A little over a week ago, a University of Guelph student union drew international ire for condemning Lou Reed’s 1972 song “Walk on the Wild Side” as transphobic. This occurred after the Central Student Association apologized on social media for playing the song at a campus event. Although this might seem like a minor thing to get upset about (especially in the outrage-saturated age of Donald Trump), and most of the reaction has focused on the historic roots and intent of the song, the controversy is actually a noteworthy reflection of the changes that take place as a social movement — in this case, trans* activism — matures.
This brings to the surface a lot of mixed feelings for me, as a former activist who chose to be visible and vocal at a time before trans* people were taken seriously, let alone had much in the way of public acceptance. “Walk on the Wild Side” was an inclusive part of the subculture; one of the rebellious anthems we rallied around and took pride in.
It shows how profoundly things can change as a marginalized class of people becomes better understood and more enfranchised: even those things that had once been welcome and validating can become sour and invalidating. It also says much about how social movements evolve, and how each generation inevitably repudiates the last, as they seek to distinguish themselves.
It’s a process I came face-to-face with several years ago, while trying to form a trans-specific support organization in Alberta. One of the town hall participants took me aside and tried to impress upon me that in order for the trans* movement to advance, the “dinosaurs” (which included me, apparently) needed to “make way for the new age.” As hurtful as the discussion was, they did have some points that resonated in the years that followed, and ultimately contributed to my decision from withdrawing from trans* activism and (mostly) from writing about trans* issues. Some of the concerns they raised were painfully pragmatic (i.e. needing to have leaders who didn’t bring with them the baggage of bitterness and ill will of having fought the lesbian and gay establishment for inclusion in LGBTQ activism), some insulting (i.e. suggesting that one had to be younger, academic and/or trans-male in order to be an acceptable “face” of trans* activism), but other arguments were the byproduct of recognizing the changing language we use to communicate trans-ness… and the tide of acceptance that was coming with it.
After all, the activism I was accustomed to was a kind of triage, of coping with and trying to educate traditionally hostile medical, governmental and social institutions, while directing people in need to safe, welcoming inroads and pushing those institutions behind the scene to provide better options and opportunities. I’ve often likened the experience to dashing ourselves against the rocks in the hopes of blunting them enough for the next people to come along. But the activism that was quickly becoming needed was more direct — lobbying, legal challenges, public actions — and although I started making some of those changes in what I was doing, there was a danger that by trying to be an intrinsic part of that activism, I might inadvertently hold it back by defaulting to the triage-style efforts I’d been accustomed to. In the end, I realized there was some important truth to this.
My point, of course, is that along with awareness about trans* people, the movement toward trans* human rights is undergoing a generational metamorphosis.
I raise this as a point of language because before a movement can fully coalesce, the language it uses to communicate itself needs to be rethought. Until trans* people had a language to communicate their own experiences, they had to cope — often with a lot of frustration and awkwardness — with the language that was imposed upon them. In my lifetime, trans* women and trans-feminine persons were conflated with gay men (particularly effeminate ones); trans* men and trans-masculine persons were conflated with lesbians (particularly “butch” dykes); trans* people were defined and categorized by medical practitioners who constructed stigmatizing models of mental illness to explain them; pornography and second-wave feminists alike defined trans* women as “she-males” (usually with the implication that ‘she’s really male’); social conservatives wielded terms like “crossdresser” and “transvestite” to reduce peoples’ entire experience to a clothing fetish… and even those terms were imperfect and evolved unexpectedly. For example, in the 1990s, a lot of trans* women actually did refer to themselves as “crossdressers” and used that as a label to rally under — it was the limitation of the language people had available to them at the time.
It wasn’t until trans* people were able to assert their right to define themselves and determine for themselves what their words meant that the old stigmas could be shed and better-fitting terms and their definitions could be settled upon. Some of that is still taking place, and it may seem strange at times — but it is a necessary process (I, for one, welcome and embrace it — as long as no one tries to redefine my own self and experiences, in the process). Even now, there are still disagreements about using words like “transgender” as umbrella terms (which I why I personally prefer “trans*” — it provides a much more open-ended acknowledgement of the diverse range of experiences being discussed).
