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Sorry, Kids: Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ Is Not Transphobic

Citing the track’s ‘dangerous rhetoric,’ a group of Canadian college students—who believe the song ‘minimizes the experiences of oppression’—have it all wrong: Lou Reed was a vanguard for gender identity.

Rachel Shukert
May 22, 2017
STR/AFP/Getty Images
Lou Reed, in Stockholm, Sweden, April 4, 1983.STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images
Lou Reed, in Stockholm, Sweden, April 4, 1983.STR/AFP/Getty Images

Adding fuel to the incessant American news fire, a group of students at the University of Guelph in Canada issued a public apology for including Lou Reed’s classic anthem of the gender-noncomforming demimonde, “Walk on the Wild Side,” on a playlist for a campus event. The reason? The song, as written and performed by Lou Reed, has “transphobic lyrics.”

The Velvet Underground in 1968. (Wikimedia)
The Velvet Underground in 1968. (Wikimedia)

Wait, what? you might be forgiven for asking yourself. You mean the song that lionizes and humanizes gender pioneers like Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis, and Holly Woodlawn by paying homage to their struggles to live life on their own fabulous terms in the face of incomprehension and stifling sexual conformity? The song that made trans women visible to the pop cultural mainstream (or at least, as mainstream as Lou Reed ever really got) as early as 1972, when America was still wrapping its head around the idea of women being allowed to have credit cards in their own names? That song is somehow problematic, the most feared of all campus adjectives?

Apparently, yes. In a statement that has since disappeared from Facebook—a hopeful sign that even the most self-righteously woke youngster is not completely impervious to the sense of wisdom and perspective that comes with having slightly more than two decades on Earth—the students helpfully explain to those of us who think Lou Reed, a man who personally knew the people he was writing about, and who himself underwent traumatic electroshock therapy as a teenager for refusing to recant his homosexual tendencies to his worried Long Island Jewish parents, might have actually been expressing empathy and admiration toward his subjects:

“The lyrics, ‘and then he was a she,’ devalues the experiences and identities of trans folks.

“The first issue with this is that it minimizes the experiences of oppression, and obstacles that trans people must overcome in order to be accepted in society (it’s not as simple as shaving one’s legs). It suggests that a change of appearance is a required to identify as trans, and this is a myth.

“Additionally, stating that conversing, spending time with, or having sex with a trans person is ‘taking a walk on the wild side’ is also problematic. It labels trans folks as ‘wild’ or ‘unusual’ or ‘unnatural’ which is a dangerous rhetoric.”

Well, first of all, someone—in addition to explaining the way song lyrics sometimes use poetic or even reductive imagery to make an arresting narrative point in a single bar of music—might want to let Rachel, the trans woman with whom Lou Reed lived openly during the Ford administration, and wrote the vast majority of the love songs on his landmark 1976 album Coney Island Baby about, that their relationship was one big “walk on the wild side.” But also, while I know it’s become fashionable to bemoan how kids today don’t know anything and have no sense of what’s come before them, it would be easier to defend them if they actually seemed to know anything. From the relatively comfortable perch of today’s liberal arts campuses, it may be difficult to imagine a time (which, for far too many, is still far too real) when to be openly and visibly trans—or even gay—was to live a life forever at the margins of society, an often hand-to-mouth existence that could, in fact, be characterized poetically as dangerous, or even “wild,” whether one took the step of shaving one’s legs as a performance of conventional femininity or not. “Walk on the Wild Side,” then, is best understood as a song of its time, a paean to the bravery of these incredible souls, from a relatively privileged Jewish man who loved them.

To censor it—even with the best of intentions—is to deny a crucial step on the road of inclusivity and justice. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s the only thing about any of this that is problematic.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.

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