Trans/queer rock music (Part 1)

I like rock music rather a lot. When I was coming to terms with myself in my teens, I sought to find stories I identified with in the music I listened to. Unfortunately I didn’t come across a whole lot at the time other than the odd somewhat mention in dire cock-rock songs such as “Dude Looks Like a Lady”. Over the years though I’ve managed to turn up a few gems. In this entry I’m writing about songs which are (as far as I’m aware) written by cis artists who have chosen to explore trans issues.  A second entry dealing with actual trans artists will hopefully follow soon, and I’m giving stuff with a throwaway mention of trans issues or characters (e.g. Get Back by The Beatles or Seven Days in the Sun by Feeder) a miss, for now at least. A nice, simple list of the (good!) songs under discussion can be found at the end of this entry.

Most rock music which involve trans characters and/or queer gender issues seem to be written by cis people.  That’s not particularly surprising really, given that there’s a lot more cis than trans people in the world and that it’s not too easy for trans people to become rock stars. I’m sure there’s a lot of rock music out there by trans bands and artists which is hard to find simply because there’s no way of doing so unless you happen to stumble across their myspace page, a trans music compilation or, indeed, a list on some blog. Still, the stuff that reaches the mainstream – or even a relatively wide underground audience – is likely to be written by a cis artist.

So why would a cis person want to write about trans stuff? Well, why not? Breaking sex and gender boundaries is pretty interesting after all, and writing about lovey-dovey stuff all the time has got to get boring after a while. That said, sex still tends to usually come into it. Quite aside from horrific stuff by glammy metal bands (see Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like a Lady” and The Scorpions’ “He’s a Woman – She’s a Man”), there’s a fair bit of stuff by men who are attracted to trans women. The classic example of this is “Lola” by The Kinks.

There’s a lot to be said about “Lola” – and a lot that has been said – so I don’t think there’s much I can really add. Still, despite the ambiguity of these lines… “Well I’m not the world’s most masculine man / But I know what I am and I’m glad I’m a man / And so is Lola”I like the way that her certainty and identity in the midst of others’ potential confusion about her gender appears to be ultimately upheld: “Girls will be boys and boys will be girls
It’s a mixed up muddled up shook up world except for Lola”
. Lola isn’t portrayed as a freak or an object, but as a woman with sexual agency. 

Similarly positive is “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed. It’s about various queer individuals who worked with Andy Warhol, including three trans women. It doesn’t shy away from the realities of transition, unemployment, drugs and prostitution, and ultimately seems to be celebrating vitality in the face of hardship.

A far more ambiguous character can be found in David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel”: “Got your mother in a whirl – she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl”. Even better, said person is portrayed as a hottie! Speaking of Bowie, his past ambiguous image is still a pretty positive challenge to binary gender norms even today.

Skipping forward a couple of decades, more ambiguity can be found in Blur’s “Girls & Boys”. Music journalists usually seem to claim that song is a celebration of bisexuality and consumer culture. Whilst it’s certainly commenting on the latter, there seems to be some seriously queer gender going on as well as queer sexuality: it’s all about the “girls who are boys who like boys to be girls who do boys like they’re girls who do girls like they’re boys“. Always should be someone you really love!

Androgyny is celebrated more explicitly in “Androgynous”, originally by The Replacements but more famously covered by Crash Test Dummies. My favourite version though has to be a more recent cover performed by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. The song celebrates a relationship between two androgynous individuals and hopes for a more open-minded future:

Mirror image, see no damage
See no evil at all
Kewpie dolls and urine stalls
Will be laughed at
The way you`re laughed at now
Now, something meets Boy, and something meets Girl
They both look the same
They`re overjoyed in this world
Same hair, revolution
Unisex, evolution

Interestingly, most of these songs have been about sex – or at least attraction – and have were (originally, at least) written by men. This probably reflects the institutional sexism of the music industry and our culture’s obsession with sex as much as anything else. Still, in the light of that it’s pretty cool that a bunch of trans-positive songs turned up in the 90s and 00s with lyrics written by Shirley Manson of Garbage.

There are queer themes in a whole bunch of Garbage songs (“Queer”, anyone?) but explicit trans stuff turns up in “Androgny”, “Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!) and “Bleed Like Me”. At least two of these songs were inspired by fraudster JT Leroy (prior to the unmasking of creator Laura Albert), but they’re still pretty positive portrayals of trans experience.  “Bleed Like Me” is darker and more introspective, with a character “trying to figure out if he’s a girl or he’s a boy“, but “Cherry Lips” is an all-out celebration. Despite being “a delicate boy in the hysterical realm of an emotional landslide in physical terms“, the central character of this song is “the sweetest thing that you have ever seen“…”whenever [she] came near the clouds would disappear“. The music itself is joyful and fun.

