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Jayne County, Man Enough To Be A Woman
Wayne County and the Electric Chairs – press photoCourtesy of Jayne County and Serpent’s Tail

Jayne County: the wild life of the trans punk-glam performance artist

Man Enough To Be A Woman is a memoir of County’s extraordinary life – from Warhol’s Factory to shocking acts that scandalised New York’s avant-garde LGBTQ scene

“If you stay alive long enough, people eventually catch up,” writes pioneering trans punk performance artist Jayne County. Her revealing memoir Man Enough To Be A Woman (re-issued this week and published by Serpent’s Tail) moves through the most exciting counter-cultural scenes in the 20th century. Her extraordinary and outrageous life follows the arc of LGBTQ+ liberation in the US, taking in encounters with the likes of David Bowie, Derek Jarman, Debbie Harry, RuPaul, Marsha P. Johnson, the New York Dolls, and Leigh Bowery

Born the son of working class parents in Georgia back in 1947, County’s story traces her exploits from the conservative Deep South – where she raised eyebrows by experimenting with make-up and wearing lipstick to her graduation – to the heart of Warhol’s New York art glitterati, the epicentre of glam rock, punk, and beyond. 

After escaping to New York and arriving in the city absolutely destitute, she managed to eventually find an apartment with two drag queens, Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn (who would both later be immortalised in Lou Reed’s hymn to transvestitism, “Walk on the Wild Side”). Inevitably, she was quickly drawn into the orbit of Andy Warhol, who cast her as a character called Vulva Lips in his play Pork. According to legend, when the production opened at the London Roundhouse in 1971, the scandalised reviews caught the eye of young David Bowie who was in the throes of creating Ziggy Stardust. 

Her band, Queen Elizabeth, was soon signed to Bowie’s management company, Mainman. But they were quickly at a loss as how to handle their outrageous new signing. Too shocking for even the avant-garde, County’s performances involved licking dildos and pretending to defecate (using dog food as faeces). 

As glam gave way to punk, County found a more accepting audience in the British scene. Her new musical outfit, The Electric Chairs, aligned with the more aggressive manifestation of punk emerging across the Atlantic. “It was more of a show, more visual. In London, they accepted me – the first time I played the Roxy, it was a mob scene, literally lines around the block,” she told The Guardian. “You were expected to be not just on the edge, but over the top, so it was a great space for me to do what I did, to get all the attention I needed. It was unbelievable.”

The book is expansive, taking in County’s time working as a sex worker in Berlin, as well as her more mellow (but nonetheless fascinating) later years making art and taking care of her ageing parents back in her hometown. Other highlights include County performing her song “You Gotta Get Laid to Stay Healthy (And I’m the Healthiest Girl in Town)” whilst wearing a dress made of condoms, and breaking her own bandmate’s shoulder with a microphone stand live on stage in response to a homophobic slur. Man Enough To Be A Woman fulfils its promise as an enthralling, riotous memoir by a truly radical individual.

Take a look through the gallery above for glimpses of Jayne County’s exploits. 

Man Enough To Be A Woman is published by Serpent’s Tail and available from May 20 here