Monday, May 22, 2017

On Walking on the Wild Side

Let's say, in one way or another, you're an 18-year-old queer. Maybe you're bisexual. Maybe you're straight-up gay. Maybe you're transgender. You're just starting to figure things out. You may be fighting any voice telling you that you have to think a certain way or be a certain way because of your identity. And let's say, you are one of those kids who, exercising a bit of nostalgia, got really into Lou Reed and David Bowie in middle school. Maybe you survived high school by watching Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1971) and Fellini Satyricon (Federico Fellini, 1969). Hell, maybe you read the actual Satyricon, or the Symposium,  or The Immortalist. These works of art didn't do gay pride. They did gay shame and they revelled in it. They were you.

And then this happens at your college campus during your freshman year:
The Guelph Central Student Association, a group at the University of Guelph in Ontario, apologised for including the song on a playlist at a campus event. 
In an apology published to Facebook and subsequently removed, the group said: “We now know the lyrics to this song are hurtful to our friends in the trans community and we’d like to unreservedly apologize for this error in judgement.” 
The lyrics in question focus on Reed’s friends from Andy Warhol’s Factory, among them transgender “superstars” Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling. 
“Holly came from Miami, FLA,” Reed sings. “Hitchhiked her way across the USA/ Plucked her eyebrows on the way/ Shaved her legs and then he was a she/ She says, ‘Hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side.’”
And now, you have to step back and re-assess at a moment in your life when you are seriously struggling with so much garbage that hit you in your previous 18 years. What am I supposed to like? Am I bad person for looking to "Walk on the Wild Side," a wonderful celebration of letting your freak fly, as a means of "saving" myself?

Now, to be fair, I can see why a transgender person might not like "Walk on the Wild Side."  After all, if you are a transgender person who does not think your identity is about being a creature of the night in New York in the early 1970s, if you just, maybe, happen to be a transgender person who sees yourself one day joining the army or getting a job at McKinsey, this might be a cruel, mean-spirited song. And if there aren't enough images of transgender people in our media that avoid such grim, weirdo, hyper-sexed depictions, you might, as a means of making change, ask to put this kind of work aside for maybe a few years while society figures some things out. But I doubt that's the belief of every single transgender person. (A little bit of a hedge, I know. But anytime someone screams at me that I have no right to speak for trans people, or anyone else, I immediately think, "Wait a second! So does every trans person feel the exact same way about being trans, because god knows that is so obviously not the case.") Others may take this song, like so much of Lou Reed and David Bowie's work, as liberating.

So now this 18-year-old kid has to sit down and figure out what's okay to like and what is not okay to like and now, all of those people who for the previous 18 years were telling them that they were just a weirdo for digging the 1960s/1970s queer counterculture are now being replaced by a new group of people telling them that they are an oppressor.

If you've noticed, I'm trying to maintain gender netural pronouns in this post, something I haven't done in this blog, or in most of my writing, but which I am trying to change. I don't have a problem with most of the movement that is calling the gender binary into question. The University of Washington no longer lists my students as male or female. I'm all for it. KUOW, the local NPR station, now uses gender neutral pronouns. I think it's great. It all makes sense to me.

But stop and think how alienating these kinds of calls-to-action for every single instance of possible offensiveness can be for that 18-year-old kid. When I first saw this story all I could think, "How joyless..." And I could imagine the average 18-year-old queer weirdo thinking the same thing.

So what happens to that kid? Well, they may go knock on the door of the College Republicans, who these days are pretty cool with the gays -- to a degree -- even if they aren't so cool with transgender folk or everyone else. Or maybe, they just won't knock on any doors on campus. Screw those queer safe spaces and the feel-ins, they'll think. The people in Lou Reed's song sound wonderful. They must have so many interesting stories to tell and such a fascinating way of carrying themselves. Maybe they'll just go clubbing where they'll walk a little bit on the wild side, because, fuck it, those clubs where people give each other blow jobs in the bathroom look pretty safe at the moment.

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