You hold a candle in your heart
You shine the light on hidden parts
You make the whole world wanna dance
You bought yourself a second chance
Go Baby Go Go
We’re right behind you
Go baby Go Go

On the very same album (Beautiful Garbage) “Androgyny” proclaims that “you free your mind in your androgyny“. Awesome.

Despite there being a fair few songs about androgynous individuals and trans women and/or other individuals on the MtF spectrum, there’s barely anything out there about trans men. I was therefore in for a pretty pleasant surprise when I went to see Swedish prog act A.C.T a few years back with a minimal knowledge of their back-catalogue. Right in the middle of an awesome set they launched into “She/Male”, which tells the story of a trans man who decides to transition, and becomes a lot more happy in himself as a result. It’s a bit silly, but then A.C.T are generally a bit silly.

A somewhat different approach to transition is taken by The Dresden Dolls in “Sex Changes”. I’ve heard this song talked about as transphobic and as deeply positive. Ultimately I think it’s pretty easy to read either of these interpretations into the lyrics, which appear to be about a bunch of different people telling a trans woman different stuff ahead of genital surgery. Personally, I love it: there’s a real feel of desperation and confusion which for me perfectly reflects the doubts and worries that sometimes come with transition. Also interesting is “Half Jack”, which probably isn’t about a trans character, but sure sounds like it could be (if not about an intersex person).

This brings me neatly onto the subject of bringing trans interpretations to songs which probably weren’t written explicitly about trans subjects or issues. There are a few tunes which make this really easy. “She’s Got Balls” by AC/DC celebrates how “she’s got balls, my lady“. “I’m A Boy” by The Who, which is about a boy who’s brought up as a girl and forced to wear dresses, could practically be a trans man anthem: “I’m a boy I’m a boy but my mother won’t admit it, I’m a boy I’m a boy I’m a boy“. The treatment of the character in this song seems tantamount to child abuse, but then childhood can be pretty crappy for a lot of trans kids. Then there’s “Been a Son” by Nirvana and “Gender” by Orgy: take a listen and make your own interpretations! “Listen Up!” by Gossip isn’t really about trans stuff at all, but you won’t think that after watching the music video.

Finally, we have the interesting case of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Hedwig is a rock musical which was originally a stage show, and was later made into a film. Every trans person who’s seen the show (or, more likely, the film) seems to have strong views about it: they either think it’s awesome, terrible, or incredibly confusing. Personally, I’m a fan: I’m not bothered that Hedwig isn’t necessarily a “real” trans woman. She transitions to escape East Berlin with her American boyfriend during the Cold War, but seems to be perfectly happy living as a woman despite the numerous setbacks she suffers. She might not identity as a woman in a straightforward fashion, but her gender is certainly pretty queer. Besides, the songs are awesome, with “Tear Me Down” and “Angry Inch” in particular being powerful statements of intent in the face of ignorance and oppression.

For me, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is pretty typical of trans stuff by cis artists in that there’s a fair few issues with it, but it’s still pretty cool. A whole load of the songs I’ve mentioned have dodgy pronoun usage and stuff in the service of demonstrating gender movement or queerness, but they still tend to be celebrating the existence of trans people. These artists are telling our stories and often making money off doing so, so we have a right to criticise them (more on this in my next entry) but ultimately I’d rather that we were present in the world of rock rather than completely absent. Aerosmith can still bog off though.

Songs (in the order I wrote about them):

The Kinks – Lola

Lou Reed – Take a Walk on the Wild Side

David Bowie – Rebel Rebel

Blur – Girls and Boys

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts – Androgynous

Garbage – Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!), Androgyny, Bleed Like Me

A.C.T – She/Male

The Dresden Dolls – Sex Changes, Half Jack

AC/DC – She’s Got Balls

The Who – I’m a Boy

Nirvana – Been a Son

Orgy – Gender

Gossip – Listen Up!

Hedwig and the Angry Inch – Tear Me Down, Angry Inch

Desirability

A version of this article was originally written for a local feminist zine themed around sex.


The poster I see is on the London Underground, but I later find out they’re part of a wide campaign backed in part by the National Health Service. On the poster is a photograph of a person’s face that, due to the limitations of our language, is all too easily described as “masculine”. This individual is wearing somewhat exaggerated make-up: bright blue eye-shadow, bright red lipstick, and a heavy layer of foundation that’s clearly covering up an extensive five o’ clock shadow. Said make-up is quite heavily smeared.

If you drink like a man”, the poster declares, “you might end up looking like one.

