Interview: Bird la Bird
- Published: 06 December 2009
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Bird Club is a London-based performance evening dedicated to celebrating queer femininity in all its forms. Bird Club was created by Bird la Bird and Maria Rosa Young in May 2006. Since then it’s gone from strength to strength, with Bird flying to Sydney last month to hold Bird Club Down Under. While there, she spoke with Katrina Fox.
You are featured in the book Femmes of Power and you talk about experimenting with how to use the word ‘bird’ on feminist terms. Say more about this.
I was interested in the connections between feminine people and birds as in the feathered variety. I wanted to try to reclaim the word. In some ways the project has failed because there isn’t a group of feminine queers in the UK now calling themselves birds because of Bird Club but I hope it’s offered another term and got people to think about femme in a different way. When people google bird club, every other link is to a bird watching club. It’s totally camp.
During your visit to Sydney, Australia, you did Bird Club Down Under with a Save the Butch theme. Save them from what?
I always thought of many of the butch dykes as being as pandas, so I played with the animal metaphor on the flyer. I had the idea of butch dykes fleeing at the slightest sign of attention so I guess the panda with the WWF logo as a butch dyke was there before I got the strapline.
What I wanted to do with the campaign in a serious way is highlight the misogyny that masculine women face all the time, so to save the butch is to save them from harassment, especially at work or young tomboys at school. It’s ironic too but using humour and satire about something that isn’t funny.
Some people have said in the queer community there’s a double standard for the support of trans women and trans men, the latter being revered while the former not so. What’s your experience of this?
I think you’re absolutely right. When I read The Whipping Girl by Julia Serano, I have to say that’s one of the best feminist texts I’ve read in years and because my background comes from butch femme culture, there may have been the odd trans woman in those spaces.
I read that book at the same time I was working with Trans Pride in London and started to educate myself about trans women’s rights instead of trans men’s rights. One of the good things that’s come out of [British journalist] Julie Bindel’s journalism is that it’s galvanised dykes – ‘cis’ (non-trans) dykes to say no, not all of us are trans women bashers.
What Julia Serano did – giving butch femme culture a kick up the arse was really fantastic and certainly I think trans women are very much marginalised in women’s spaces. Diva magazine has got a lot better than it was, with more trans articles, but there’s still not much acceptance in overall mingling.
What’s been your experience of trans men?
I’ve had long love affairs with trans men or men who were just about to transition. I’m bisexual and every now and again I shag cis guys. I’m more interested in whether someone is against the patriarchy and a lot of trans men are feminist. Some people think that as soon as someone wants to transition they are not a feminist anymore or a puppet of the patriarchy.
What are your thoughts on labels?
I think they’re great. [Laughs] Westwood is my favourite! I think labels are great, as long as you are in control of the label and they are not in control of you. I think they are fun. I’m not saying it in general and it’s not everyone’s experience but if you can make the labels work for you and have as many as you want, that’s great. Beyond that, we have got a bit too precious about identity politics and one of the reasons for Bird Club is to shake that up a bit and get away from it. It gets to be too much navel gazing and victimhood and divide and rule politics.
How is Bird Club different to other lesbian or queer spaces?
As far as I know the club is the first ever performance night that promotes queer femininity. I don’t believe in being pedantic. When I first started it, it was all queer lady entertainment, now it’s almost changed to where I want every performance to engage with femininity. Most of the people who do this enjoy their own femininity, whether they are a drag queen or a femme, and I don’t think that’s ever been done and it’s why people are coming to it. It’s got the right mix of surreal and politics. I’m really into music and I try really hard to make sure the music is unusual - the DJs are not going to play cheese and that helps too. It was right time, right place for Bird Club.
You’re a proud feminist performer – one of your acts is playing Birdie Solanas, mother of Valerie Solanas. Feminism has a bit of a bad rap – what can we do to bring it back into fashion?
I’m quite happy with the label feminist and I’m also happy not to use it. I don’t feel any attachment to it because I’m more interested in the politics. I’ve been really fortunate over the years to have met some engaged, switched-on young women in Hackney in London who don’t necessarily use the same labels as I do to be political so I think it’s more about what young women do rather than what label they use.
I think also that feminism scored loads of own goals. One of the amazing things about the femme thing for me is it’s suddenly politicized femininity. If you look at old-school feminist view of femininity – it was the enemy – the politicising’s been going on for year with performers like Lois Weaver who were pioneers. Now there are more people who are wanting to explore feminism and femininity without seeing them as you can only have one or the other.