But some of the earlier problematic use of language still remains in the things that were written about us — both by cis* (non-trans*) people, and by we trans* “dinosaurs.”
I won’t go into too much depth about the particulars of the song “Walk on the Wild Side,” since a lot of that is public record. Reed wrote the song as an intended tribute to some of the trans* folks he knew as a part of Andy Warhol’s clique at The Factory, particularly Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling. It’s also probably historically relevant that Reed had a lengthy and enigmatic relationship with a trans* woman (who has unfortunately faded into obscurity), which had a profound effect on him.This doesn’t change the fact, of course, that the song has some lyrics that now tread into potentially misgendering and transphobic tropes (“… Plucked her eyebrows on the way / shaved her legs and then he was a she….”) The content hasn’t changed — but the context given those lyrics certainly has. And even if there is a consensus right now it that the University of Guelph Central Student Association is on the wrong side of the issue referring to the song as transphobic, the evolution of trans* activism and the lesson of histories of other social movements tell me that the student union’s statement is more in line with where that activism is headed.
This is true of a great many things that used to be a part of what used to be the trans* subculture. Some of the things that we consider offensive now were embraceable or rallying anthems even ten or fifteen years ago, if only by the virtue that trans* people were so stigmatized and made to hide that anything that acknowledged our existence in even a mildly sympathetic way felt like progress.
Today, the film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar is likely to bring up heated discussions about the differences between drag queens and trans* women — if not angry division about whether drag is a kind of trans* “blackface.” In 1995, it was a celebration of a culture that was often one of the few safe-havens and opportunities to come out of the closet that trans* women had (although how welcoming the drag community was varied by region), even if it meant being willing to be a bit of a self-caricature.
In 1987, Aerosmith’s “Dude (Looks Like A Lady)” was sometimes taken as an affirmation, despite its misgendering — and in a twisted way, this may even have been in part due to the uncomfortably sexualized form of acceptance implied in the repeated refrain to “do me.”
In 1992, it was hard to know how to feel about the treatment of the character of Dil in The Crying Game, given Jody’s obvious love for her and the well-developed and nuanced relationship that she forms with Fergus… yet that is starkly contrasted with the jarring pivot of the movie, which has the latter vomiting upon the discovery of her trans* status. Today, the movie is seen as the progenitor of the “vomit shot,” a recurring trope in an enormous amount of offensive material that portrays sex with trans* women as sickening.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch had a cult following that still largely adheres to the play and film, despite the fact that both [spoiler alert if it’s needed] end with the protagonist’s detransition — though to be fair, Hedwig has a second trans* character who doesn’t, so the decision is fairly painted as an individual one, rather than a morality tale that should apply to everybody.
Probably most notoriously, The Rocky Horror Picture Show periodically inflames division for centering around a character who was recently described as a “cannibalistic-murderer-mad-scientist obsessed with constructing the perfect Adonis to submit to Frank’s erotic pleasures,” while the original film (and theatre participation that went with it) is also paradoxically fondly remembered as peoples’ first opportunity to present themselves in public as their identified gender, and for its affirming themes like “Don’t Dream It, Be It.” Of all historic trans-related media, RHPS probably has the most chequered baggage, and isn’t helped any by being written by someone who somehow found a way to be both gender diverse and transphobic simultaneously. In 2017, RHPS might be slightly rehabilitated by its campy intent and a remake starring Laverne Cox (which sadly makes it one of the few films about trans* people that the media industry saw fit to cast an actual trans* woman in), but I suspect that the future will not be as kind.
We’re even seeing this in the Twin Peaks reboot:
“When Denise first appeared on the ABC series in 1990, she was a trailblazer. Then (and today), trans people were practically nonexistent on network television. So to see a trans character like Denise who was smart, capable, and more than one-dimensional was a breakthrough moment for representation.
“… Jenny Boylan, a trans activist and cochair of the GLAAD board of directors, posted on social media that the scene “made me squirm.”
“25 years later the David Duchovny trans character in #twinpeaks ep 4 lands really differently, made me squirm. I’m not your dancing dwarf,” Boylan posted on Twitter…”