The Badass Punk Life of Kay Turner

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Kay Turner in a performance promotion for the What a Witch performance series (photo collage by Vanessa Haney, all images courtesy the artist)

This article is part of Hyperallergic’s 2024 Pride Month series, featuring interviews with art-world queer and trans elders throughout June.

This week, 75-year-old artist and scholar Kay Turner will take the stage at Brooklyn’s Branded Saloon with her feminist-lesbian punk band Kay Turn Her and the Pages in a “gray gay pride” celebration. Throughout the decades, Turner and her bandmates have donned and distributed merch including pins that read “More Madonna, Less Jesus” (one of her original songs) and t-shirts with the phrase “vintage lesbian.”

Turner formed her first band in 1972, but her performances extend beyond songwriting and often intersect with her other pursuit — the study of folklore. The artist, who holds a PhD in folklore and anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin, has worked as a professor, authored several books, and served as folklorist for the borough of Brooklyn and president of the American Folklore Society. Her varied and interconnected interests began to develop in childhood, when she discovered music, ritual, and writing as a means to understand the unshakeable feeling of being different. Over Zoom, Turner delved into one of her favorite songs, what it means to be a “reader of Madonna,” and the ever-changing world of academia. Below is a condensed version of our conversation.

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Hyperallergic: Each article in this series profiles a queer elder. Some people haven’t been responding particularly well to the term “elder.”

Kay Turner: I know, I’m not. But I think it’s worth talking about.

H: Well, that seems like a good place to start.

KT: My gripe with the idea of being an elder as it’s put into the public realm — not just for queers — is that it tends to categorize older people and lock us in a silo that says elderliness has to have certain qualities. It has to have a certain vaunted purpose. I think that’s a bit problematic. It smacks of AARP and is just a way of trying to recast the aging process in a more palatable light, but the aging process has a lot of positive and a lot of negative. The term “elder” doesn’t cover it well.

Honestly, I prefer “magnificent hag.” I think hags have a certain degree of anger that we’ve carried with us from the very beginning, from being activists in the LGBTQIA+ world out of which we came.

H: What was it like to come out in that world?

KT: I came out in 1970. I was at Douglass College, which was the women’s college at Rutgers. When Stonewall happened, I was so in the closet that I couldn’t even believe it had actually been a reality. It seemed unbelievable to me because I had mounted a campaign against my own lesbianism. Not that I wasn’t expressive as a lesbian; I just wasn’t committed to having everyone know about it.

There’s a place of shame that develops very early surrounding being different, sensing your own difference, and then not really knowing what to do with it. The positive side of that for me was that I did music, I did rituals, and I wrote as a kid. Those are still the things I do, and I’m 75 now. The arc of our lives is very, very long, and being queer is an amazing way to see the potential of what your life can really be about. I’m a real proselytizer — get with your queer self, you know?

H: Were there people in those early years who you saw as mentors?

KT: I was very much a part of the early second-wave feminism and early gay liberation movements, so my mentors were the people I knew and worked with at the time. I had an early band called The Oral Tradition, founded in 1972. It was a group of friends from college. We were the original pronoun switchers: We did Motown and Beach Boys songs and things like that, but all with a lesbian inflection. That was one of the very first performative aspects of being a lesbian that I did. What was interesting about those early years is simply that everybody made stuff up as they went along. There wasn’t a backdrop to anything we did.

H: What other bands have you been a part of?

KT: After The Oral Tradition, I continued doing different kinds of performance work and founded a lesbian rock punk band called Girls in the Nose, active from 1985 till 1996. We still do shows. After I retired from full-time work in New York City, we started up the band again and did some touring. It was really fun.

Now I have a new band called Kay Turn Her and the Pages with guitarist Viva DeConcini and bassist Mary Feaster. We went into the studio in April and were just there the other day mixing our album that’s coming out in the fall.

H: What was the experience of recording the new album like, and what kinds of songs are on it?

KT: It was great. I’ve known my bandmates for a long time. We used to do one-off Girls in the Nose shows together in Brooklyn when I moved here in 1998. I came to them in 2012 to do a project called Otherwise: Queer Scholarship Into Song, which turned into a seven-year project that went on until COVID. I was teaching at NYU, and I turned the writings of various colleagues of mine into lyrics.

After COVID, I just felt like I was getting older. I decided I wanted to do a songbook band that would perform songs I’d written or co-written since Oral Tradition. We have new material, but we also do songs from Girls in the Nose and Snaggletooth, a little duet band I had with Carolyn Dinshaw. We do a cover of The Rolling Stones’s “Beast of Burden,” which I call the “Butch’s Burden.”

H: Do you have a favorite song you’ve written?

KT: One of my favorites is “More Madonna, Less Jesus.” I was — and still am — a huge Madonna fan. I wrote a book called I Dream of Madonna back in the early ’90s, and I wrote this song for Girls in the Nose. It references Madonna, the pop star, and the Virgin.

I was writing my dissertation on Mexican-American women’s home altars, so I was studying the Virgin — Guadalupe and La Virgen and other manifestations that women in South Texas had on their home altars — but I kept dreaming about Madonna, the pop star. When Girls in the Nose had shows, as part of just the stage patter, I would say I’d had another dream about Madonna and tell my most recent dream. Then women started coming up to me after the shows saying, “I’ve been dreaming about Madonna, too.” So I started keeping a little notebook and writing it down, and eventually that became a book.

