No, Lou Reed's 'Walk on the Wild Side' is not transphobic – brush up on your history

We’ve reached a point where people are trying to censor art without knowing why they are offended by it

Lou Reed's song 'Walk on the Wild Side' has been criticised for being 'transphobic'
Lou Reed's song 'Walk on the Wild Side' has been criticised for being 'transphobic'

“Holly came from Miama FL.A.

Hitch-hiked her way across the U.S.A

Plucked her eyebrows on the way

Shaved her legs and then he was a she

She said, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side.

Said, hey honey, take a walk on the wild side

Holly Woodlawn, the trans actress behind those lyrics, was thrilled with “Take a Walk on the Wild Side”.

“Lou Reed made me immortal,” she said delightedly.

Reed was one of the first artists to sing, with love, admiration and respect, about trans women.

When “Walk on the Wild” sashayed into the charts in 1972, homosexuality was still classed as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association.

Reed himself claimed that he was forced to undergo electro-convulsive therapy as a teenager in a bid to “cure” his sexual attraction to other men, which he would later detail vividly in his song “Kill Your Sons”.

“They put the thing down your throat so you don’t swallow your tongue, and they put electrodes on your head,” he said. “That’s what was recommended in Rockland County to discourage homosexual feelings.”

His friendship with Andy Warhol resulted in his meeting several famous trans women of the 60s and 70s, including Candy Darling, for whom Reed wrote the empathetic “Candy Says”.

Reed had a long-term relationship with a trans woman, Rachel, about whom little is known but who Reed described with great affection, referring to her as both genders in the same breath: “Nothing could impress her. He’d hardly heard my music and didn’t like it all that much when he did.”

There were also plenty of rumoured relationships with men, leading some fans to name Reed as the first “out” rock star.

But why bother remembering any of this when you can invent some outrage, in return for a little validation that your opinions are worth something?

That’s what students at the University of Guelph in Canada did last week when they issued an “apology" for playing “Walk on the Wild Side”, claiming the lyrics were “hurtful to our friends in the trans community”.

Obligated to explain exactly what about the lyrics was so offensive, they said the lyrics “appeared to be problematic” because they suggested trans people are “wild”.

Going one further, the student group said that while they acknowledged the song was written with "certain purpose and intention", they also wanted to empathise that “media is not always consumed in the ways that it was intended”. Because God forbid art is open to interpretation, right?

Hal Wilner, Reeds’ longtime producer, summed it up best by saying he didn’t know if Reed would be “cracking up at this or crying because it’s just too stupid”.

And it is stupid. Laughably, infuriatingly, exasperatingly so.

The people offended by that song claim to hold liberal values, but are in fact mimicking the moral outrage of Mary Whitehouse, who in 1978 complained that a dance by Arlene Phillips and her troupe Hot Gossip to the tune of – you guessed it – “Walk on the Wild Side” was too sexy for teatime television.

Like Whitehouse, these students are “reactionaries”, responding to anything they deem to be “insensitive” or “problematic” because it challenges their notion of what is acceptable to a civilised and moral society, and because the kind of art that Reed created was reckless, experimental, and yes, wild. And that scares them.

These young, liberal students, who once would have been Whitehouse’s strongest opponents, have become her allies – selecting things to be outraged by because it falls into their line of sight.

We are living in an era of “pick and choose” outrage, where people pick topics to get riled up about when it suits them, at random and always without going to the effort of checking context.

We’ve reached a point where people are trying to censor art without knowing why they are offended by it.

Not only is this stupid, it’s dangerous. As music fans are attacked in spaces where they should be free to celebrate and feel safe, to be whoever they want – terrorists are trying to scare us into acting a certain way, talking a certain way, thinking a certain way. Focus your anger on them.

Don’t try to censor the art of yesterday because you don’t agree with it. Don’t tell new artists that they should only paint the world as you see it.

Encourage them to explore different perspectives, opinions, ideas, and who knows? They might just teach you something new.

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