Although the model used in the photograph may well be a man, this poster is hardly a reassuring one for women with a “masculine” appearance. “If you’re a woman who looks like a man”, it says, “you’re a skanky whore who drinks too much”. Needless to say, this is a pretty misogynistic message. As a post on the F-Word points out, it relies on narrow and incredibly stereotypical ideals of beauty and gendered norms of acceptable behaviour.

But there’s a further subtext to this poster, and a pretty blatant one at that. “If you drink”, declares an advertising campaign that was apparently “approved” by various equality bodies, “you’ll end up looking like a dirty, ugly tranny*, and then how are you gonna get laid, huh?”

And this is the crux of the issue, and it’s why I’ve been pretty pissed off every time I’ve seen one of these bloody posters. They’re just a tiny, tiny part of the message that can be found on billboards, in magazines, in the cinema, on the television, in newspapers, in books, and in even in freakin’ academic papers. It’s quite a simple message, and it runs as follows: transsexed women are deeply unattractive and undesirable.

I understand where this idea is coming from. Trans women tend to have lived as men (or at least as boys) for some part of their life, and what’s more undesirable than a man? Hell, she might still have a penis. That’s disgusting. What kind of red-blooded male could possibly want to bed one of them? (Since we’re talking larger societal trends here, it is of course men who are supposed to sleep with women…what are you, some kind of lezzer?)

Actually, scrap that last point. This is an issue which is prevalent in the so-called LGBT community as well. Whilst it’s true that not every daughter of Lesbos is a card-carrying separatist who annually attends the Michigan Festival for Womyn-born-Womyn, I’d wager that the majority of gay women – and even a large proportion of bisexual women – are a bit funny about the idea of being attracted to a trans woman, let alone sleeping with one. It’s pretty telling after all that the one trans character in The L Word (that seminal piece of lesbionic television) is a trans man, ‘cos it’s the lady bits and tits that count, innit? The actress who plays him is even made up deliberately to look like a pretty (if slightly butch) woman on the DVD covers. What a cheek.

It took me a fair while to become confident in my own sexuality. Some of that was down to my own body image and related issues, but the media bombardment (“you’re ugly! No one will ever love you!”) hardly helped, and neither did the attitudes of people around me. If a girl’s a bit ugly or has a radical dress sense, she might “look like a tranny”. That, of course, is meant to be an insult.

Regressive stereotypes obviously play their part in this. After all, in this very image-obsessed culture with its very limited repertoire of available attractive body types, why would any self-respecting straight man or gay woman accept their attraction to a woman who looks like a man? (this is, of course, assuming that said man or woman is gracious enough to accept a trans woman’s gender identity in the first place). It’s an attitude that goes beyond image though: if you were to present our disappointingly average straight man (and our gay woman) with a trans woman who conformed to society’s ideals of an attractive female body, they’re still likely to be wary. Once a woman is known to be transsexed, her appearance often becomes irrelevant as gender essentialism and/or misguided homophobia comes into play: she’s  innately unattractive.

In an impressive twist, this can even happen retrospectively, with a trans woman becoming hideously ugly after someone has had sex with her if they found out she’s transsexed (or: if the person she slept with already knew and was trying to keep it quiet, but then someone else finds out that a bit of rumpy-pumpy occurred between the two). This kind of idiocy would be hilarious, if not for the treatment trans women get as a result of this. There’s even an exciting legal manoeuvre known as the “trans panic” defence, whereby the defendant attempts to excuse a transphobic assault or murder by claiming that after having sex with the victim, they “panicked” upon discovering that they’d done the dirty with a trans person.

It’s at this point in the article that I realise things are getting a bit depressing. Let’s face it, this kind of bullshit isn’t particularly pleasant. It’s not a lot of fun  knowing that these attitudes are highly prevalent. I’m fortunate enough to “look just like any other woman” (whatever that means), which is all very well and good for ensuring that I don’t get beaten up on the street, but I’m perfectly aware that I’m not meant to be sexually desirable to, like, anyone. This situation is a lot worse for trans women who find it harder to pass as cis women; no wonder the trans community often places so much undue emphasis on looking like “normal people”. It certainly makes life easier if you happen to do so.

But you know what? Fuck ’em.**

Trans people come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. I’ve been talking a lot about transsexed women, but there’s also transvestites, genderqueer people (who might not necessarily consider themselves to be female or male), genderfluid individuals whose identities regularly shift, and a whole spectrum of gender diversity under the trans umbrella. We all tend to look quite different, act quite different, have different interests and ideas and aims and projects, but we’re all bloody gorgeous.