The thing about Madonna is her queerness and her acceptance of queers as a straight woman. That was her and those were her friends. There was a lot to read into her music: I was a huge reader of Madonna. It’s not surprising that I started dreaming of her. The song kind of came out of that five- or six-year period of my life. I’ve sung it for 25 or 30 years, and I still love singing that song.

H: How did you become interested in folklore?

KT: I had come out of the Presbyterian church in Detroit, where I was born and raised. I had thought at one point that I was going to be a preacher, so I took my preacher ways and moved them in a different direction. I wound up getting very interested in goddess religion. I did a long trip with Nancy, my girlfriend at the time, to trace the biography of a Mayan moon goddess who had been worshiped in Southern Mexico. We were gone for a year just gathering information and putting fragments together about this very widely revered and venerated goddess who always appeared in the footnotes but was never in the body text. Reclamation was a real impetus. There was also a political impetus in terms of scholarship and building the culture. I look back on that time as my contribution, along with the contributions of so many other people, to the building of lesbian culture.

As a result of that trip, I started a journal of art and goddesses called Lady-Unique-Inclination-of-the-Night and published lots of people, including Mary Beth Edelson, Harmony Hammond, Donna Dennis, and Olga Brooms.

There was so much of that kind of radical publishing happening. As a result of Lady-Unique and my travels with Nancy to Mexico and Guatemala, I became very interested in folklore and wound up going to the University of Texas (UT) to get a PhD in it.

H: How has the field of folklore changed since you first entered it?

KT: It’s changed enormously. It was male-dominated when I went to graduate school at UT Austin in 1977: It was an all-male faculty except for one woman. The big issue in academia and folklore that I can speak to is around male dominance over time.

At the end of the ’80s, I started a croning ceremony for women over 50 in our discipline. It’s a mock ritual. It makes use of features of folklore and inverts and plays on different kinds of festivals, fairy tales, etc. I started as a total joke, but it became this other thing, even though it’s still very funny. People can’t wait to turn 50. All the reference points are in-group, but it became a very important organizing focus for women. The American Folklore Society, like lots of academic societies, has interest groups, and there’s a women’s section.

I’ve done things that are subversive within the academic life that was proposed to me in the ’70s. I did my part. A lot of other women have done their part as well, so that now women are in many more positions of leadership across the field.

I would say it took some time for queer culture to enter the field, but in the late ’80s, there were a few folklorists who started working on gay culture as folk culture. Joe Goodwin and Mickey Weems — they saw the light. As younger people have come into the discipline, especially over the past 20 years, it’s really been happening. It’s been slow.

H: You mentioned entering the literary world at a time when it was producing radical texts. How has that continued? And how have you seen your place in the art world shift alongside your place in publishing?

KT: There’s been such an evolution from feminist theory to lesbian feminist theory to Queer Nation in the ’90s, to the beginnings of queer theory in the mid to late ’90s, carrying forward into a very rich period from about 2000 until about 2015 when there was so much amazing queer theory written. It fit so nicely into post-structuralism, post-colonial theory, and various other theoretical concerns — it was tearing down a lot of preconceived material. By 2012, you started to see queer theory wrapping around trans theory, and a lot of theory coming specifically from scholars of color. It’s continued to evolve. It has a creative trajectory we can’t predict. Coming back to our early discussion about the term “elder” — the classificatory impulse in humans is very strong. We have to really be on the lookout for the ways in which classification locks people into particular positions that they then can’t move from.

The way the art world intersects with that has been really interesting. I think the art world was at one point way behind where the theory was taking a lot of artists and performers. But I think the art world has caught up as more and more artists have started identifying as LGBTQ. I think the influence that queer people have on the art world is much more profound now because it’s much more pervasive.

H: What does Pride Month mean to you?

KT: Pride month is just my happiest month of the year. There’s just something about it. I was at some of the early parades in the ’70s. They were so crazy. For me, I recapture some of that feeling of gay liberation having a real meaning and it was not just a catchphrase. Those early parades and marches were really about showing yourself to the world in your body and in a way that was profound for me.

June is a boon to gay culture everywhere: It just feels really good. As Heather Love says in her book Feeling Backward (2009), the celebration can be toxic if you’re not carrying the shame that nurtured it with you. For those of us who are older — the magnificent hags — we carry a certain shame into celebration that is very energizing.

H: Is there anything else you’re excited about working on?

KT: My upcoming record with Kay Turner and the Pages has been occupying quite a bit of my time, but I also have a project called “What a Witch.” It’s a deconstruction of the witch figure in performance. I’ve been working with a number of artists on it including sculptor Elizabeth Insogna and photographer Zini Larieri. It’s a continuation of my 2021 book with Lardieri called What the Witch’s Nose Knows That Andy Warhol’s Nose Doesn’t Know, based on a performance about the exploration of the witch’s nose. I slowly put her together by exploring her powers through her physical attributes.

I’m also in the process of putting together my archive for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. It’s in my storage in Austin, which I haven’t really looked at in 25 years. I’ve been thinking, “What are these? What’s this box? What’s that?” It’s just my collection of journals done in the ’70s and early ’80s. They’re so obscure but so fantastic.

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