Hey UofG, take a walk on the wild side

The Hamilton Spectator - - OPINION - Gra­ham Rock­ing­ham

The Univer­sity of Guelph’s Cen­tral Stu­dent As­so­ci­a­tion is to be ap­plauded for try­ing to be sen­si­tive to the feel­ings of the trans­gen­dered com­mu­nity.

But by la­belling Lou Reed’s classic song “Walk on the Wild Side” as “trans­pho­bic,” the stu­dent as­so­ci­a­tion went well beyond rea­son. It en­tered the realm of po­lit­i­cally cor­rect inanity.

Ear­lier this month the stu­dent as­so­ci­a­tion apol­o­gized via so­cial media for play­ing Reed’s 1972 hit on cam­pus ra­dio. Af­ter de­scrib­ing the song as “trans­pho­bic,” the as­so­ci­a­tion added: “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 judg­ment.”

Some­where along the line, the as­so­ci­a­tion re­al­ized its apol­ogy was “the er­ror in judg­ment,” not the play­ing of the song. None­the­less, the as­so­ci­a­tion’s Face­book post gar­nered out­raged head­lines as far away as Eng­land where The Guardian news­pa­per ran a story fea­tur­ing as­ton­ished re­ac­tion from Reed’s friends and col­lab­o­ra­tors.

A lit­tle re­search by the stu­dent as­so­ci­a­tion would have demon­strated how wrong they were. “Walk on the Wild Side” was a pi­o­neer­ing song, writ­ten 45 years ago when the term “trans­gen­dered” was prac­ti­cally unknown. It in­cludes the lines “Holly came from Mi­ami F.L.A. … plucked her eye­brows on the way, shaved her legs and then he was a she.” “Holly” was Holly Wood­lawn, a close friend of Reed and a mem­ber of the artis­tic com­mu­nity known as “Andy Warhol’s Fac­tory.” Ac­cord­ing to Reed bi­og­ra­pher Howard Sounes, she was a huge fan of the song.

“Walk on the Wild Side” should be seen as a cel­e­bra­tion of New York’s trans com­mu­nity, one of the first songs to bring it out of the shad­ows and into the main­stream. It was Reed’s way of trans­lat­ing his re­al­ity to pop mu­sic. Ac­cord­ing to Sounes, Reed was “a bi­sex­ual who had close friend­ships and con­ducted love af­fairs with (trans­gen­der) men.”

In the con­text of the day, Reed’s lyrics, which also dealt with pros­ti­tu­tion and drug ad­dic­tion, could be con­sid­ered rev­o­lu­tion­ary, not “trans­pho­bic.” It’s in­ter­est­ing to note that “Walk on the Wild Side” ap­peared on an al­bum called “Trans­former.”

“Walk on the Wild Side” did, of course, draw crit­i­cism and cen­sor­ship when it was first re­leased, but not be­cause it was “trans­pho­bic.”

Just to in­clude such im­ages in a song was con­sid­ered con­tro­ver­sial. As well, there was that cho­rus in­tro that still makes peo­ple cringe — “And the coloured girls go …” which can best be con­sid­ered a piece of vin­tage Reed satire.

If the stu­dent as­so­ci­a­tion re­ceived com­plaints about the song, a bet­ter way to have dealt with them would be to have had an open on-air dis­cus­sion about the lyrics, per­haps with pop mu­sic his­to­ri­ans or crit­ics.

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