THE ELECTRIC CHAIRS,
Jayne County is a trans-trendsetter, wonder woman and punk rock superstar who fought her way to fame, all the while receiving worldwide recognition for progressing LGBTQ rights.
An original New York City off-off-Broadway actress, Jayne was performing in Andy Warhol’s Pork in 1971 when David Bowie first saw her. He approached her and the cast of Pork for his Ziggy Stardust Management Company, MainMan. When Jayne was with MainMan, she claims, her ideas were “stolen, whitewashed” and repacked as Bowie himself. Because of Jayne’s past connection to MainMan, her career was stalled.
Knowing she was barely legal because of her existence, Jayne threw her near-defeat aside, and in 1974 re-emerged as a punk rock sensation. Her later band, the Electric Chairs, toured the Europe with future platinum-selling artist Sting and the Police were her backing band for her 1977 Holland tour.
Jayne was born in Dallas, Georgia on July 13, 1947.
Jayne: I grew up in the Deep South; nobody knew nothing. People were really dumb and ignorant and all that stuff. There was no gay community. I don't know why, but it was really underground. You could be arrested at the drop of a hat. You couldn't even dance together—you’d be arrested. The law was if your hair touched the top of your ears, you could be arrested for transvestism. It was called female impersonation. If you were considered male and your hair touched the top of your ears, they would arrest you.
August: Wow. Everywhere or just Georgia?
Jayne: Everywhere. It was the law.
August: Were there any more gay people at your school that you knew of? Did you know you were gay?
Jayne: There were, but nobody knew they were gay. No one knew they were gay. This is going back to the early '60s and things. I was a little kid in school in the '50s, and I was a teenager in the early '60s. There wasn't much written anywhere about gay or trans or bi or anything. We didn't know anything about drag. We didn't know anything about anything. We'd just hear stories in secret about these weird freaky people who did this and that.
Nobody knew what a queer was. A queer back then we thought—if somebody said, "That person's a queer"—a queer was just a horrible old man who wore a raincoat and tried to molest little kids in the schoolyard. That's how we knew a queer was. We didn't know about culture or bars or anything like that. In my later teens, I discovered the whole subculture, the bars, and the drag and the whole bit, of course.
When she was 18 years old, Jayne moved to Atlanta, where she found a greater community of queer folk and began to experiment with drag.
Jayne: A lot of the queens went semi-drag because it was illegal to be in full drag. Some of them did the full drag and took the chance—they could be arrested. A lot of the queens didn't do the full drag. The law was that you had to have on at least three pieces of male clothing. If you had on makeup and all that, you had to have on male underwear or a male shirt, something like that.
If you put women's clothes over the male clothes and had three pieces of male clothing on, they couldn't arrest you. The laws were crazy, what they could arrest you for and not. It's hard to imagine, but it's just the way it was. People now do not realize what we had to go through. Every time we left the house, you didn't know what was going to happen.
Even on the street, you had to be really careful. You had to look around you at all times and be really very, very careful of your surroundings or you could be in bad trouble.
I remember me and my friend, Miss Daisy, got picked up by a group of men in a car, and they took us back to their apartment and raped us. They raped her. They didn't fully rape me, the guy couldn't get his thing up it, but it was rape because they were forcing me to do stuff. These four guys took us to their apartment, locked all the doors and everything. We got out by crawling out the bathroom window.
They were straight guys. They were like, "Yes, we're straight. You be a woman, come here faggot. I am going to fuck you," that kind of mentality. They never perceived themselves as gay at all, but you could rape a queen, and you could still be straight, you see.
I called Miss Cox, this other really outrageous queen, and told her, and she said, "Get in the car." She drove right up in their yard, and we all got out, and we took bricks, and we pelted the guys' windshield out with bricks. Then we jumped back in the car screaming and then drove off. We were crazy.
Not long after that, I moved to New York because things were what you call just too heavy, too crazy in Atlanta. I wanted to go to a bigger pond, so to speak. I got on a Greyhound bus and went to New York, went to The Stonewall.
August: Do you remember the first place you went when you got off the bus in New York?
Jayne County: Times Square. Some guy came up to me and offered me $5 for a blowjob and all this kind of stuff. I was shocked. I was like, "Oh, my God."
With her unforgettable look, she became the queen of the scene and a New York fixture. She got involved with Warhol, and she started working for David Bowie's management company, Main Man. One of her outlandish stage productions finally came to life when Main Man decided to produce a Jayne County extravaganza, a one-night-only performance at The Trucks in New York City.
Jayne: There were all these trucks parked side by side near the West Side Peers, and the backs would open, and the queers could go back there, and they would go have sex in the back of the trucks. I thought it would be funny to call my show Wayne at the Trucks.
August: That's so funny.
Jayne: It was satire. A lot of my stuff is satirical. We had big sliding doors, these truck doors that opened up in the back, and people could come in and out of them, but it was shaped like my face, and as I mentioned myself, I came out of my mouth.
