Portrait

There are a few surprises in store before the lights go down on Buck Angel at the Spiegeltent. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Transgender porn pioneer Buck Angel at my table

His taut biceps strain tightly against the dark sleeves of his T-shirt. Tattooed blue-black patterns climb down from somewhere that might be his shoulders, spreading from his upper arms to his elbows then circling down to his wrists. In the twin lower throat concaves where clavicle meets neck bone, two small dragon heads rear up out of the neck of his T-shirt, facing off against each other. Much later, I will be privy to the rest of these creatures, etched into the abs beneath his shirt.

Buck Angel’s closely shaven head betrays a fair, but weathered, complexion. His clipped, faded-terracotta moustache thins out into a medium-sparse goatee. He looks like the kind of hard-edged bloke you might meet swaggering out of a steakhouse somewhere in the deep American South: sated on a monster meat cut, toothpick dangling from teeth, bearing arms on his belt and ready to draw them lightning-quick at the slightest sign of trouble. Angel seems superhero-like.

We’re seated in a booth of the soldout Melba Spiegeltent in Collingwood, for the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas’ Woolf & Wilde party, celebrating the end of their first week of queer programming. Angel’s voice is less growly than you’d expect: a lazy American drawl. His handshake is firm but welcoming. Angel has wise, tired eyes that, even if I didn’t already know it to be true, make him look as though he’s lived before, and as though the lives he’s lived before were not altogether kind to him. Angel’s been around a bit. He’s been an outspoken advocate for others like himself, sometimes at great personal cost. Some members of his own community consider him their king. Others are vicious in their criticism, accusing him of exploiting his – and their – identity in the most heinous of ways for personal gain. 

“Can you see properly?” Angel suddenly asks me, concerned. On stage, writer Benjamin Law is spinning retro romance tales about his teenage queer awakening for the soldout crowd. “Yes. I can, thanks.” It’s Angel I’ve got my eyes trained on, hands covertly sketching beneath the table. Angel is a man more watched than most; a man who’s been watched in the most intimate sense of the word; a man who likes to be watched that way; a man whose business it is to be looked at. This is Buck Angel, of Buck Angel Entertainment: the first female-to-male winner of an Adult Video News’ Transsexual Performer of the Year Award. This is Buck Angel, recipient of a 2012 Feminist Porn Award for his groundbreaking documentary Sexing the Transman. This is Buck Angel, star of Even More Bang For Your Buck, and other similar adult entertainment titles.

“This drink tastes funny.” Angel gently pushes the green glass bottle over to me. “Does it have alcohol in it? Can you please check? I don’t drink.” I squint through the darkness to double-check the label, assure him that the taste is just bitters. “Thanks. They said it was non-alcoholic, but y’know …”

Some of the audience members sitting close to us sneak occasional side-glances over at the performer’s table, but Angel seems not to notice. “How’s your time in Australia been?” I ask, during one of the show’s many intervals. “It’s been great. Australians, y’know, they’re really good to me. I’m treated really well here. I’ve had an event every day. The last time I was here I had two events a day. For, like, three whole weeks. It’s amazing. Things are really starting to change here for transgender people, much more so than back home. Even since the last time I was here six months ago.” “Must be tiring as well, though, all the publicity.” “Yeah. You know it,” he smiles, elbows on table. “You do the talk, and you know, I try to give as much as I can when I do an event, and then people want to come up and tell you their stories afterwards. They want to connect, to hug you. Sometimes they cry.” Bodies like Angel’s are not often so publicly celebrated.

“Most of what I do is speaking now. The film projects I’m doing these days are kind of, well, I call them docuporn. They’re documentaries about people transitioning, and their sexual journey in relation to that, but the subjects also interact sexually on camera, with themselves or with other people … It’s documentary making that just happens to have sex in it. People label it porn, though, because we’re so sexphobic. Not just in America, but everywhere. Why is everybody so scared of sex?”

Angel disappears halfway through the packed program of poetry, cabaret, drag, dance and discussion. When the penultimate performer has curtsied out to thunderous applause, the lights dim to black. Music pumps hard and fast. There’s Angel, back to the audience, muscular legs moving his body in time to the music. Perhaps patriotically, he’s wearing a blue and a red mankini stretched one over the other, on top of a white G-string. The enormous elegant cursive tattoo scrawled across his hairy back can be easily misread to read “perfect”, but in actuality it says “pervert”. Every muscle on Angel’s back looks as if it has been chiselled out. When he turns to face the audience, his bulging pecs do not betray any sign of the double mastectomy he underwent all those years ago as part of a program of physical changes to ensure the outer man dancing on stage today matched the inner man he has always been. 

The striptease is testosterone-charged, provocative, slightly tongue-in-cheek. At one point, Buck places his heavy black boots on a waist-high stool and his hands flat on the floor and executes a series of push-ups at a seemingly impossible angle in a gleeful boys-will-be-boys throwdown of physical prowess.

By the time Buck eases the straps of his mankinis from his shoulders and steps out of his packed-at-the crotch white G-string, the audience is screaming to see what most of them know isn’t there. Or perhaps what most of them know is there. Angel holds both hands over his crotch. He lifts one hand above his head teasingly. Puts it back down. Lifts the other hand over his head. He laughs. The audience cheers. Angel finally lifts both hands above his head to reveal the female genitalia he was born with. He stands starkers for about five seconds. The crowd claps and screams, collectively stamps their feet. The lights of the Spiegeltent cut to black.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 28, 2015 as "Angel at my table". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.

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