman’s Cosmic Jive Trio present David Bowie and the Art of Being Different’’ featured myself, Pania Simmonds (bass) and Doug Wright (keys) and our travels spanned Coromandel township to Rakiura Stewart Island.

In conjunction with Arts on Tour which specialises in taking acts to small towns and beyond, ours was an "Edu-tainment" show. That is, in addition to performing well-known and more obscure songs by Bowie, I gave a talk — providing contextual information etc. The educational base was drawn from the Bowie paper I founded at Otago University, while my primary intention was to showcase and promote Bowie-esque empowerment for those who feel marginalised, estranged, alienated etc, for whatever reason under the sun. In Bowie’s hands — particularly during his groundbreaking 1970s era as Ziggy Stardust when he was so completely and bravely different to everything/everyone around him — standing out and being different became a powerful positive instead of a damaging negative. What an empowering blueprint for the youth of the day! For an androgynous small boy like me, just entering my teens at the time, Bowie exhibited a very different and fluid masculinity that gloriously freed me from a societal straitjacket. Yes, I knew I was different. But now my difference was worn with pride, not shame.

Our tour went great. Five privileged weeks on the road visiting the nation’s heartland and performing to wonderful people. We returned to Dunedin last week happy and tired. So what could possibly have clouded this experience?

"Have you had a look at yourself?" At first glance, written down, these seven words perhaps seem innocuous. But when they are spat at you with a look of disgust intended to make you ashamed of everything that you are, they become anything but. Excuse me? Is this 2021 or is it 1973? Back when I was that androgynous arty 13-year-old boy in 1973, suffering through the third form (year 9) of a sports-mad all boys high school in Hamilton, I got well used to "the look".

The bullies and the bigots had it down pat. So I unmistakably know it when I see it. Sidenote: During my hugely enjoyable tenure as Dunedin’s "Dr Glam’’ (circa 2008-2015) — a fictitious over-the-top androgynous glam rock star — I never saw "the look" directed my way. Not even once. Remarkable. Such progress.

But with Dr Glam now long cooled in his grave, let’s jump back to our just-completed viva la difference David Bowie tour. Often, I would perform the first half of the show with no makeup, and then at the interval I’d apply lipstick and nail polish (eye-liner now and then). In part I was making a Bowie visual statement in keeping with the show. But I also just like doing it.

During the show’s interval in a small North Island town, a man approximately my own age entered the kitchen (aka green room) of the country hall in which we were playing. The band and I had changed into our second-half costumes and I was now made up. The man and I came face to face. I smiled at him. The social nicety was not returned. Instead, looking me full in the eye, he spat, "Have you had a look at yourself?" So taken aback was I, I said nothing as the smile froze on my face. His exit ended the exchange. My band and I looked at each other in shock.

I’ve been thinking about this incident a lot since then. I’m a happy, healthy 61-year-old cisgender man fully at ease with who/what he is. Far from scarring me, this man’s fear-ridden vitriol had the opposite effect in that he completely reinforced in my mind why it is that I do what I do. But what if I’d been a young person full of uncertainty and confusion, lacking self esteem and vulnerable to such attacks? How completely wrong (and dangerous) of this man to act in such a way.

On the very day I’m relating this, the ODT reported on its front page that there is a groundswell of support for Dudley Benson’s proposal for a Rainbow Barnes Dance crossing in Dunedin. How wonderful. In 2021 this really is us now, isn’t it? It’s surely anything but the story I’ve relayed above.

To anyone of any age: if someone confronts you with such bigoted, intolerant aggression about the way that you choose to present yourself to the world, I’d love you to give the response that I SO wish I’d had the quick-thinking presence of mind to say:

"Have you had a look at yourself?"

"Yes. I have. And I really like what I see!"

  • Dr Ian Chapman (aka Dr Glam) is a musician, author, and senior lecturer in music in the School of Performing Arts, University of Otago

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