Yes, yes. It’s not going to be a choice for everyone but I think for young women it’s potentially something quite exciting for them. I think also a lot of the femme movement is against competitiveness and from what I’ve experienced of it, it’s not judging people whether they are feminine or not.
One of Birdie Solanas’s manifestos is the Society for Cutting Up Couples. You don’t seem to be a big fan of couples!
I'm not! [Laughs] I’m just bitter really! It’s because I can’t get a boifriend.
So if you got in a relationship, would you cut up the manifesto?
Definitely! I’d cut up the manifesto and eat me pizza off it and stay in on a Saturday night watching Pop Idol. Hopefully that will happen to me so I’ll have to get a knife and fork and eat my own words.
Although on a serious note, as a single person I have felt marginalised because of the dominance of coupledom. I’m bisexual now but spent most of my adult life living as a dyke and very often you’d go into dyke spaces and you’d be the only one who’s single and you’d be seen as predatory or mad or not really a lesbian. It’s really fucking tough.
And a lot of my friends who are single, all of us have struggled with depression and loneliness. There’s incredible pressure in the queer community to be part of a couple and it can make you feel really inadequate. I wanted to find a space to talk about loneliness that wasn’t about feeling sorry for yourself.
I do think the notion of the couple, the hegemony, the ideology – I want to see that cut to tiny pieces. I want to see all privilege taken away from it, I want to see the end of all this gay marriage. Let’s have marriage for no one. Marriage is a patriarchal institution so why can’t we get rid of it and come up with something more interesting.
What about from an equal rights perspective?
What about my rights? Get rid of it for everyone. Start off with heterosexual marriage and get rid of that first. I’ve got no access to any of that stuff I’d have if I had a partner and we got married, and millions of other single people don’t either, so I think throw the whole thing in the bin. It’s assimilation too.
Tell me about your affinity with animals.
I do deserve to get punched in the nose because I’m ashamed to say I still eat meat but it is in my life plan to give it up. The excuse I’m using is I don’t have a boifriend!
Right, I’m now going to be on a mission to find you a vegan boifriend!
Please do! I’d love a nice vegan boifriend. I’ve been in love with a few vegans in my time but they haven’t loved me because I’ve been a filthy meat-eating scuz.
What about the symbolism of animals in your performance?
I do feel an affinity with animals. I’m into anthromorphism and the whole bird thing. When you look at any culture there’s always been connection between humans and animals. I find animals very comical as well.
What particularly drew you to birds?
It was Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus. Then I was dating someone who started calling me bird. Unfortunately she was a bloody swine [sic] in our private life so I don’t credit her…yeah, she was calling me bird and the name stuck. Also my mum really likes birds so we have this thing in common. So I tried to unpack why there is this relationship between femininity and birds. I see it as an ongoing project. The
You’re also interested in race politics?
Yes, I’m looking at how someone like me as a white promoter and performer can start to make spaces more inclusive. I agree that we should have more confrontational attitudes towards racism, and I’m not trying to say I’m not racist because we all are; it’s an ongoing journey but we’ve got to start dealing with.
There’s class too. The term ‘bird’ and regional accents – I remember when you couldn’t work for the BBC unless you spoke the ‘Queen’s English’ in a posh accent.
The journalist Janet Street Porter described her parents as being improvers because they were working-class but had a huge emphasis on education. My parents worked hard to give us a good education and I really value them for that. They stepped outside of their class in a lot of ways.
The problem in Britain is the class divide is growing constantly. We’ve cut off education. When I was 18 I left home and went to art college on a full grant. Me now, I wouldn’t be able to do that. Then there’s the whole chav thing and the vitriolic hatred of the working-class or the lower working-class or the not-working working-class – it’s massive. It needs to be dealt with but it’s not seen as trendy and one of the things you shouldn’t do as an artist is worry about what’s trendy and what isn’t.
What’s next for Bird La Bird?
Performing in Sydney was one of the biggest things I’ve done in my life and I’d like to take Bird Club to other places. There will be six Bird Clubs a year as a basis, plus hopefully some more events outside that.
Images: Top: From Holding Court with Shanti Freed in London by Lord Leng. Middle: Bird Club Down Under: Save the Butch night in Sydney, with Kelli Jean Drinkwater and Ulrika Dahl (right). Photo by Sara Davidmann.