That’s not just my stubborn pride talking either. There are those trans people who do, in fact, conform to societal ideals of beauty. As for those who don’t: in many queer circles, androgyny and gendered ambiguity are highly valued (and the actual gender identity of said androgynous individual is usually respected, regardless of whether that identity is female, male, or something entirely different). In butch/femme lesbian communities, extremely “masculine” woman are often considered to be incredibly hot. We’re all attracted to different people in different ways. I’m pretty certain that there are straight men out there who fancy heavily built women, gay men who fancy men with vaginas, straight women who can handle androgyny. There’s also a good reason why trans men are sometimes fetishised by lesbians and shemale porn is consumed by many, although I’d prefer for that attraction to be there without us being reduced to mere sex objects.

Still, for all our supposed undesirability, I find it pretty telling that most trans people I know are in a happy relationship with someone who’s also pretty damn attractive. Actually, a lot of the trans people I know have several partners; I figure once you’ve dealt with society’s disapproval of your gender identity, you don’t tend to give a crap what others think about ethical, negotiated polamory. By contrast, I personally happen to be a serial monogamist, but to each their own, y’know?

People who have serious body image issues can find someone who has the hots for them. These individuals aren’t deluding themselves in the slightest. The real lie is in societal norms of acceptable attractiveness, but sexual attraction can’t always be restrained by those norms.

And we have a lot of fun sex too. Vanilla sex, kinky sex, gay sex, straight sex; I’m talking everything from straightforward sex to really weird sex. We’ve all got our own ways of negotiating desire, identity and our own bodies. Some trans people just don’t care and will go at it any old how. Others will throw  essentialism out the window and redefine their own bodies. I know pre-operative trans women who describe their genitals as a large clitoris; I know non-operative trans women who describe their penis as a penis. It’s just, y’know, a girl penis. It’s on a girl’s body after all, so what else could it be? Meanwhile some trans people are asexual, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t enjoy happy love hugs.

Quite frankly, a bet a whole load of women would love to be as confident and good looking as I am. I’ve got a pretty face, great hair, fantastic legs, and I’ve recently grown some rather shapely breasts (going through puberty during your twenties is a pretty weird experience, but better late than never!) I’m in a long-term relationship with a sensitive, caring, bloody handsome man, and we have awesome funtimes.

Do you look like a transsexual this morning? No? Well, unlucky. You’re missing out.

* I deliberately use this word only in a sarcastic fashion. It’s a loaded term and can be deeply offensive, so please think carefully about any context in which you use it.

** Actually, don’t fuck them. Find someone else who actually deserves a good shag, and do them instead.

Another man gets pregnant; commentators are “confused”

The tabloids are busily latching onto the next big “pregnant man” story. The second one ever, apparently. And this one’s gay! Or is he a lesbian? Maybe he could be a Threat to Gay Equality Itself.

Scott Moore – who is in a relationship with another trans man – acquired some sperm from a friend, became pregnant, and is having a baby. People are inevitably treating this as a big deal, mainly because they really don’t get it. The comments over at Perez Hilton pretty much sum up the “commonsense” attitude: they’re not really men because they have vaginas, testosterone will HURT THE BABY OH GOD THINK OF THE CHILDREN, and how can someone possibly be a Real Transsexual if he wants to be pregnant?

My answer to all of these questions in short is: get over yourself, and then educate yourself.

Since I’m nice though, here’s some pointers:

1) Trans is an entirely real phenomenon, and is not just in people’s minds. Really. You can look at this from a scientific, biological perspective, or a postmodern, agency-driven perspective, but either way there’s plenty of literature out there discussing the subject. Either way, this fellow is male-identified; he’s a man. He also lives as a man, and appears to have a pretty funky beard. Do you have a funky beard?

2) Some cis* men might fancy getting pregnant. Some trans men fancy getting pregnant. He’s got the bits, so why shouldn’t he? It doesn’t make him any less of a man. After all, some men grow massive moobies which, let’s face it, are basically breasts. That doesn’t make them women, just men with massive moobies. Also, did I mention the funky beard?

3) I’m pretty sure this guy has gone off testosterone for the duration of the pregnancy, just like Thomas Beatie. As such, there’s almost definitely no real risk to the child. If he I didn’t take this precaution, I concede that he’s a bit of a dick. I seriously doubt it though.

4) If you think trans people having a choice in how they use their bodies is a threat to LGBT equality because it seems “freakish”, take a good hard look at how homophobes tend to regard anal sex. Moreover, what’s so freakish about someone wanting to give birth? Shouldn’t that be a beautiful thing?

4) Whilst we’re at it, neither Scott Moore nor Thomas Beatie are quite the pioneers that the media is making them out to be. All power for them for drawing attention to the very existence of trans men for a change, but they’re hardly the only such guys who have been banged up. They’re just the ones that others have caught on to.

Now get on with your lives.

* For the newbies: “cis” means something a little like “non-trans”.