When you were looking at the show, I made my entrance through my mouth, but the doors looked like a truck. They were painted on, and then the doors turned around, and it became my face, and I vomited myself out. That's how I made my entrance at the Trucks.
The show was all about sex, and it was fun. It wasn't serious. It wasn't serious sex stuff. It was funny. It was rock and roll with songs like “Stick it in Me,” “I Got the Place if You've Got the Time, Baby,” "You Got to Get Laid to Stay Healthy," I'll fuck you, blah, blah, blah, all of that. It was pre-AIDS. There was no AIDS about and everything. It was about all this free sex everywhere. It was like, "free sex, free sex."
August: What was your biggest goal musically at this point? Getting signed, being a big pop star? Touring?
Jayne: I was trying to get signed, trying to keep on playing. I wanted to make records and get out there and become a pop star. I wanted to become the first drag queen pop star.
August: Did you have any idea that you were—
Jayne: In a lot of ways, I was, but I wasn't able to make the records because I was way in over my head, plus a lot of other reasons as well. A lot of transphobia, of course, and a lot of homophobia because people back then—they thought that was the same thing anyway. You know how it was back then; people were very narrow-minded. It was very rough, but I kept on going. I just kept on. I wouldn't let anyone hold me back. I just kept doing what I did. I never gave up.
After exploring the boundaries of her identity through art, Jayne began to understand that she wasn't just a gay man who liked drag.
Jayne: I had heard about Christine Jorgensen, a soldier who had had a sex change and was very famous because of it. I knew it was possible back then, as a child, but then I didn't think a lot about it. It was always in the back of my head, though. I even remember asking my mother once and said, "Mother, when I get older, will I be able to marry a man?" She went, "Lord, no. You can't marry a man. Men don't get married, blah, blah, blah, to each other, blah, blah, blah.”
When I was a little boy, I wanted—I always wanted to marry a man as a little girl because I wanted to dress up like a little girl and marry a man. My mother was shocked.
August: When did you think it was possible for yourself? How old were you?
Jayne: Not until around—I was working for Rock Scene magazine around '72, '73, or was it '74?—mid-’70s because then the knowledge about transition—we didn't use that word back then, it was called getting a sex change. It was more because of articles and TV shows and everything, people knew more about it. I read this book about a transsexual cop, Canary Conn, and she was in the music business, and she transitioned. She got her sex change. I use the old term sex change because it was back then.
She was in the music business, she transitioned, got a sex change, and I read the book, and her book hit home with me. I realized I wanted to start transitioning. I started taking hormones about 1976, but before that, I just would dress up and everything, but I never had thought about taking hormones. Then I became really serious with it around 1976 and went to a doctor. She started me off on pills, the estrogen, and then they started me on the blockers and then started shocks and things.
Then I got as far as having a full sex change, but I couldn't have the full sex change because I have a problem down there with my prostate and all that kind of stuff down there. The doctor told me that there was a good chance of me losing all feeling and everything down in that area. She said it was very dangerous for me, so I couldn't get the full sex change. She recommended me to continue the hormones and living as a woman, but without getting the surgery down there.
August: Everything I read now about you, it's a whole different branding of you as a cultural icon. They say you changed the world, but during the time did people—
Jayne: Oh, please.
August: Did you talk about it?
Jayne: I just was myself, just became myself. I had a platform of me being me, I just lived as me as I wanted—my message and my message to other people who wanted to either transition or who wanted to do whatever they wanted to do with their life, not to be afraid to do it, go ahead to do it. I wanted to let people know that they don't have to hide themselves. Come out, and speak like you are.
If you feel you are a woman, and if you want to have a full sex change, do that, but it feel you're just half woman, that's okay too. If you're not really sure, that's okay. If you want to just be a little bit of both, that's okay. You're not obligated, no one's forcing you or putting a gun to your head saying, "Okay, you tranny, you've got to get it…," excuse my English, "you got to get it chopped off. You're trans, so we're taking it off. You got to." That's stupid. You don't got to. You can be who you are.
August: I know you said you didn't think that you necessarily were performing gay liberation or anything like that, but do you recognize that you—what you were doing would help the generations coming?
Jayne: Oh, yes, I did, I had a recognition of all that. I didn't know how much because I couldn't look—I used to look ahead. I used to talk to Jamie Andrews, who used to work for MainMan too, and I told him, I said, "The day will come when it will be just totally normal for guys to wear makeup or guys to be half female or for trans people." I said, "The day will come when we'll have TV shows, or guys will show up with a trans date or whatever. It will be no big deal. The day is coming when that will just be."
Then Jamie said, "We'll never see the day when they'll just accept guys with totally made-up faces and all."
I said, "Yes, it will," and it is now. People blur the sexes. I always wanted to blur the sexes. That's why I did my thing called a gender bender, genderfuck. I like the idea of blurring the sexes. I like the idea of androgyny most of anything. I like that, blurring the sexes, not really male and not really female. Something new, something different, something that is.
The above interview was previously featured in the QueerCore Podcast. Text and research by August Bernadicou and Chris Coats.